With some justification the Chichester Symphony Orchestra can claim to the oldest secular musical ensemble in the area still in existence. A Chichester Instrumental Society is known to have existed in 1881 and is listed in the Chichester Directory Handbook and Almanac of that year. The Society’s name made its first formal appearance in print in the ‘Bognor Observer and West Sussex Recorder’ newspaper of 25 December 1889 in which it was announced that the Society was ‘prepared to receive engagements for banquets, balls, evening parties’. This is the date the orchestra now documents for its foundation.
The Chichester Instrumental Society was renamed the Chichester Orchestral Society in 1906 and on 10 May performed what was billed as its ‘First Grand Concert’. Works by Mendelssohn, Grieg, Schubert, Auber and Smetana were performed. The conductor was Frederick Crowe, newly appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Chichester Cathedral.
During the 1920s the orchestra gave concerts at Chichester’s Picturedrome on South Street (occupied today by Iceland supermarket). Composer Norman Demuth took over as conductor between 1929-1935. His orchestral piece Selsey Rhapsody was inspired ‘by a view of Selsey Bill in the sunlight on a bright autumn morning’.
The Orchestra’s 35th anniversary concert was on 31 May 1934. The programme included a performance of Mozart’s Maurerische Trauermusik and the world premiere of Norman Demuth’s Merciles Beaute, set to words by Chaucer, and written for medium voice and strings.
The Chichester Orchestral Society lost many members during World War 2 when they signed up for military service. Members had already formed a slimmed-down ‘Chichester Light Orchestra’ and this then became the mainstay for orchestral concerts entertaining wartime audiences. The Light Orchestra continued to perform through to 1966. Local music teacher Olive Lewis conducted.
A number of concerts were given in the Recreation Hall at Graylingwell Hospital in Chichester. A concert on 8 June 1953 – performed by the Chichester Light Orchestra – celebrated the coronation of Her Majesty the Queen. The programme included songs by Montague Phillips (The Fishermen of England), Edward German (Who were the Yeomen of England) and by William Purcell (Fairest Isle, all isles excelling).
The 200th concert was on 18 January 1972 at Chichester High School for Boys. The programme included music by Rossini, Haydn, Gounod and Schubert. In December 1972 a joint performance was held with Chichester Amateur Operatic Society in memory of Olive Lewis who had died earlier in the year.
An opportunity arose to use bigger space for rehearsals and concerts and in November 1981 the orchestra moved to Bishop Otter College, now Chichester University, in College Lane. Students from the College joined with the newly-named Chichester Symphony Orchestra, which was then able to tackle more ambitious musical programme. It was an arrangement that lasted five years.
The orchestra’s centenary events began with a Victorian themed party held at County Hall on 26 June 1990, and continued the following year with a public concert on 13 April 1991 held at Christ Church in Old Market Avenue, Chichester. Soloists included Alan Thurlow, the Cathedral’s Organist and Master of the Choristers, Jeremy Smith, a sixth-former from Bishop Luffa School, and Patrick Moore, astronomer and broadcaster. Each in turn took the lead role in concertos featuring the organ (Rheinberger’s Concerto in G minor), the oboe (Mozart’s Concerto in C), and the xylophone (Moore’s own composition for xylophone and orchestra, Free Fall). Works by Nicolai, Britten and Elgar completed the programme.
Over the past 25 years Chichester Symphony Orchestra has had four conductors, most recently Simon Wilkins since 2018. Simon works professionally as a music teacher, conductor, and composer. He is also an accomplished cellist. Natalia Corolscaia, who has played the violin since the age of 7, is a member of the teaching staff at the University of Chichester Conservatoire. She has been the leader of the Chichester Symphony Orchestra since 2022.
The orchestra’s members pay an annual subscription and elect a committee to run its affairs. The orchestra’s funds are topped up by the sale of concert tickets, grants from Chichester City Council and from private donations. The orchestra numbers around 40 players but will bring in extra players when needed. The majority of the players are local to Chichester or live within 20 miles. New audiences and new players are both important to ensure the orchestra’s continued survival in Chichester’s cultural life for the future.
At present the orchestra gives four concerts a year including two at St Paul’s Church in Northgate – one in early April and one in July as part of the Festival of Chichester – and one at the Cathedral’s autumn lunchtime concert series. The February family concert, held at Bishop Luffa School, has a generic theme. For example, the 2023 theme was ‘magic’ and the programme included Mozart’s Magic Flute overture, the Harry Potter Symphonic Suite by John Williams, and Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens.
Further details about future concerts and programmes, as well as reviews of previous concerts, can be found elsewhere on this website. Tickets for future concerts can be bought online through TicketSource (https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/), or at The Novium in Tower Street (opposite Chichester Library). Tickets are also sold on the door.
More details about the history of the Chichester Symphony Orchestra, including a 2023 ‘Miscellaneous Paper’, can be accessed at West Sussex Record Office, 3 Orchard Street, Chichester PO19 1DD. For details about what is held there, and to find out about opening times, visit: https://www.westsussex.gov.uk/leisure-recreation-and-community/history-and-heritage/west-sussex-record-office/