- how it all began

By David Collier



Fresh from his studies at the Royal Academy of Music and having completed his obligatory “National Service” in the band of the Royal Scots Guards, Michael Rose began with enthusiasm to gather together a group of musicians with a panache which was, for those lucky enough to be caught up in it, both breath-taking and inspiring.  We were attempting to fill the musical needs of the New Elizabethan Age which were beginning to be felt following the dark days of the second world war.  Life was going to be better; great achievements were ahead and this needed to be expressed artistically.  For many years we had become used to large forces, orchestras and choirs, giving massive performances of large-scale works which is fine and is still valid today.  But the small intimate chamber group had been neglected and there was a definite move to redress the balance.  There are many groups like ours today but in 1958, when we began, this was certainly not the case.

We were fortunate to find in the Eastcote Community Association a body willing to add a musical element to their activities.  In return, they would be our guarantee against financial worries which were never very far away in the early stages.  Thus we became the choral section of the E.C.A. and the inaugural meeting was held in February 1958.

To begin with, we met on alternate Mondays at Newnham School in Eastcote to sing madrigals.  The initial subscription was ten shillings (50p) but this soon had to be increased because of the rising cost of music and putting on concerts, in spite of a great deal of help from such bodies as Ruislip-Northwood Arts Council as well as the E.C.A.   But the essential enthusiasm never failed and we managed to overcome all these difficulties.

For some while we could not decide on a name (one famous group had already called themselves the Elizabethan Singers!) but after much discussion we settled on Sine Nomine Singers as being the most appropriate.  Therefore our first concert, given at Eastcote Community Centre, Southbourne Gardens, Eastcote on 23rd November 1958, was programmed as being given by “String Orchestra and Singers” (the orchestra also being part of the E.C.A.).  Our part in the programme consisted of ten madrigals, eight of them being English, one Italian and one Flemish.  The same programme was presented at All Saints Church, Hillingdon, one week later.  By the time we gave a concert in Ickenham on 15th March 1959, we were billed as “The Sine Nomine Singers (choral group of the Eastcote Community Association)”.  Again, we shared the programme “with strings” and our contribution was madrigals – only more this time! We took part in a programme of English Music to be performed on Saint Cecilia’s Eve on 21st November 1959 at Bourne Secondary Modern School in Eastcote.  The same strings were now called “Eastcote String Orchestra” and they joined us for one of the items: the verse anthem by Purcell “O sing Unto the Lord”.  This time we included music by Britten and (for light relief) “Three Nonsense Songs” (words by Edward Lear) set to music by Matyas Seiber.  We were now actively enlarging our repertoire.

We were fortunate in having a strong tenor section when we began but after a while we found ourselves in the same position we are familiar with today and had to advertise for more tenors as well as other voices from time to time, but it was strongly felt that we did not want to grow into too large a choir and that numbers should ideally stay between 20 and 30. 

From the beginning, we felt that joining with other groups, instrumental and choral, was advantageous in that it provided variety in the programmes and helped to defray the costs.  We found we were giving concerts over a wide area.  For example, in 1963 we began an association with another similar group based almost as far to the south-east of London as we are to the north-west, so it was convenient to meet in Central London to give concerts jointly.  This group was the Gloriana Choir and their conductor was Alfred Safhill.  We gave two concerts at the bombed-out and recently restored city church of St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, one with the Celestino Quartet and the other with the Pepys Wind Ensemble.  Later, the two choirs gave two concerts at the church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower – a carol concert including Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” with Hilary Wilson (harp) and, at Passiontide, a grand performance of Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”.  For this we were joined by the Gayton Singers, directed by Clarice Brooksbank and a ripieno choir provided by Swakeleys School directed by Olive Lane, the wife of  one of our members, Norman Lane, who was to become our conductor when Michael Rose had to leave us to take up the post of conductor of the BBC Training Orchestra in Bristol in 1967.

These large-scale works were the exception but were something we enjoyed performing from time to time.  Two other such occasions should be mentioned as big, memorable events in our first few years.  The first was being invited to provide the gallery choir at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster for a performance of Vaughan Williams’  “Sea Symphony”.  Then we joined with several other London choirs to form the chorus for the Berlioz Requiem at a promenade concert in the Royal Albert Hall.  We performed this work on two occasions in different seasons: firstly with John Pritchard and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and secondly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.  Both were memorable occasions.  This was before the Royal Albert Hall was changed from the rather grey and drab hall of the war years into the colourful, plush and vibrant place it is now.  The great improvement in the acoustics, when the inverted mushrooms were installed in the dome, was yet to be made and there were problems, especially for the four wind bands which Berlioz calls for in the “Tuba Mirum” section.  These were positioned as far from each other as possible and the time lag for the two positioned furthest away from the orchestra was a conductor’s headache.  Amazingly, it all came together very well in the event.  In those days, when the score called for one part to sing on its own softly (as in this work), great courage was needed as there was no “audible” feed-back and it was impossible to hear anything from those close by.  One just sang, hoping that others were singing too!  The conductor smiled and all was well.

Michael Rose, teaching at the John Lyon School in Harrow, arranged for us to be involved in events for the school’s Music Society.  In November 1962 we took part in a choral and orchestral concert in Harrow School Speech Room in which our contribution was Britten’s “Hymn to Saint Cecilia”.  Another choir taking part was that of Harrow Grammar School for Girls, whose music mistress was Ann Phillips.  In October 1963 Michael and Ann were married at a church in Harrow where Ann’s father was the minister.  Sine Nomine had the honour of singing the anthem by William Walton “Set me as a seal upon thine heart” during the wedding service.

One of our members was president of Keble College Oxford Music Society and we were invited to give a recital, with the Celestino Quartet, to the Society in the college hall.  In order to make our appearance decorously on the platform we were led through kitchens and subterranean passages and finally up a dark, narrow staircase before emerging into the splendour of the hall.  It was necessary to take care lest, by dislodging any of the large, gleaming cooking pans hanging on the walls, we announce our imminent arrival inappropriately!

In November 1963 we sang at Holy Trinity, Brompton Road, in a programme of recently composed works but with, for contrast, Monteverdi’s Mass for four voices.  To complete a busy year, we joined with other choirs in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Workers Education Association, London District.  The programme included five works being given their first performances.  Sine Nomine’s particular responsibility was to perform a humorous work set to music by Thea Musgrave (who was present to take a bow). It called forth the non-committal remark from one newspaper reviewer that “John Cook’s Grey Mare (was) quite sharply etched”.  We were now attempting quite avant-garde material and finding it a real challenge.

A rather different experience for the choir was being invited to make a recording for a subsequent broadcast at the BBC studios in Maida Vale.  We recorded enough to make up a 15-minute programme and then crowded into the control room with the producer to hear it played back.  We felt that Sine Nomine was on its way.

At about this time (mid-1960s) Michael Rose and a few friends started up the “October Festival”.  This was planned as a series of subscription concerts held each October over a four or five week period.  We approached interested people to become sponsors by making a donation for which they received free entry to all concerts.  This seemed to work well and we soon had a long list of sponsors whose names were printed in the attractive leaflets advertising the Festival each year.  The concerts all took place in All Saints Church, Hillingdon and Michael was able to obtain many excellent young musicians, some of whom subsequently became famous.  Sine Nomine Singers became the “resident” choir and took part in many of the concerts.  We had a good following and the concerts were well attended. 

In December 1966 the London Borough of Hillingdon arranged a Civic Concert to be held in the Church of the Immaculate Heart in Hayes.  The choir was composed of members from the Sine Nomine Singers, the Ickenham Cantata Group, the Gloriana Choir and the Gayton Singers.  The orchestra was the Hillingdon Sinfonia and four top-rate soloists were engaged.  We gave a performance of Handel’s "Messiah" to the Mayor and dignitaries of the borough and a full house.

Apart from these special occasions with generally large audiences, our own concerts continued to be given but we found it difficult to attract audiences large enough to cover our expenses.  A publicity campaign might have helped but was deemed too costly.  We felt we must keep giving concerts to keep up our standards, so we tried for more local venues – churches, schools etc.

We now possessed an extensive music library and needed to find somewhere to store it.  Some music had been lost and was costly to replace.  This led to a problem in 1967.  The cost of hiring cupboard space at the school meant that of our receipts for the year, about three-quarters was being spent on music.  Clearly, we would need to be more careful.

As already mentioned, Michael Rose had to leave us in 1967 and moved to Bristol.  His last concert with us was in November at Emmanuel Church, Northwood and was under the auspices of the Ruislip-Northwood Arts Council.  We joined with other local choirs and the Hillingdon Sinfonia, Michael Rose conducting.  The second half consisted of Britten’s “Saint Nicolas” which received praise from the tenor soloist, Wilfred Brown.  At a party arranged by the choir, a small presentation was made to Michael and Ann to show our appreciation for all that Michael had been able to give to the choir and to wish him well in his new post.

In the remaining years of the decade and with Norman Lane now our conductor, we gave an average of just over 8 concerts per year, ranging from short recitals to full-scale concerts, with other groups also taking part.  The following gives some idea of the different venues and diverse circumstances in which we found ourselves singing at this time: two concerts in Ruislip Methodist church with strings; a recital with organ and a concert with organ and the Hillingdon chamber orchestra at St Paul’s church, Ruislip Manor;  a recital with the novelty of harmonica solos by Martin Barber at the “STM Club” given in the parish hall of St Thomas More church, Eastcote, where some of our members attended;  a long recital of early and more recent anthems, mostly unaccompanied but some with organ accompaniment by E.G. Runnicles, at St Mary’s church, Hayes; two relaxed recitals at St Mary’s church in the delightful village of Denham in Buckinghamshire.  We were entertained socially by villagers in their houses afterwards.  For the West Middlesex Group of Gramophone Societies, we gave a recital with harmonic and violin solos, at Greenford Hall, Greenford, Middx.  Alan Pike was the violin soloist and also the leader of the Misbourne Orchestra who joined with us to give “An Evening of English Music” for the Drayton Recorded Music Society at Yiewsley Central Hall (since demolished).  The Glaxo Sports & Social Club Music Group invited us to give a concert with instrumentalists at their clubhouse in Greenford and the Uxbridge & District Musical & Dramatic Society presented a concert with us and members of the Society in St John’s Hall, Hillingdon.  This was to be “The Spirit of Christmas” and included some audience participation at the end of the programme.

Chalfont St Peter Community Centre provided the venue for a short but sweet recital and the Board of Trade offices in Eastcote for two longer ones with instrumentalists.  These were given for the Music Appreciation Society and were well received.  We gave one of the concerts of the 1969 Pinner Music Festival in which we were joined by Cyril Heels, violin.  The programme included the Five Negro Spirituals from Tippett’s “Child of our Time”.

And finally in this list of varied concerts up to 1970, perhaps the most unexpected of all.  We sang the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes opus 52 to the piano accompaniment of Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick.  To lose the use of a hand was a tragic thing for Cyril Smith.  But thanks to people like Norman Lane, who arranged music for three hands,  the duettists were able to continue giving performances.  The Hillingdon Arts Association concert at Winston Churchill Hall, Ruislip, was billed as “Cyril Smith & Phyllis Sellick with Sine Nomine Singers & Hillingdon Chamber Orchestra. Conductor: Norman Lane”.  There was just room on stage for the two pianos and the Singers but we enjoyed the experience of singing with two such talented pianists – and to a full house too.  The local paper reported that “Applause was so enthusiastic that they [the pianists] gave a performance of the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, arranged for them by Norman Lane”.

By the beginning of the Seventies, the idea of the smaller chamber choir had taken hold and we found ourselves joined by many other choirs both nationally and locally.  At the same time a wave of new music was being composed which was ideally suited to such groups.  This was refreshingly lyrical music with a direct and immediate appeal to people of all ages.

In spite of the turbulent times we were now experiencing, we were determined to carry on with our music making.  But we had to face many problems such as increasing expenditure and falling income and it was well into the next decade before the situation improved.

If the first years were of excitement, innovation and moving into pastures new, then the next period as we approached our 25th anniversary was one of consolidation in difficult circumstances.  Life was becoming harder.  The decade 1970-1979 was described as “The winters of discontent”.  There was much industrial unrest and unemployment soared.  During this time everybody had to live with the energy crisis which resulted in a three-day working week, threatened petrol rationing and TV broadcasting closing down at 10.30 each evening.  The choir minutes record that in one year we were glad we had postponed a winter concert to the following year “because of the power strikes”!

William Byrd must have felt the desolation of his times when his church was persecuted but he continued to write such marvellous music which still inspires us today.  To mark the 350th anniversary of his death, the choir sang evensong at St Mary’s church, Hayes, using mainly music which he wrote for the Anglican church.  The anthem chosen for this service, “Sing joyfully unto God our strength”, admirably sums up his optimistic view of life through adversity. 

We needed such faith in the seventies and it was not until the early eighties that we began to feel a marked improvement.  Until these times were behind us, we needed to conserve our means and make the best of our resources, if possible by pooling them with other bodies.  In short, we acted together with other organisations to cheer each other up – as tends to happen in times of crisis.

A good example of this was by joining with Glaxo sports & Social Club at Greenford on three annual occasions to provide some comfort for a workforce under threat.  Two of these performances were of Handel’s “Messiah” with small orchestra and harpsichord and the other was of Christmas music and carols.

On another occasion we had the pleasure of being one of ten choirs taking part in a “Choral Spectacular” organised by Hayes & Harlington Arts Council at Botwell Lane R.C. church in Hayes.  The ten choirs covered a range of different choral singing and were representative of a wide age range and we all benefited from singing both together and separately with such a disparate group, all dedicated to music-making.  A similar concert was held two years later in 1974 under the auspices of the Hillingdon Arts Association.  By now the economic situation was biting ever harder and we were grateful for the solace and inspiration our musical activities provided. 

Because of his many other commitments, Norman Lane was not always available to conduct the choir and we were fortunate to have, from amongst our membership and elsewhere, able musicians who could take practices and deputise for Norman at concerts.  Notable among these were Michael Williams, Arthur Head, David Lock and Anthony Smith, who all had much to offer the choir.
We should not forget the dedicated work of others, which often goes unnoticed, who carry out the necessary mundane duties without which no choir could function properly.  We were particularly grateful to Mr John Williams who, though not a member or ever wanting to sing (happily leaving this to his wife Dorothy and son Michael, both staunch members of the choir), nevertheless agreed to become our chairman for many years and gave an enormous amount of support behind the scenes with “Front of house” arrangements etc.  He helped to carry us through a difficult period. One other name must be noted – that of Mrs Gina Moore, secretary for our first eleven years, who gave great support for almost a decade and a half.  The announcement of her death was a great sadness for the choir.

In 1976 a Constitution was drawn up and approved and we became affiliated to the National Federation of Music Societies.

Our music library was by now quite large and was being well looked after by Michael Burns, our librarian of many years.  A decision was taken to purchase 26 copies of “The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems”, although some anthems in the collection were already in our library.  Michael Burns was keen for us to use his house for a summer social event.  Others also offered their homes in this way in succeeding years and the summer party with refreshments and singing became an annual event.

We were still experiencing financial problems as late as 1980 but in 1982 we were able to report much improvement.  Membership increased to 28 and it was recorded in the minutes that we only had a vacancy for one tenor!  We had weathered the storm and felt able to face the future with confidence.

The following are highlights from our concert programme:  We teamed up with Musica Antiqua and the Tudor Dancers in the Great Barn in Ruislip for an interesting evening of early music and dance from the 16th and early 17th centuries.  The Hillingdon branch of the United Nations Association invited our participation in a “Words and Music” celebration of United Nations Day at local churches.

An interestingly different venture for us was to take part in “An Evening of Gilbert & Sullivan” with John Lawrenson and the Sullivan Singers and Orchestra at Vyners School, Ickenham.  This was arranged by the Friends of Vyners.

A more serious event was a performance of Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” in conjunction with the Uxbridge Choral Society, Haberdashers’ Aske’s girls' middle school choir, five leading soloists and orchestra in Bishopshalt School hall.

The Hayes Record Club and West Middlesex group of gramophone societies continued to include live music in their programmes and we were always ready to provide choral and instrumental recitals.

At a special “Combined Choirs of Hillingdon” event at the Alfred Beck Centre, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee was marked with appropriate choral and orchestral music with fanfares by the state trumpeters of the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall.

With the Ickenham string orchestra we gave a concert at S.S. Peter & Paul parish hall, Harlington, to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of William Boyce.

In 1983 we reached our own Silver Jubilee.  With the assistance of the Hayes & Harlington Arts Council we presented a 25th anniversary concert by “the Sine Nomine Singers and orchestra with organist Anthony Smith” at St Mary’s Church, Hayes.  Sally LeSage was the soprano soloist in the main work – Haydn’s Nelson Mass.  Later in the year we gave a further anniversary concert at All Saints Church, Hillingdon, with the title “Silver and Gold”.  This was in recognition that the church was celebrating its 50th anniversary, having been consecrated in 1933, and we were pleased to have had such a long and happy association with the church.