Ripon Choral Society was founded in 1884 by Dr Edwin Crow and flourished for many years, regularly performing in the Cathedral. Dr Charles Moody, the Organist from 1902 to 1953 took up the conductorship in the early 1900’s and for a few years the Society moved steadily forward under Dr Moody’s leadership and with the firm hand of Herbert Bower, Mayor and Society Chairman.
However by 1907, things began to fall apart. Dr Moody stood down because of ill health, then resigned in 1908 citing the apathy of the membership, with typically only 30 of 70 members turning up at rehearsals. He was cajoled back but only on the understanding that the programme should diversify. ‘Messiah’, he said, ‘was getting threadbare and was never taken up with enthusiasm either by members or by the audience’! Things went from bad to worse. Finances were a disaster, attendances poor and there was an undercurrent of concern that the Society should be for the whole City (of whatever denomination). Dr Moody resigned again in 1912, as did the Mayor. Nevertheless the Society struggled on until 1931, conducted by Mr P R Pfaff (a lay precentor at the Cathedral), but now largely performing secular works at other venues, notably the Victoria Opera House, with summer concerts in the Spa Gardens.
The phoenix rose in 1954 under the spirited leadership of Dr Lionel Dakers and has gone from strength to strength ever since. The first concert to a full Cathedral – Messiah – was followed by a gala occasion in May 1956 when the Society’s patron HRH Mary Princess Royal attended a performance of Haydn’s Creation with Isobel Baillie, the renowned Scottish soprano, at the height of her powers.
Since then, the Society has flourished under a succession of conductors – Dr Philip Marshall, Ronald Perrin, Philip Miles and now John Dunford – with most performances in the Cathedral. Works have ranged from Monteverdi’s Vespers through to Jonathan Willcocks’ Lux Perpetua, with the entire major oratorio repertoire in between. There have been numerous highlights – two that stand out from recent years are Ian Bostridge as the evangelist in the 1994 performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion and John Mitchinson’s performance as Gerontius in 2000. The Society has also enjoyed working with a range of orchestras, from local professional groups to the students of the Royal Northern College of Music and, of course, performing with the outstanding Harrison organ.
The December 1970 concert of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was enhanced by being held in candlelight due to electricity power cuts caused by industrial action at power stations. Alice Dyson, daughter of Yorkshire-born composer George Dyson (1883-1964), attended the November 1995 performance of Dyson’s Nebuchadnezzar. The initial cohort of 60 singers in 1954 grew to 85 by 1964, including a number of students from Ripon Teachers Training College. It continues to expand and now with 170 singers it is one of the largest and most successful choral societies in Yorkshire.
Solvency has always been a challenge. In 1884 the total subscriptions amounted to £5 12s 6d (£5.62) and by 2006 this had risen to £11950. In 1954, the nave ticket price was 4s (20p) – this had risen to £13 by 2006. The 1954 Messiah cost £15 to stage – recently a major concert in 2018 cost in excess of £18,000!
The Press have been very complimentary of the performances over the years, even if the style of comment has changed somewhat. Thus ‘Mr Dakers did occasionally take a risk with the Cathedral’s unpredictable acoustics by setting a brisk pace in a number of passages - but the gamble came off’ (Ripon Gazette, 1956) compares with ‘Certainly expect plenty of musical fireworks when John Dunford lets the Ripon Choral Society loose on Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in the resplendent acoustic of the Cathedral’ (Yorkshire Post, 2006).
The Society feels itself to be a central part of the life of the Cathedral and the city, bringing in members and audiences from every background to share in the spiritual atmosphere and acoustic glories of the magnificent building.