Choir History

Mel JenkinsJoin us in a fascinating look back to the foundation and development of the Wycombe Orpheus Male Voice Choir, from its roots in High Wycombe in 1923, its development through the last century, to its current strength and popular appeal today. We are grateful for the excellent groundwork done by our Choir Archivist, Mel Jenkins, in bringing together so much material from the memories and collections of choristers past and present.

There are three sections below - click on the following headings and enjoy this trip into times past!

The Beginnings

Through the 20th Century

Into the 21st Century

If anyone reading this has Choir anecdotes or material likely to be of interest to Mel, please contact us firstly through the email address.

The Beginnings

The choir circa 1923. This is the first known photograph of the Wycombe Orpheus, and Mr. Bromage-Smith, its first musical director, is in the centre of the middle row.

In the latter part of 1922, male members of the congregation at Westbourne Street Church discussed the idea of forming a local male choir, drawing its membership from the High Wycombe area. At that time, churches and chapels flourished and their choirs were never short of members because singing was an integral part of community life.

Following exploratory discussions between choristers from Hazlemere and Westbourne Street churches, the nucleus of a male voice choir was established under the expert guidance of a highly regarded local musician and conductor, Wilfred Bromage-Smith.
Two shrewd and persuasive gentlemen who were determined to turn a dream into reality -  Ted Barrington and Cecil Lacey - had cleverly manoeuvred him into ‘volunteering’ to become the inaugural musical director.  John Harris was the first choir accompanist.

From a core of eight, membership of the choir had grown to 12 by the time it gave its first concert in February 1923, and in recognition of its growing reputation, the number of concerts given in the first year had risen to 15.

Evening dress was the chosen choir attire for public appearances, despite public transport being used extensively to get to choir engagements because few choristers had cars.

The choir MD deliberately decided to enhance its reputation by competing regularly in choral competitions from 1924 onwards. Competition success led to invitations to participate in numerous radio broadcasts, and collectively, these events helped to develop a distinctive ‘Orpheus Sound’. 

This beautifully posed photograph (no smiling!) typical of the period was taken circa 1928 and celebrates the choir’s competition successes.  Mr. E T Barrington has his right hand near the cup, and Mr. C Lacey is the tall gentleman in the back row.

Through the 20th Century

Orpheus 1938The Orpheus’ reputation continued to grow in the years leading up to the Second World War. There are 26 choristers in this photograph, taken in 1938, a year before the outbreak of the Second World War.



The War Years and Beyond.

When war broke out, men throughout the country were sent away to fight. However the choir’s membership was not badly affected by the War. This was because - not surprisingly - many of its members were working in the furniture industry. With the start of hostilities, many local firms were earmarked to participate in the war effort, particularly aircraft manufacture. Those employed in this industry were deemed to be in ‘reserved’ occupations and exempted from war service. However, choir membership was not totally unaffected, and a slight decline occurred.

During this period the choir helped to boost the nation’s morale by regularly being featured in national radio broadcasts for the BBC on programmes such as ‘Saturday For The Forces’, and ‘Let The Nation Sing’. Locally concerts were given to promote charities in the High Wycombe area including The War Memorial Hospital. The choir’s association with local churches continued throughout the war, and its concert programme included many in aid of church funds, and parishioners serving in the armed forces. The total fee received for BBC broadcasts remained unaltered for the duration of the war at twenty-four pounds, seven shillings and six pence (about £ 24.37)

Awards and Achievements

Choir competitions were a regular feature in the diary when the choir started. It was an effective way of getting its name known and its reputation established. These days, choral competition has become less fashionable and of reduced importance as a publicity method, due to the widespread availability of electronic means to publicise its activities, such as this website.

Changing Tastes

Early concerts had a classical and deeply religious theme, and performers of national reputation were frequently engaged to participate. Slowly, and in particular in the years after the war, the Orpheus repertoire started to evolve to become more varied, covering the whole spectrum from highbrow to ‘Pop’. 

This photograph was taken in 1951 showing the choir strength at 28. It is interesting to compare the pre and post-war numbers.

Ambassadors for High Wycombe

Kelkheim in Germany is twinned with High Wycombe and reciprocal choral events have taken place to cement this bond of friendship. In 1998, Kelkheim Choir invited the Orpheus to perform in Germany.

This photograph was taken outside Kelkheim's famous monastery.

Into the 21st Century

The fortunes of the Orpheus were very much in the ascendent at the start of this period, membership stood at 74 singing members and it was a challenge to get the whole choir assembled on the staging platform.
The choir concert programme was extremely buoyant due to exploitation of the contacts its newly-appointed Joint Patrons – John Ratcliffe and Gloria Hunniford – had in the entertainment world. Venues included the London Guildhall, the Mansion House and the Grosvenor House Hotel, where it sang at The Miss World Gala Dinner. The latter was televised with a reputed world audience of 2.6 billion and the choir was featured – albeit briefly. Further afield, it gave concerts in Newtown, Bury St Edmonds, at Llandaff and Peterborough Cathedrals, and in Swansea. Wherever possible it took advantage of impromptu opportunities to sing at smaller locations such as the Penderyn Distillery (what a surprise!), the Maritime Museum in Swansea, in Cornwall in the Eden Project Mediterranean Biome and the Millennium Centre in Cardiff. Added to this it made several appearances at the Royal Albert Hall in the Festival of Male Choirs, and a Voices and Brass concert in aid of Cancer Charities. Local venues were not ignored either, its programme included regular concerts at the Swan Theatre, the Wycombe Town Hall and numerous churches and halls.

                                                             The Orpheus Choir performing at The Eden Project, Cornwall, 2007

The Orpheus at The Variety Club Annual Awards Ceremony at The Guildhall, 5th May 2009. As you can see, there is not a vacant seat. The Orpheus accompanist is Mrs. Thelma King, and Louise Langley has the audience ‘eating out of her hand’!       The Miss World Gala Dinner November 2009 – all seats were taken at £200 per head!

The Festival of Young Musicians

Denys Hood, who retired as MD in 2002 after a remarkable tenure of 30 years, instigated an annual Festival of Young Musicians during his period in office. It was a genuinely creative ‘eureka’ moment established to achieve the dual objectives of nurturing local talent, and showcasing their virtuosity at Orpheus concerts. A uniquely ‘win-win’ arrangement. Later, an associated Bursary scheme was added to provide financial assistance to help meet the costs of furthering an individual’s musical ambitions. The Festival ran for 29 years until forced to close by the recent pandemic. Plans for its revival are under active review.

Going Forward

Unfortunately, mirroring the experience of many other Male Voice Choirs nationally, membership has been falling gradually and today stands at 38 singing members. Consequently, considerable energy is being directed at a vigorous recruitment campaign in order to halt the decline and re energise its fortunes. Of course, the Covid pandemic did the choir no favours – but it survived! This, due to a mix of experimentation with technology such as Zoom rehearsals, and the utter determination of all its members not to fail. Daily, during the Covid turmoil, the choir Executive Committee was faced with a continuous stream of unforeseen challenges, responding with great creativity and unfaltering leadership.
Throughout this period as one would expect, there have been many changes of personalities; chairmen have come and gone; accompanists moved on; choristers have departed, whilst others joined. Noteworthy, was the departure of 3 individuals who had made a spectacular contribution to the Orpheus over many years: Norman Donkin, the witty and urbane choir compère for over 40 years; Peter Gibbons, Deputy Musical Director and longest-serving choir member for over 50 years; and finally, Louise Langley, the charismatic Musical Director and former accompanist, who retired after nearly 30 years’ service. Louise is now the Choir’s current President. 

Today, the Orpheus may be reduced in number from its heyday, but it looks forward to the future with unflinching confidence guided by its inspirational Musical Director Stephen Mitchell, ably supported by Roger Witney Choir Accompanist. It is fortunate to have in place a highly capable Executive Committee who provide focussed leadership and wise counsel. In one respect it is no different now from the day the Orpheus was first formed in 1923: it aspires to entertain its audiences with a varied concert programme delivered to recognised standards of musical excellence and to showcase male voice singing at its best. Moreover, all its members simply, ‘love to sing!”.

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