The Newcastle upon Tyne Bach Choir was founded in 1915 by W.G. Whittaker, the musicologist, Bach scholar, folk song collector, composer, choral arranger and conductor. He gathered a group of 24 singers to study and perform the cantatas of J.S. Bach which were almost totally unknown at the time.
Whittaker was a personal friend of many British composers, particularly Holst and Vaughan Williams, and championed their music, giving many first performances outside London. In 1924, the choir sang William Byrd’s Great Service in St Margaret’s, Westminster, the first time it had been heard in public since the sixteenth century.
These founding enthusiasms still shape the choir’s repertoire today, though there are now around 100 members. Rehearsals and concerts follow the pattern of the academic year with three major concerts annually: normally one of works primarily by J S Bach, one a large major choral work and the third a contrasting programme which often focuses on works by British composers. There is also usually a concert of Christmas music. The choir often works with leading international soloists and the period instrumentalists of Newcastle Baroque.
Over the years the choir has sung at venues around the region including Middlesbrough Cathedral, Fountains Abbey, Holy Island, Alnwick Gardens, Seahouses and Washington Old Hall as well as giving major performances each year in both the King’s Hall, Newcastle University and Sage Gateshead. In recent years the choir has performed major works, including Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and The Kingdom, Verdi’s Requiem, Britten’s War Requiem and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in conjunction with students from the Newcastle University Symphony Orchestra.
In November 2015 the choir celebrated its centenary with a concert in St George’s Church, Jesmond, which replicated the first performance given by the choir in 1915. In the summer of 2016 the choir joined the Städtischer Musikverein Gelsenkirchen and Gürzenich-Chor Köln for a performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, and in June 2018 the Gelsenkirchen choir came on a return visit to sing Mendelssohn’s Elijah in Sage One. In March 2019 the choir joined the Waynflete Singers to perform Elijah in Winchester Cathedral and in November 2019 the two choirs again joined forces to perform Elgar’s The Kingdom in Sage One.
Throughout its history, the Newcastle Bach Choir has been based in the Music Department of what is now Newcastle University. Professor Eric Cross is the latest in a succession of distinguished Music Directors. Vaughan Williams, Edmund Rubbra and Denis Matthews have all been Presidents of the choir, a position currently held by Sir Thomas Allen, the internationally-acclaimed baritone.