This account is taken from an interview with Mr. Kenneth Janes. It describes the origins of the Timsbury choirs. It is taken from Look! This was Timsbury and is reproduced by kind permission of the Cheshire Home.
In the period 1918-22 quite a lot of families had pianos and they really made the most of them and a number of very good pianists and organists emerged. Quite a lot of pianists were giving their services to the community by playing church organs, chapel organs and teaching when requested. I think there were four or five piano teachers back in those days. Music was there for the making and a number of people learned the piano. This all started before the electric light came to Timsbury. You couldn’t see except with an oil lamp or a candle. All the candles were lit on the pianos and on a Sunday evening after church or chapel services the families would invite their friends to come and join around the piano and sing. As a result of this men and ladies found the art of harmonising. The hymn book printed in those days had the four parts – soprano, alto, tenor and bass. These people sitting around the pianos weren’t content just to sprout and sing the lead out each time – they often couldn’t get to the high notes so they learned all the parts between them. When I learned the bass lines of these hymns and sang them in choirs, if someone asked me to sing the lead of the hymn, the air, I couldn’t. I could only sing the bass line.
In this period, choirs were quite numerous in the village in the chapels and the churches and they aroused a lot of enthusiasm in the congregation, even if there were only 20 or less people.
In 1922 the wireless came along and from that time on outside influences began to encroach on the activities surrounding the close families, bringing in the professional side of music. Fortunately in Timsbury the choirs were established before this came along. Two or three personalities were responsible for this – Mr. Oliver Janes and Mr. Joe Box, who lived at Lansdown View. They talked over their ideas for quite a long time, as to whether they could start a male voice octet. These two gentlemen had been used to singing in chapel and church choirs, especially in harmony, (unusual for a village choir). So they formed the male voice octet in 1918. Mr. Janes had family in South Wales, and he knew a Mr. Edwards there, a professional male voice choir conductor. He contacted Mr. Edwards as a friend to ask his advice as to developing a choir out of the octet, so Mr. Edwards came to Timsbury and stayed a few days and talked over things with the various members and as a result they formed a male voice choir in 1921. They had to be very careful who they chose to sing! Because you could go along the street and say would you like to sing in a choir? ”Oh yes, I’d love to do it” but could he sing in tune? Did be have a good voice? All these things had to be gone into.
In the early days of the choir, when I was 18, we used to rehearse in the old school, after Mrs. Llewellyn had swept the floors and all the dust had settled. In the corner you had a lovely big fire burning and a tortoise stove.
In 1921 when the choir was formed, Mr. Oliver Janes was appointed the conductor, and he did that until 1951. The choir members even in the early 1920’s had good voices. It had been a mining village, and I’ve had a feeling that the village tended to follow the Welsh tradition of singing, somehow. I don’t think you can get basses to equal them today. One gentleman, living just across from Greenhill House, had a marvelous bass voice.
The choir went from strength to strength, and by 1928 they were entering competitions, in Bristol and Kingswood and all different places around. They won the cup at Kingswood. You have to remember that although the choir had only been going 7 years, the members had previous experience in their church and chapel choirs, and they weren’t afraid to sing. The choir produced some good soloists too, drawn out by the conductor. Two of them got gold medals at competitions. Leonard Greenland had a very good tenor voice. Lewis Emery had a marvelous voice. A male voice quartet party started up, I think in the early 1930’s. They won prizes and were in great demand all around the area. They used to go to the conductor of the male voice choir for help and advice because of course they couldn’t listen to themselves as there were no tape recorders in those days.
To sing in a male voice choir, you didn’t need to read music. You’d learn your part off by heart. I would attach more importance to the man who can’t read music but has a good voice, than to a man who reads music. The man who reads music doesn’t learn the thing off properly – I’ m speaking from experience now, because I was one of those culprits, I could read music – which proves my point. The quartet were Bill Fear (tenor), Bert Fricker (2nd tenor), Alec Tucker (baritone) and George Fear (bass). Alec Tucker could read music, but the others learnt by ear, which was marvelous, wasn’t it, to think that they did so well.
In the 1930’s, there were a lot of chapel choirs, and a number of ladies tried their hand at solo singing. A lot of cantatas had solos for ladies. This was in spite of the wireless pushing into people’s homes.
In the 1940’s a lot of activities were upset by the War. I was overseas, but Hilda Baker from Bath started a choral society in the village with about 30 members. The Male Voice Choir closed up for two or three years and got back together in 1946 to start rehearsing again.
In the 1950’s the Ladies’ Choir was formed under Mr. Watts, starting from the Women’s Institute. Mr. Watts left and another choir was formed out of the first, and that became Timsbury Ladies Choir which is still running today and performing over a wide area.
In 1951, I took over as conductor of the male voice choir from my father. He wasn’t well, so he asked me to take on the job. I was living at Bishopsworth at the time, and running a choir there. I’d had a male voice choir in the army during the War. But when I came to Timsbury I was fully aware that I was taking on a very old established organisation and I had to keep my end up, of course. My first engagement was a Harvest Anniversary at the Tabor Chapel, and afterwards my father was most thrilled when I told him we’d had a very good afternoon. The next day he died, so that was the last he heard of them. Then I carried on, having awful journeys to make from Bristol in the winter – remember winter 1963? 1 got froze up once, the other side of Marksbury. I had to be towed all the way home that night!
We went to competitions in Bristol, at the university. We were very good, we were praised right up to the hilt by the adjudicator and I said “We’ve got this alright, no doubt about it,” and then be gave it to a Welshman. There was one mark between us and I said “I’m going to blow the bridge up.” The last time we went to competition was the Mid-Somerset Festival at Bath, and we came top. But I didn’t encourage competition much afterwards because 1 found it interfered with our activities around. All the time you spent on competition work, you were missing out somewhere else. Music got too expensive to get 30 or 40 copies for a choir to sing from and then to put on the shelf and never use again. It was tip-top quality stuff, but not really what people want to bear at concerts.
We specialised in real male-voice 4-part song singing. We didn’t do barbershop, or modern compositions. We tried ”Yellow bird”, off beat stuff, but we couldn’t do it. Notewise it isn’t difficult, but it’s syncopated. Timsbury choir have gone quite a lot into spirituals and made a good job of it.
We had fathers and sons in the choir. Three generations of Frickers were in the choir: Sam, George, and George’s three sons. One of these, Bert, is still in the choir today. There were also Jack Greenland and his son Leonard, who was tenor solo, as well as Bill and Claude Hassel.
It is very interesting that in the 66 years of the Male Voice Choir, it has had only three conductors. Of these, Mr. Janes and his son covered over 60 years.