A century of choral singing in and around Chesterfield

A 2023 performance by Chesterfield Philharmonic Choir.

Liz Holloway reveals that choral singing locally is 100 years old this year.

2024 marks a hundred years of choral singing locally, beginning with the establishment of the Grassmoor Musical Union in 1924. Concerts performed in those early days included a few choruses of Messiah sung at the Picture Palace, but the choir’s activities were short lived.  

There was little money for music in the Twenties and Thirties and it was not until near the end of the World War Two, in 1944, that the Grassmoor Musical Union rose again, like a phoenix from the ashes.  A membership fee of 2/6d was levied and members had to buy their own music.  

They were now called Grassmoor Choral Union and sang for the first time with an orchestra in 1949.  Throughout the 1950s, they soldiered on with varying degrees of success at music festivals, winning the Rose Bowl trophy at Macclesfield for the most artistic performance in the senior choral section.

Colin Wheatley, who had attended the choir with his parents since 1944, became conductor in 1959 and launched a new era in the choir’s history.  They performed at Chesterfield  Civic Theatre for the first time in 1961 and rehearsals moved from Grassmoor to Chesterfield; and the name was changed to Chesterfield and District Choral Union.

In September, 1963 the choir sang Mozart’s Requiem in Chesterfield Parish Church, (singing in Latin for the first time).  But winter concerts in the church proved too cold for many, with some male members wearing pyjamas under their dress suits!

Numbers grew and in April 1967, the choir, together with its new orchestra, took the present-day title of Chesterfield Philharmonic Choir.

1988 saw the appointment of Oxford music graduate Philip Hanwell as Deputy Musical Director.  He was with the choir for many years, giving total commitment as accompanist and occasional rehearsal conductor; and in 1996 the choir appointed experienced musical director Steven Roberts.

“The Chesterfield group was extremely organised and forward-thinking, but most of all enthusiastic.”

Steven boasted a long list of choral achievements in Britain and overseas.  He said: “The Chesterfield group was extremely organised and forward thinking, but most of all enthusiastic.  I work with hundreds of singers and know that the more I give, the more I get back. We’ve built a great relationship over the years, with everyone performing to the highest standard.”

Steven programmes innovative and exciting concerts. Since 1998, the choir has run an annual Choral Day, where rehearsal and performance are crammed into a single exhausting but exciting day.  

2024 will see the 25th anniversary of these Choral Days.  The evening performance is free, but donations are requested for a chosen charity.  This year’s Choral Day is in support of Neurocare at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. 

The Choral Day Concert is on June 8 at 7pm at Central Methodist Church, Saltergate, Chesterfield. It’s the popular Requiem by Mozart, and the choir is joined by Chesterfield Symphony Orchestra and professional soloists.

The last word should go to Gwen Hallam – the longest serving choir member – who joined in May 1962, followed by husband Tony later that year.  “We have spent our whole married life singing in the choir.  We met singing at college in London and have continued with the Philharmonic.  It’s a way of life really, with friends knowing not to arrange anything for Thursday evenings.”