Epsom Choral Society was founded in 1922 by Sir Humphrey Milford, publisher to the University of Oxford, to give his son Robin, a composer, experience as conductor by taking part in the Leith Hill Musical Festival. Robin Milford (see image right) had, the previous year, gained a place at the Royal College of Music to study with, among others, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW).
Eventually needing to free up time for composing and other music-related work, Robin Milford stood down from ECS in 1934. He was succeeded by 25-year-old William Cole, organist at St Martin’s Church, Dorking and music master at Dorking County School. At around this time ECS rehearsals moved to Church House at St Martin’s, Epsom where they continue to be held today*. Cole later followed RVW as conductor of the Leith Hill Musical Festival.
World War 2 and after
Like many other social activities, ECS was suspended during the Second World War. By the time things restarted in 1945/46, William Cole had moved on to a position at the Royal Academy of Music. However, he always maintained his links with ECS and was appointed its Honorary President from 1985 until his death in 1997.
ECS was re-launched after the War under the baton of Richard Fentiman, who remained the Society’s conductor until 1976. Under Fentiman, ECS broadened its activities and began its popular Christmas concerts in St Martin’s Church. During this period, RVW’s widow, Ursula, was appointed Honorary President from 1967 to 1977.
When Richard Fentiman stood down in 1976, (shortly before his death at the age of 74) he was succeeded by his 35-year-old son, Richard E Fentiman. During his tenure (after which Richard junior left to pursue a professional career in music and theatre), ECS began its regular summer concerts and performed informally within the community, including carols for charity at the Ashley Centre, a tradition which continues today*.
With the next conductor, Peter Chase, appointed in 1980, the Society expanded its programme of concerts to three a year while retaining its link with Leith Hill Music Festival. ECS’s repertoire extended further under Peter Chase’s successors, Murray Stewart and Nicholas Kok.
In 1991 Robin Kimber took over, after which the choir grew and improved significantly, now with a membership of over 110. With Robin as Musical Director, and greatly assisted by skilled accompanist Marion Lea, ECS performed a wide-ranging repertoire including most of the major oratorio works. It also explored new venues, venturing to Chichester Cathedral, Hampton Court and, in London, St Martin-in-the-Fields and St James’s, Piccadilly, and was now performing five or six times a year as well as taking part in the Leith Hill Musical Festival.
1996 took the choir on its first tour abroad, to Epsom's twin-town of Chantilly, near Paris. Since then, a long-weekend tour in the summer has become a regular and highly popular part of the programme*.
In March 2009 ECS commissioned its first composition, a setting of I know that my Redeemer liveth by Cecilia McDowall. It was premiered as an interlude in Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem. (In 2020, this piece was selected by vote to represent McDowall in the World Cup of Amens on Twitter.)
A second commission, O Joyful Soul by Jonathan Willcocks, was premiered in 2018. This work is in memory of Cecil Wiltshire (1920-2015), who sang with ECS for 67 years. Cecil left ECS a generous legacy, part of which was used to fund O Joyful Soul, and the piece comprises five texts chosen to reflect Cecil and his life.
After Robin Kimber's departure in 2015, and a term in the very capable hands of Benedict Lewis-Smith, ECS appointed conductor and organist Julian Collings as its Musical Director in November 2015. With Julian at the helm, the choir has continued to thrive, and its repertoire has increased in both range and ambition. Particular high spots to date have been a rousing June 2017 concert of opera choruses in St Andrew’s, Cheam and, joined by the Barnes Choir and the Arcubus Ensemble (both also led by Julian), Elgar’s epic Dream of Gerontius in Southwark Cathedral in June 2019.
The Covid pandemic, 2020-
Like all British choirs, ECS had to stop holding live rehearsals when the Covid pandemic struck in March 2020. The Society adapted to the new circumstances and found its way onto Zoom, where some singing could recommence. There was a brief period in the summer when, with much care and planning, socially distanced rehearsals could be held in St Martin’s Church itself, to allow members adequate space, while those not attending followed on a live stream. With the resurgence of the virus and further lockdowns we again had to rehearse concert music on Zoom where, with a positive attitude and a recording to sing along to, members could keep their spirits up and their voices exercised.
At the time of writing, ECS is returning to in person, though socially distanced rehearsals, has performed 2 live concerts to masked audiences, and is celebrating the choir's Centenary with a full programme of special concerts in the coming months.
* outside the Covid pandemic
A more detailed history by choir member Roger Morgan can be found on the Epsom Explorer website.