In the space of two years all the glee went out of the Iffley Glee Club. It was formed in 1921, changed its name to Iffley Choral Society in 1923 and, after another rethink, became the Oxford Harmonic Society in 1924. (Oxford Mail, 1986)
The name change from Glee Club to Choral Society reflected its rapidly growing size and the appointment of its first regular conductor, Reginald Jacques. The subsequent change from Iffley to Oxford is explained in a review of June 1924:
The Oxford Harmonic Society is an old friend under a new name – the married name so to speak, of the Iffley Choral Society, for having taken into partnership a considerable body of singers from the city, and found a local habitation also within the boundaries of Oxford, it was felt that the latter name would be a truer expression of the main geographical source of membership.
The new ‘local habitation’ within Oxford was most probably the hall of the Cowley Road Methodist Church, a more spacious and central home for the expanded choir than the Iffley Institute.
But why did the Iffley Choral Society not become the Oxford Choral Society? It was almost certainly because there had been an Oxford Choral Society (sometimes called the Oxford Choral and Philharmonic Society) since 1819 and although this had been amalgamated after 1901 with the recently formed Oxford Bach Choir by the latter’s conductor, Hugh Allen, its name was still appearing alongside the Bach’s after the First World War. There had actually also been a previous, very short lived Oxford Harmonic Society, founded by Harold Spicer in 1913 but disbanded after two concerts in 1915 when he went into the army and not revived on his return. He and Jacques, however, were both protégés of Hugh Allen (by then Heather Professor of Music in the University) and perhaps that is how the name was passed on. Hugh Allen certainly took a keen interest in the ‘new’ Harmonic, and by December 1924 had become its first President. This close association with the university lasted for much of the choir’s history and was reflected in its first logo (shown above) designed by choir member Audrey Bates, which incorporated both the city and university logos and had distinct echoes of the latter in its overall design.
The name, however, did not make clear that the Oxford Harmonic Society was a choir and so it could be mistaken for any sort of musical organisation, as demonstrated in March 1974 when the Oxford Times printed a memorable trailer for the forthcoming performance of Handel’s oratorio Saul given by ‘The Oxford Harmonica Society’. It was not seen as a major problem, however, until 1984 when, with choir numbers and ticket sales dwindling and increasing competition from the growing numbers of other choral organisations performing in Oxford, the committee saw it as hampering efforts to reach a wider public:
For many years [the Society] has received brochures from string quartets, pianists, and woodwind ensembles who believed the Society was a music club. More importantly, the Secretary reported in April 1984 that some new members said that they had nearly overlooked the Society as they did not realise it was a choir.
The idea of changing the name ‘to make it clear to the uninformed that it is a choral society’ was floated at the 1984 AGM, and received enthusiastically. So keen were members that they suggested possible new names on the spot, of which ‘Oxford Harmonic Choir’ was by far the most popular. Accordingly, in the following year the committee presented a formal resolution for a change of name – but to the ‘Oxford Philharmonic Choir’ which it felt was ‘a slightly more melodious version of the most popular suggestion’. But many members disagreed and it was voted down twice, after which the idea was abandoned. Instead, the logo was updated at the end of the 1980s with one designed by the then chair Trevor Hyman, shown here in its original form.
Fast forward to the summer 2012 concert (Haydn’s The Creation) when a new chair of the choir, Lindsey Charles, overheard a party in the audience discussing where it came from. The programme told them that the orchestra was the Orchestra of Stowe Opera. So, said one puzzled voice, is the choir from Stowe then? They were obviously mistaking the Oxford Harmonic Society for the concert promoter, not the choir itself. Clearly, the name did not help the choir’s profile in the overcrowded Oxford musical scene.
The committee agreed to look at changing it and the chair with two other members formed a working party to research alternative names, which looked at those of the 130 or so singing groups in and around Oxford to avoid trespassing on anyone else’s identity and considered what would best suit the choir. After toying with radical possibilities such as ‘Crescendo’ and ‘Animato’ they settled on the more practical recommendation of keeping ‘Oxford’ to indicate where the choir was located, and ‘Harmonic’ so that old friends would still recognise it, but changing ‘Society’ to ‘Choir’ as being ‘simple, modern, and succinct’ and, most importantly, transparent. No-one on the committee was aware that they had come up with the name so popular with the choir nearly 30 years before!
The change to Oxford Harmonic Choir was carried overwhelmingly at the 2013 AGM and a great deal of work ensued to launch the new name at the start of the following season. It was also an ideal opportunity to overhaul the choir’s logo and look as a whole and relaunch it on the Oxford musical scene.
This time the design was undertaken by a professional designer who generously worked on it for pro bono rates which fitted the choir’s limited budget. The brief was a simple but striking logo, compact and easy to use anywhere, whether on a poster or a letterhead, which said exactly who we were and had a whiff of music about it too. The result, shown here, fulfilled it wonderfully.
After a big promotional push, the new name and image were launched at the start of the 2014-15 season with a performance of one of the grandest works in the repertoire, Verdi’s Requiem, to a near capacity crowd in the Sheldonian Theatre. And so an old choir triumphantly assumed its fourth identity.
Our next post will describe the beginning of the choir’s long association with the celebrated soprano Isobel Baillie in the 1940s and 50s.