The beginning: A choir for the people of Derby

Derby Choral Union’s roots are founded and recorded by the Derby Mercury (the local paper at the time) as commencing in 1793 when – it was possibly one of the first times that a choral concert was performed publicly. Until then, a choir would have consisted of the ‘upper’, educated classes and those who could read and also read music.

Ordinary working people would not have had either the education or ‘leisure’ time for any musical or other activities. It was only when the Industrial Revolution arrived and the Midland Railway came to Derby in 1839, that working class people had that sort of education and regular hours of work.

By the 1860s the face of Derby was changing rapidly” with “growing public pride in the town and the time was ripe for new artistic ventures.”  Fired by the success of a mammoth performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at the official opening of the new Market Hall in Derby in 1866, local singers suggested forming a regular choral society and at the invitation of the then Mayor, a meeting was held on June 22nd, 1866 and Derby Choral Union was formed.


The first hundred years

Throughout this period, Derby Choral Union became an established society, with regular performances of the classical oratorios. There were, however, challenges for DCU as would be expected in a newly formed choir.

It has had its “peak of excellence and it has had its valleys of despair” – from singing to packed audiences in the 1880s and rising artistic standards take on new, ‘modern’ music to managing dwindling choir members and dwindling funds. However, the choir has managed to have 150 years of unbroken seasons, even being able to muster performances during the two World Wars, despite depleted numbers for orchestras and singers!

However, fortunes then improved and numbers of members and audience began to rise as another period of progress began. This culminated in doing three broadcasts on the BBC in the 1930s. With no permanent ‘home’, DCU performed concerts in various halls Derby.


The 1960s - 2000s

The future of DCU was cemented during this period by the quality of the Musical Directors appointed, a dedicated committee, an enthusiastic membership, a commitment to performances of the highest quality and the ability to adapt to social changes. In 1993 we were delighted to welcome our first Patron, Dame Emma Kirkby.

The choir showed a readiness to learn contemporary music whilst also enjoying the traditional choral classics. In 2000, the choir performed a commissioned work by Will Todd, Song of Creation, to mark the Millennium.

Rehearsal venues changed throughout this period but for the last few years we have rehearsed at Derby Grammar School. The choir also performed in various halls and churches, and in December 1978 DCU gave the first ever performance of Handel’s Messiah at the recently opened Assembly Rooms in Derby. During this period the choir also performed the larger works in Derby Cathedral.


The early 2000s

Richard Dacey took over the mantle of MD in September 2003, opening up a new era in the history of the choir.  Under his direction the choir tackled different and challenging music, including the Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man and Requiem, Rutter’s Mass of the Children and Will Todd’s jazzy Mass in Blue – as well as heightening our performances of the traditional well-loved oratorios.
With his enthusiasm, the choir enjoyed six successful overseas tours: to Italy twice (2004 & 2005); to Germany (2008); to the Czech Republic (2011), to Hungary (2013) and in 2015, DCU had a very rewarding exchange trip with the Marienkantorei in Osnabrück, Germany (Derby’s twin city).

As well as performing regularly at Derby Cathedral, Derby Choral Union took music to other venues in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and to Oxford.

In September 2019, we welcomed Paul Provost as MD and the choir looked forward to a new and exciting period in its development.

A Global Pandemic

Early 2020 saw the arrival of Covid-19 in the UK with social distancing and multiple lockdowns.  As with all group activities where meeting was prohibited, music particularly suffered and DCU was no exception.  We immediatley explored the possibility of rehearsing online, muting our own computers because system latency and differing connection speeds made chorus use impossible.  Thanks to Paul's tireless efforts in providing backing tracks we managed to successfully rehears and record choruses by Brahms, Faure and Parry, each voice recording and submitting tracks to our MD to be mixed together.  

In Spring / Summer 2021 we managed some green air rehearsals in members' gardens as confidence gradually increased. leading to resumption of full rehearsals in September 2021 and the choruses rehearsed over this difficult period formed the basis of our first post-pandemic concert in October 2021.  We successfully perrformed Brahms's Requiem with about 50 members singing in May 2022 accompanied by piano duet. 

We launched the 2022-23 season with a very successful "Back to Singing" campaign majoring on the core techniques of good choral singing to help new and returing singers.  Numbers and confidence continued to rise and we perfromed three concerts in more or less normal conditions, albeit with reduced audience numbers.

What the future holds for DCU

With over 150 years of history behind us we recognise, as current custodians of one of the longest-running performing arts organisations in the United Kingdom, that we have an important role to play in laying the foundations for the future of the choir.  We have a very capable MD in Paul Provost and the choir is excited to work with Paul to develop musically, and continue to perform high-quality choral music in Derby and the surrounding area.

Over the coming years, with the arts likely to fall victim to local government spending reviews, it will fall to voluntary organisations such as Derby Choral Union to provide a source of arts and entertainment events for local residents. With this in mind, and with Paul's leadership, we are preparing ourselves to become a “main player” in the local performing arts scene by actively rejuvenating our membership, raising standards and beginning to actively collaborate with other arts organisations to hold larger events.

To help us achieve and sustain these ambitions, we have began the process of raising funds through developing relationships with local businesses, to whom we are very grateful for their support. Over the coming years we hope to grow this support together with raised membership and audience levels.


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