Member blog: Sussex Chorus celebrate 100 years

Wendy Barnaby, member of Sussex Chorus, takes us through 100 remarkable years of her group.

'What’s the most pompous animal you can think of? - a Galapagos iguana!' laughs conductor Stephen, flapping his hands underneath his chin and trying to look stolid. 'Be like the iguana! Sing like puffed-up bores!' And off we go, imagining we’re the Chief Priests arguing that their ancient law is yet another reason why Pontius Pilate should crucify Jesus. So rehearsals for the St John Passion, performed in March 2022, continue. 'Every time the Chorus speaks, they’re characters in the story or reflecting on others’ characters. That’s Bach’s genius: telling the story in a dramatic way,' says Stephen. 

For 100 years, Sussex Chorus has been bringing music to life. The actual centenary was in 2021, but Covid delayed the celebration, which will be a performance in June of opera choruses.

'The choir has produced both a fresh and warm sound, superbly balanced whilst sustaining an exquisite sense of excitement and joy.' - Review of a 2016 performance

During its 100 years, Sussex Chorus has contributed to the musical life of the country. It has commissioned works, most notably Howard Blake’s Lullaby, whose melody the composer later developed into The Snowman’s Walking in the Air. Another commission from Howard Blake was his noted Benedictus, which commemorated the 1,500th anniversary of the birth of St. Benedict.   

Ralph Vaughan Williams was the choir’s first president. He was followed by John Greenwood, Dr Malcolm Williamson, Howard Blake, Sir David Willcocks and (currently) Dame Felicity Lott. Its nine conductors have included the 'magnificent and somewhat scary' (at least according to Mark Andrew James, founder and MD of the Sussex Symphony Orchestra) Janet Canetty-Clarke (from 1965 to 2002), Neil Jenkins (2002-2014) and, currently, Stephen Anthony Brown. 'I always wanted to conduct this choir because it was one of the first I sang with,' says Stephen. The choir is also privileged to have as its accompanist, composer/repetiteur Jeremy Weaver. 

members of chorus sing during rehearsals

Sussex Chorus at rehearsal - less formally attired, but just as fabulous

Brighton’s proximity has influenced Sussex Chorus in different ways.  It won the Brighton Festival Award in 1995 and, in the same year, met a request to close the Labour Party conference there with the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves and The Red Flag. In the Festival the year before it performed David Fanshaw’s African Sanctus. For the 2002 Festival it commissioned Our World of Shopping by Roderick Skeaping and Peter Cooper.  

The Chorus has performed for various charities, has made several trips to Vienna, Cyprus and Estonia, and involved children’s choirs in its domestic performances. Between 1974 and 2017, twelve school choirs participated in thirteen of its concerts, singing Bach, Handel, Orff, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Howells, Verdi and Rutter. 

Back at the rehearsal, there is the usual preliminary buzz of conversation. The spotlight shines on the keyboard, temporarily unattended: Jeremy is inspecting goods at the latest tabletop sale for choir funds. One sop moves her belongings to a chair next to her friend. One tenor leaves the tables carrying four cupcakes, six flapjacks and one log cake, chuckling that his wife wouldn’t let him eat them but she’s away.  And so to the singing, and the next 100 years.

Check out Sussex Chorus: Celebrating One Hundred Years of Choral Enjoyment 1921 – 2021 for more centenary stories - to order your copy, e-mail

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