St Albans Chamber Choir was saddened to learn of the death of June Pepin (née Clark), one of the two founders of the choir 60 years ago, on 24 October, aged 85.
Here, in her own words, is June’s description of the birth of the choir.
In the mid 1950s I was accompanist to the Watford School of Music Chamber Choir, conducted by Kenneth Leaper (incidentally then the father of very young twins, one of whom is now the conductor Adrian Leaper). In the choir was a tenor named John Rose, who waylaid me on several occasions to bemoan the fact that there was no such chamber choir in St Albans. If there were he would very much like to have been its conductor.
So, eternal optimist that I am, and firm believer in the fact that if you want something badly enough the best way is to do it yourself, I suggested to John that we start such a choir! John readily agreed and we spoke then to Lewis Budd who was Head of Evening Studies at the St Albans College of Further Education, in Hatfield Road. Lewis was thrilled with the idea, and was keen to further any musical events or organisations in the area. So he agreed to run the venture as an adult evening class, where everyone paid a suitable subscription for each term of the academic year.
The advertisement in the Herts Advertiser stated that the programme for Easter (1958) was to include motets by Morley, Byrd and Peter Phillips, and modern works by Kodaly and Joubert, a philosophy that has been continued to the present day in performing works from either end of the historical spectrum. The notice also tentatively stated that ‘Elizabethan madrigals will probably form part of the summer programme.’ The rehearsals were to be held on Thursday evenings from 7.45pm to 9.45pm at St Julian’s School, Watling Street, St Albans. Thus was born the St Albans Chamber Choir!
John and I arrived in good time on the evening of the first rehearsal, wondering if anyone would actually turn up. It wasn’t as though there was any competition at all in the area for such a choir. St Albans had two well-established large choirs, the St Albans Choral Society and the Bach Choir… so we were not treading on any toes there. The field was wide open…there could have been hundreds all hoping to join a 30 voice group. BUT gradually one or two gentlemen cautiously crept in… in fact five…ALL BASSES! Then a solitary lady appeared… a SOPRANO! And although we waited a while longer, that was it!
So in order not to waste anybody’s time, and to make a start on the ambitious repertoire advertised, I sang ALTO and John sang TENOR, so that we did at least have somebody on each part, though the resulting sound was somewhat more than sonorous in the low registers. As is the rule for evening classes, if there is not a minimum number of people enrolling the class cannot function. But Lewis was quite sure that eventually the people would arrive, and so allowed the class to continue. Thus we staggered on with our rock solid undercurrent until another tenor arrived. The only trouble was that he had a very weak voice and did not make much impact. But of course, as it was an evening class with tuition, not all the members were proficient in sight reading and other vocal skills required, so it was also a case of much ‘note-bashing’ and ear training.
But faith and patience paid off, and gradually people came until we had what could loosely be described as a ‘balanced choir’ of about 20 people. About this time too Lewis had also founded and launched the St Albans Music Club, and in December we were invited to give our first concert of Christmas music for the club. This took place in St Saviour’s Church, Sandpit Lane, on 11 December 1958. Also in the programme were the Holt String Quartet, Gill Aspinal (soprano), Beryl Gammon (Alto), Roy Abrams (cello obligato) and June Clark (organ). The Mayor and Mayoress of St Albans (Mr and Mrs J. Busler) were present. A quote from the subsequent write-up in the Herts Advertiser:
‘St Albans Chamber Choir was giving its first public performance and delighted the audience with a fine selection of music, which included mediaeval motets and modern carols. Among the latter were two carols by the young South African composer John Joubert, and one by the conductor John Rose, to whom all credit must be given for the choir’s lively and expressive singing.’
By April 23 1959, at our next concert, again in St Saviour’s church, the numbers of the choir were now up to 26, with 12 sopranos, 6 altos, 3 tenors (still including the silent one) and the same 5 basses. On this occasion we were accompanied by a string orchestra, whilst Peter Hurford played the organ, both as accompanist and soloist, and I played the harpsichord. The choir works included Motets by Peter Phillips, Thomas Tomkins, John Blow and Bach, ‘Jehovah quam multi sunt hostes’ by Purcell and a cantata ‘Christ lay in death’s dark prison’ by Bach.
From these small beginnings evolved a choir, a dedicated group of people who loved singing, and a group that socialised well together. We sang madrigals beside the river at Cambridge on a lovely picnic day, and every so often we would have parties at the house of Hilda Garrard in Barnet, in her beautiful garden if fine, and of course would sing a madrigal or two as well. We gave regular public concerts in St Albans every year.
In 1960 I began to be increasingly busy with broadcasting for the BBC and much concert work with Joan Ryall, as a piano duo, and so reluctantly had to relinquish my post as accompanist for the choir. I was very ably succeeded by Vera Brunskill, who continued her work with the choir for many more years, until John Rose too went on to pastures new at Glasgow University.
For the Fortieth Anniversary of the founding of the choir John and I presented the choir with a music stand to commemorate the occasion. The rest you know.
I have always followed the progress of the Chamber Choir, as I have considered it to be ‘my baby’, and since Richard Stangroom succeeded John, and with its current conductor David Hansell, the choir has gone from strength to strength in its achievements, gaining a well deserved worldwide reputation. I am very proud indeed to have been the instigator of all this and to have made it possible for others to build upon the small beginnings of nearly 50 years ago. Thank you, St Albans Chamber Choir, from the bottom of my heart! Long may you continue to thrive.
13 October 2004