The choir was founded in 1974, an event which our founders Ann and Merlin Channon recorded thus, when recalling the first ten years of the choir’s existence.
At number 42 Church Street, Eye, there is a little notice which reads: “It was in this music room that the Eye Bach Choir first met on 2nd January 1974.” The first meeting was a remarkable occasion. At the appointed hour, following our general invitation to come and sing Bach’s Jesu Priceless Treasure, singers kept arriving, known to each other, but not to us: as wave after wave of people came we soon ran out of chairs. However, the stairs saved us and batches of newly arrived sopranos were told by earlier arrivals to take their places on the steps above. Only the feet of some of them could be seen by the conductor, but the sound from those first thirty five singers was glorious.
The choir was launched on Sunday 10th February 1974 in Eye Parish Church, giving a creditable performance of the Bach motet Jesu Priceless Treasure at the close of Morning Service, having boosted the hymn singing earlier. Thus, began a relationship with Eye Church which has seen us perform most of our concerts there. It is a beautiful place in which to sing and whilst we are not a church choir as such, it remains to this day a much loved principal venue for our concerts. This has not prevented us from singing elsewhere and we have enjoyed memorable performances in Bury St Edmunds Cathedral, Ely Cathedral – even the American Cathedral in Paris where we helped enthrone the American Archbishop of Europe – not to mention Snape Maltings and Ipswich Corn Exchange.
In addition to liturgical performances a further two concerts were usually performed in those early years. However, with a decline in opportunities to perform liturgically, a pattern of three concerts a year has now become established, plus a Christmas carol event. Our repertoire has developed to embrace nearly all the standard choral works available to a chamber choir. However this has not prevented us from learning and enjoying larger works. The very largest, such as Verdi’s Requiem, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius etc. have usually been performed jointly with friends in other choirs in the area.
After twenty years at the helm in 1994, Merlin Channon handed on the conductor’s baton to Margery Baker who was our conductor until January 2007, when we appointed Leslie Olive as Musical Director & Conductor. This latter appointment was significant. Up until then the choir had essentially been run by the Musical Director/Conductor with the help of an unelected Committee formed by the founders to share out the work involved in putting on concerts. Thus, whilst those who did the work might have had a say in how the choir was run, we relied very heavily on the contribution and will of the conductors – both of whom in the first thirty years gave generously and unselfishly of their skills and talents. In fact, Merlin Channon had always hoped that the choir would one day be able to ‘stand on its own feet’ making its future secure without his input. This occurred in 2006 when we adopted a formal constitution, elected the Choir’s Officers and Committee for specific periods of time, and registered the Eye Bach Choir as a Charity. In recognition of his role as a founder Merlin Channon was appointed Founder and Conductor Emeritus. But it was the membership who appointed our current Musical Director/Conductor Leslie Olive in 2007 and, whilst he has the major responsibility for teaching and musical direction he is not formally a member of the committee running the choir – although he usually attends meetings as a co-opted member. Nowadays, therefore, it is the membership – through its appointed committee – which decides the works we will perform, manages the choir’s finances, books venues, orchestra and soloists, and takes responsibility for the many aspects of running a busy choral society.
From those early beginnings we have now become a leading choir in the region with an excellent Musical Director/Conductor. Soloists, particularly from outside East Anglia will often express surprise at the quality of our singing, not to mention our hospitality and organisational skills. In the booking of soloists we have also given opportunities to singers who have later become stars of the choral firmament – Neil Jenkins and Marie McLaughlin are but two soloists who sang with us in the early stages of their careers.
However, what makes a good choir is not just organisation, discipline, and musical training – vital as those factors are – but it is commitment and a determination to give of one’s best. Nowadays it is not uncommon for individual parts to organise separate rehearsals – on their own – something unheard of in the past. This sort of commitment comes from relationships formed within and around the choir. We are not just members, but friends, and this probably inspires much of our success and it is certainly the most rewarding feature of being a member of the Eye Bach Choir.
On Saturday 8th March 2014 we celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the formation of Eye Bach Choir with a packed Eye Church audience. We were honoured to have Merlin Channon, our founder, stand at the age of 90 to conduct an emotional last section of Jesu, Priceless Treasure and to entertain the party after the concert with singing wisdom. The baton was handed over to our present Musical Director, Leslie Olive, seven years ago, but Merlin’s presence at rehearsals and support at concerts was very important to us all. Sadly Merlin passed away in March 2015, shortly after attending a performance of the Bach St John Passion in Eye Parish Church, only a short distance from his home and from where the choir started, and a fitting conclusion to his involvement with the choir that he founded. We are indebted to his vision and hope to grow the choir even further in his memory.
It was evident at the anniversary how far the choir has come in 40 years, and now with a good financial footing, good management, and a very committed membership, the quality of the singing and the reputation of Eye Bach Choir can only grow in the future.