In 1947 while the German city of Bonn was still in ruins, its British military administrators sought a partnership with a British city which would support its reconstruction and promote peace and understanding with its citizens. Oxford was enthusiastic and a link with Bonn began which continues to this day. Initially visits between the cities were largely limited to civic delegations but at the end of the 1960s Bonn, by then capital of West Germany, started to expand this exchange to include other organisations and in 1971 held its first ‘Oxford week in Bonn’. Oxford reciprocated with ‘Bonn week’ which alternated every two years with the ‘Oxfordwoche’ in Bonn.
By the time of the second ‘Oxfordwoche’ in 1975 there were around 1000 people from both cities taking part in exchanges. The weeks saw a packed schedule of events in both cities with a wide range of organisations taking part ‘from naturists to darts players, from churchmen to camera clubs, from firemen to choirs and orchestras’ as one secretary of the Bonn link committee put it. Visiting delegations were hosted by their partner organisations in the city who provided accommodation and often specific events of interest for them.
The Harmonic’s involvement with the Bonn exchange started in the 1980s, thanks to the energy and tenacity of one of its members at the time, Mary Williams. Mary’s husband, Harold Williams, was the Lord Mayor’s secretary from 1974 to 1994 and in charge of the city twinning link with Bonn. He was also a driving force in Oxford amateur music circles and an accomplished musician, despite his lack of formal training. His father worked at the Pressed Steel factory where Harold joined the works’ brass band as a teenager and learned to play nearly all the instruments. In the 1970s he founded the national award winning Oxford Concert Brass, now Oxford and Kidlington Concert Brass but known in the 1980s as Hall’s Oxford Concert Brass due to its sponsorship by Hall’s Brewery. When the Lord Mayor’s office was approached in 1976 by a male voice choir in Leiden interested in linking with an Oxford choir he and Mary founded one to host them – the City of Oxford choir, which is also still going strong.
Hall’s Oxford Concert Brass invited the choir to perform with it in two concerts in 1982, due no doubt to its connection via Mary Williams. These were a great success and the band then invited the choir to join it in a trip to Bonn for the 1983 Oxfordwoche. This met with little interest from choir members however and it fell through. Undeterred, when the Bonn Philharmonic Choir decided to make its first ever visit to Oxford for the 1985 Bonn week, Mary eventually prevailed upon the committee and members of the Harmonic to host it. And so, after a formidable amount of organisation on her part, 80 members of the Bonn Philharmonic arrived in Oxford in September 1985 to stay with members in their homes and sing Carmina Burana (with orchestration arranged for brass band by Harold Williams) in concert with them and Hall’s Oxford Concert Brass in the Town Hall on Sunday evening. The Bonn’s conductor, Thomas Neuhoff, and the band’s conductor, Adrian Leaper, between them led the combined force of 150 performers, which also included the Summer Fields School boys’ choir prepared for the occasion by the school’s then Director of Music, David Langdon, now in retirement the assistant conductor and accompanist of the Harmonic. The concert was on 15 September and David faced the challenge of getting the choir up to performance standard in only a couple of days at the start of the new school year. The Harmonic’s conductor Philip Cave, a noted professional tenor, was one of the soloists, and the programme also included works by Mendelssohn, Brahms and Borodin.
The Bonn contingent also sang in other events during their stay. On Friday evening they featured with Hall’s Brass in the civic reception at the Emperor and Empress ballrooms, where they sang during an interval in the dancing to the Vic Good Band. Saturday saw the Broad Street Festival featuring stalls, German food, and entertainment where the Bonn choir performed alongside, amongst others, the City Morris men and Chix majorettes. The Harmonic committee deemed the visit a success, especially as a grant from the City Council’s Bonn link committee helped with expenses!
The Bonn Philharmonic Choir then invited the Harmonic to Bonn for 1987. Numbers had to be supplemented from other choirs but eventually 68 singers were signed up for trip. The choir once again had a grant, this time via Bonn, which met the costs of professional musicians who accompanied them and the extra rehearsals needed beforehand. Participants paid their own travel expenses but accommodation was provided free by Bonn choir members. The two choirs once again sang Carmina Burana together, this time with the Bonn Choir and Bonn Youth Symphony Orchestra in the prestigious Beethovenhalle, conducted by the Bonn conductor Thomas Neuhoff with Philip Cave once again a soloist. A review in the local press hailed it as ‘a great success’, commenting that ‘the large joint choir displayed impressive precision, remarkable diction and brimming vivaciousness’.
As with the Bonn Philharmonic in Oxford, the Harmonic also put on smaller performances by itself in Bonn. The Bonn equivalent of the Broad Street Festival was the ‘Great Festival for All’ held in the Market Square where, alongside other singers, dancers and instrumentalists, the choir contributed Three Hungarian Folk Songs by Matyas Seiber and pieces from Rutter’s Five Traditional Songs. Later in its stay it also performed Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine and Gabrieli’s Music be Praised and Canzona with organ in an ecumenical service in the Münster (cathedral).
The stay in Bonn also included social events such as a civic reception plus a dinner, dance and social, and there were two free afternoons squeezed in for sightseeing and souvenir shopping. The visitors were shepherded by their hosts, as a reassuring note from Mary in the travel documentation made clear: ‘Don’t worry about how you will get from A to B at any time. Our hosts will know what our schedule is and will see that we are in the right place at the right time.’ The visit was deemed a great success both musically and socially, and the collaboration between the choirs in Oxford-Bonn weeks became a fixture of Harmonic life for the next decade, to be described in the next blog.
Lindsey Charles, August 2021