Although an organ was installed in Leeds Parish Church in 1713, the unbroken and glorious musical traditions of this great church began in 1841, 17 years before the inaugural Leeds Musical Festival marked the opening of the Town Hall.
Reform and Reconstruction
Dr Walter Farquhar Hook was elected Vicar of Leeds in 1837. He immediately began a campaign of reform and reconstruction of the delapidated 14th Century church. Hook believed it to be wholly inadequate for the pastoral needs of the rapidly expanding industrial borough; neither did it meet his own liturgical requirements. The Vicar instigated the rebuilding of his church to the imposing cathedral-like design of Robert Chantrell and construction was undertaken from 1839-41.
Daily Choral Services
Dr Hook believed that services in the Mother Church of Leeds should be sung daily by a well trained, surpliced choir. He appointed Dr Samuel Sebastian Wesley - the outstanding church musician of his day - as organist and choir master. Wesley, assisted by his deputy organist William Spark, instituted and sustained the highest musical standards. Wesley re-formed the choir of boys and men (founded in 1815) and arranged for the singing of choral services on weekdays as well as Sundays and Holy Days.
The daily choral services have been continued without a break since Wesley's time by his successor, Robert Senior Burton, and by a distinguished line of incumbents through to the present day. These have included Edward Bairstow (1906-13), Melville Cook (1937-56), Donald Hunt (1956-75) and for the past three decades, the present illustrious organist and Master of the Music, Dr Simon Lindley.
Broadcasts of Choral Evensong
The Choir have earned national and international acclaim through their many records and CDs and broadcasts of BBC Radio's Choral Evensong for over 6 decades.
A Long History of Oratorio
Alfred Benton who was organist from 1892-1905, accompanied many oratorio performances including Mendelssohn's Elijah, given to mark the Golden Jubilee of the rebuilt church on 14th July 1891. On that occasion the Precentor of the Church particularly requested the ladies to wear black bonnets or hats with black dresses. The huge choir for this performance consisted of 28 sopranos, 28 boy trebles, 18 contraltos, 18 male altos, 31 tenors and 31 basses.
A full orchestra including harp was engaged for Brahms' German Requiem in 1895. Other oratorios to be performed included the Bach Passions, Haydn's Creation, Spohr's Last Judgement, Gounod's Redemption, Dvorak's Stabat Mater and Handel's Messiah.
Leeds violinist Edward Maude led the orchestra for the annual Easter performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion for over 30 years. On 13th April 1992, Sir Charles Groves conducted a special performance of Messiah marking the 250th anniversary of the Dublin premiere of Handel's masterwork.
Leeds Parish Church and the Triennial Festivals
The traditional association between the famous Triennial Festivals and the music of the Parish Church, which existed until the last such festival in 1985, was described by the music critic of the Leeds Mercury at the time of the 1931 Festival:
"During the week devoted to the final preparations and performances of the Musical Festival, it has long been the custom to expend additional care on the daily choral services of the Parish Church. At a time when music lovers from all over the country are attracted to Leeds, it is a quite excusable vanity to remind them that, in the Parish Church of this murky industrial district, music is maintained at a cathedral standard."
Enhancing the City's Musical Life
The influence of successive Masters of the Music at Leeds Parish Church has extended well beyond the Church precincts. It has enhanced the City's rich musical life and reputation as a centre of musical excellence.
In the 19th Century, Robert Senior Burton managed the Saturday "Classical Pops" at the Coliseum. Melville Cook established the 26-strong Leeds Guild of Singers in 1950 for authentic performances of the choral works of J.S Bach to mark the composer's bi-centenary. Both Donald Hunt and Simon Lindley were chorus masters of the Leeds Philharmonic Society. Dr Hunt was also chorus master for five Triennial Musical Festivals.
St Peter's Singers and Chamber Orchestra
In 1977, this mixed choir of some 40 voices was founded by Harry Fearnley, then a Senior Lay Clerk at Leeds Parish Church. The Singers enjoy a close relationship with the Parish Church and a sister ensemble, the St Peter's Chamber Orchestra, performs regularly with the choir. Both ensembles under the conductorship of Simon Lindley have gained an enviable reputation for their performances of baroque choral works. Their Bach festivals held at the Parish Church in 1996 and 2000 attracted widespead critical acclaim. The choir also performs at many other venues in and around Leeds, including Leeds Town Hall, St Anne's Roman Catholic Cathedral and the Minster Churches of Dewsbury and Doncaster. York Minster has been the venue for three memorable presentations in recent years, and the choir sang Evensong at St Paul's Cathedral on Easter Monday in 2005 and 2008, and at Guildford Cathedral on Spring Bank Holiday Saturday in 2011. Other Cathedrals visited recently have included Derby, Ely, Leicester, Ripon and Worcester. Tours overseas have taken the Singers to Romania in 2007, Mallorca in 2009 and Brittany in 2011.
Leeds Parish Church
St Peter's Singers of Leeds
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Interior of Leeds Parish Church, 1841
Organists of Leeds Parish Church from 1841
Leeds Parish Church, 1948
Leeds Parish Church, interior showing organ and choir stalls
Programme from the 1964 Triennial Festival with Parish Church Choristers in Britten's War Requiem
Choir of Leeds Parish Church, 1989
Cover of leaflet produced by the Friends of the Music of Leeds Parish Church
Programme of St Peter's Singers performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor on 25th March 2005