Records of the tradition in Chichester of an amateur orchestra reach back at least to the late 18th Century. John Marsh in his journals of his life in Chichester during that period recounts the activities of “a kind of musical club for the amateurs of Chichester who used to meet together every Friday evening to amuse themselves with Corelli, Geminiani & Handel concertos, Bach and Abel overtures etc.”
Much later, in 1881, records in the Chichester Directory, Handbook and Almanac mention "a String Band of Amateur Instrumentalists"....
In celebrating the centenary of the founding of the Chichester Symphony Orchestra, known as the Chichester Orchestral Society prior to 1983, it must be admitted that it is not easy to pin-point unequivocally the precise year in which the latter Society was formed.
Early Years: 1881– The Chichester Instrumental Society
There is a reference to the "Chichester Instrumental Society" in the Chichester Directory, Handbook and Almanac of 1881, where it is stated that "a String Band has recently been formed of AmateurInstrumentalists. Full Band Practice every Monday evening from 8.15 to 8.45, under an experienced Conductor". Apart from adding the names of the Hon. Sec., Mr. John Fielding and the Treasurer and Librarian, Mr. A. J. Kerwood, it did not say where they met. (One might even wonder what they did in only half an hour!).
On the same evening of the week, the “Musical Society” met “for practices at the “Girls' Schoolroom”, the Conductor being Mr. E. T. Aylward and the Hon. Sec. Mr. W. L. Gibbings. This organisation, subsequently conducted by the Cathedral organist (Dr. F. J. Read), did in fact continue to run for several decades afterwards.
1889– The Chichester Orchestral Society
The first advertisement relating to the emergence of the "Chichester Orchestral Society" (COS) appeared in the Bognor Observer on the 25th December 1889 (Christmas Day!). This stated that the Society was "Prepared to receive ENGAGEMENTS for BANQUETS, BALLS, EVENING PARTIES, &c. Full particulars to be had of the Secretary, Mr. Albert William Lambert, L.Mus., Canon Lane, Chichester", the Conductor being Mr. A.O. Hawthorne. This venture seemed to imply that monetary benefit was being sought and there is evidence that some professional musicians from London and Portsmouth were employed. It is not certain how successful this advertisement was.
1895– The Chichester Amateur Orchestral Society
Subsequently, an article appeared in the Bognor Observer on the 13th November 1895, describing the occasion of the "opening concert of the Chichester Amateur Orchestral Society," on 12th November at the Assembly Rooms, Chichester. This was conducted by Mr. A. G. Whitehead, a local teacher of the violin and cello (who also played violin and viola for the Musical Society orchestra). The article listed the names of all thirty-six members of the Orchestra (including 23 violinists) and where they came from (no doubt to increase sales of the paper), but did not state what the programme was or comment on the performance – other than that “it was highly meritorious and should greatly encourage the executants”.
The second concert took place "before a large and fashionable audience” on the 14th April 1896. On this the Bognor Observer commented that "the various items on the programme were admirably rendered and reflected the greatest credit on every member of the Orchestra”(!).
During the Boer War, the Orchestra put on a benefit concert at the Corn Exchange in November 1899 "to swell the Mayor of Chichester's Fund in aid of the widows and orphans of Britain's heroes in South Africa”. The concert raised £97.
1900-1939 becomes the Chichester Orchestral Society again
With the passage of time, the conductors and members of the Orchestra inevitably changed. It reverted to the "Chichester Orchestral Society" in 1906 with Mr F J W Crowe (Cathedral Organist) as conductor until 1929, just two years before his death. During this period the Countess of March, a talented amateur pianist, was soloist with the Orchestra in 1907, 1908 and 1912. Norman Demuth, a celebrated young English composer, later to become Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, took over as conductor from 1929 until 1935.
At the 35th concert of the Chichester Orchestral Society, held at the Assembly Rooms, Chichester, on 31st May 1934, probably a Memorial Concert to Gustav Holst who died that year and is buried in Chichester Cathedral, the Orchestra played a total of twelve items including Mozart's Funeral Music, Holst's St. Paul's Suite, Schubert's 5th Symphony and Demuth's Merciles Beaute for voice and strings, with words by Chaucer. The Orchestra comprised 36 players and the Society, whose President was the Duchess of Norfolk, was chaired by the Duchess of Richmond and Gordon.
There was also an impressive array of 36 vice-Presidents, including the Duke of Richmond and Gordon (the present Duke is now the Orchestra’s President), the Earl and Countess of March and Kinrara, Lady Louis Mountbatten, the Governor of Canada, Lady Beaumont, plus the Mayor, Bishop, Dean and Archdeacon of Chichester Cathedral!
Well-known soloists who performed with the Orchestra included Roy Henderson, Garda Hall, Cyril Smith, John Turner and Leon Goosens. In 1939, just prior to World War II, Horace Hawkins, organist of Chichester Cathedral and former pupil of Widor, became conductor.
1940s-1960s The Chichester Light Orchestra
During the war, the Orchestra lost many members who joined the Forces. However, the remaining members continued under the name of the Chichester Light Orchestra (CLO) to provide popular entertainment for wartime audiences. This was conducted primarily by Mrs. Olive Lewis, a well-known local teacher of the violin, viola, piano and organ; she had in fact played as a child in the 3rd COS concert in 1897. Major Bailey, Bandmaster of the Royal Sussex Regiment, also took turns to conduct.
The CLO continued giving concerts after the end of the war with the Conductors E. England (sub-Deanery organist), Gordon Stables, (flautist and bassoonist) and the increasingly influential Olive Lewis until it was decided in 1967 it was decided to revert back to the former name of the Chichester Orchestral Society.
1967–1980 The Chichester Orchestral Society
During the next decade, the Orchestra had a variety of conductors including the Rev. Humphrey Kempe, a well-known vicar and viola player, Howard Babonau, Gordon Stables, Otto Ernst, David King and David Tallant and the great benefit of a staunch supporter and leader, Jean Kerly (née Harding) assisted by Ross Overy.
When Olive died in 1972, she left the Society a library of music amounting to a collection of over 250 orchestral works.
In 1978, Michael Hurd, composer and musician, long-established in the area, took up conductorship of the Orchestra until 1981.
1980s- The Chichester Symphony Orchestra
With failing membership however, it became necessary to consider the future of the Society. Fortunately at that time the Bishop Otter College was building its music department and a new lecturer, Robert Long, suggested that the COS might combine with the college students to form a new Symphony Orchestra (CSO), rehearsing and performing in their hall and chapel free of charge. This was agreed in 1983 and the move put the orchestra on a much stronger footing with an increased membership of sixty and increasingly ambitious music was played.
However, in 1986 it was decided to revert to its former independence and with Ian Graham Jones as interim conductor, the Orchestra found a new home for rehearsals at County Hall.
Ralph Willatt, who studied at the Royal College of Music under Richard Austin, became the conductor of the CSO from 1988 to 2005. He was conductor of the Derby Philharmonic Orchestra before moving to Chichester.
In 2005, Michael Walsh became the orchestra's conductor, taking the orchestra from strength to strength.
Photos by James Berriman