James Picton-Turbervill is the the fifth member of his family to join the Bach Choir. He explains what this connection means to him ahead of his first concert with the choir
One of my earliest memories of singing is my first rehearsal with Winchester Cathedral’s choristers. I was on my ‘trial boarding’ week, with a view to starting as a chorister in September of that year, and was desperate to prove to my brother that I would not be a total embarrassment to him when I started aged eight.
I now know the piece which was being rehearsed to be Bach’s beautiful motet Komm Jesu Komm. At the time though, the music in front of me seemed utterly impenetrable. I assumed the choristers always sang in a strange language (German), and was completely baffled by the fact it was written in eight parts and therefore almost impossible to follow. The most alarming thing was that everyone else seemed to know precisely what they were doing. In that week I learnt that ‘solo’ meant ‘don’t sing’ and ‘tutti’ meant ‘pretend to sing’, and things remained that way for a little while.
It seemed strange that a name now so familiar to me, J S Bach, caused me so much trouble. Every Monday night Dad would go off to ‘Bach Choir’, and this phrase was so ingrained in my head that I thought for a long time it was a single word. These Monday nights were sacrosanct. Only last weekend Dad was laughed at for complaining about missing a rehearsal as my sister, Catherine, was born the following day. We used to joke that his priorities in life were Bach Choir, his allotment, and our mother, in that order. He no longer has an allotment, and Mum is still around, so perhaps our list was not entirely accurate.
Like many others, our family has always struggled slightly with Sunday nights. We would have successive baths, eat hastily made tomato pasta, and Edward and I would put on our uniform, ready to return to school with Mum, who worked night shifts in Winchester hospital. Dad would always be suspiciously cheerful, and has had the good grace to share with us that Sunday nights are infinitely more bearable if you cannot wait for Monday.
We grew up attending the Bach Choir family carols at the Royal Albert Hall, just as Dad had when his mother, and my grandmother, Shirley, was in the choir. Catherine is still lauded within the family as the only one to have sung a solo in the Royal Albert Hall, after all the children were called on stage for a quiz, and she correctly recited the beginning of the second verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. As her prize she was then allowed to sing it for the 5,000 people assembled, and no one from the family has been able to top her achievement as a five-year-old in the years since.
When Catherine gave her name David Hill smiled, saying he thought he might have heard that name before. My great-great grandmother, Henrietta Blagden was a founder-member of the choir, and we seem to have had someone from the family in the choir almost continuously since 1876, when it was formed to give the first UK performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass. This has included some extraordinary highlights: I am rarely believed when I tell people that my grandmother is part of the backing choir for ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ by the Rolling Stones. Dad and Grandma sang together at Lady Diana and Prince Charles’ wedding, and both speak with some nostalgia about the years they spent singing carols to the inmates of Wormwood Scrubs.
The choir is woven very deeply into the fabric of our family; my grandparents, Shirley and Wilfrid met in the choir, and my father also met my mother whilst on a choir tour. I was only 15 when Grandma rather hopefully gave me a score of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and all these stories have rather become the lore of the family. Henrietta Blagden was a proud suffragist, and indeed the treasurer of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, refusing to pay tax whilst women did not have the vote, yet these movements seem to take rather a strange second-place to her decision to join the Bach Choir, amongst the family at least.
We seem to have had someone from the family in the choir almost continuously since 1876
There is a rather odd conflict in this sense between the extraordinary and the mundane. The choir seems to pop up in all sorts of strange places; it has been used for many film scores, ranging from Kingdom of Heaven to Shrek The Third, and yet is still inseparable in my mind from the thought of Grandma having an egg mayonnaise sandwich and cup of tea in the same café in Victoria every Monday night for 40 years.
Certainly, when I take the stage on 11 February to sing the B Minor Mass in my first concert in the choir, I will be thinking of Henrietta Blagden doing the same 144 years ago. I must confess though, I do not expect to be thinking of her suffrage, or Lady Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles, or even of The Rolling Stones. Instead, I expect Grandma’s two thousand egg mayonnaise sandwiches will come to mind, or Dad’s celebration of his 30th anniversary in the choir which was infinitely more raucous even than his 50th birthday (which I believe took place after a Bach Choir rehearsal anyway).
Of course, the whole family are very proud of the wonderful connection we have to the choir, but in my mind the regularity and quirks of that tradition are far more important than the concerts and recordings. I only hope that my efforts with Bach will be more fruitful this time than they were as an eight-year-old. If all else fails, I will fall back on my brother’s sage advice for ‘tutti’ and ‘solo’. It will be a privilege even to pretend to sing the B Minor Mass, and a great joy to add another generation to this alarmingly well-established tradition.
The Bach Choir perform Bach’s B Minor Mass on Tuesday 11 February and the St Matthew Passion on 5 April, both at the Royal Festival Hall.