The Messiah returns: Hemel Hempstead’s Aeolian Singers repeat history as they celebrate 50 years of music-making

It’s one of the most recognisable pieces of music in history which inspires crowds to get to their feet and sing along – although no-one is quite sure why.

Handel’s Messiah, as well as being among the most frequently performed choral works in Western music, was also the starting point for the group of Hemel Hempstead singers who are now celebrating five decades of pitch-perfect performances.

The Aeolian Singers rehearse Handel's Messiah.

The Aeolian Singers rehearse Handel's Messiah.

And to celebrate their half century, they’re returning right back to where they started – that distinctive Hallelujah chorus.

The Aeolian Singers were formed when the then-organist and choirmaster at the town’s St Mary’s Church placed an advert in the Gazette for vocalists to join in a performance of the great 18th century oratio.

It was Roy Abrams’ ambition which was the catalyst for the creation of the new choir, with scores coming forward for the concert on December 7, 1963.

Now, in its golden jubilee year of music-making, the group is still going strong.

The Singers were regulars onstage at Hemel Hempstead’s Pavilion, with a sell-out concert in 1972 followed by its last performance there 30 years later – which was also a Messiah rendition.

Roy stood down from leading the choir in 1978, leaving former head of music at Tring School Ian Butler to take up the mantle until his untimely death aged 49.

Since 1994 the Singers have been led by Stephen Jones, who has the creation of the award-winning City Chamber Choir under his belt as well as working with other London-based groups.

Stephen, who conducts the Aeolians’ weekly rehearsals at Leverstock Green Primary School ahead of the Messiah’s return in April, said: “This piece of music has been performed every single year since it was written, all over the world.

“The Hallelujah chorus is probably the best known chorus that has ever been written – everyone stands up, nobody really knows why any more. In fact, I don’t think anyone knew at the time why they were standing up.

“It’s a spectacular piece of music – Handel at his best.”

Stephen says that although many of the choir’s members are older, there’s plenty of life in the group yet with several youth projects involving schools and younger choirs encouraging new blood into the Aeolian Singers.

Soprano Katherine Boyce of Hemel Hempstead is one such younger influence, who, now in her 20s, was a chorister at St John’s in Boxmoor and has since gone on to form part of the BBC Symphony Chorus. She will be one of the soloists at the Aeolian’s 50th anniversary extravaganza.

A veteran of the group is Carole Lewis, who just falls short of her own jubilee celebration as she enters her 49th season with the Aeolians.

Though she missed out on the inaugural Messiah performance back in 1972, Carole, of Boxmoor, regularly performs it in London and says she can’t wait for her fellow Hemel Hempstead singers to take it on again.

The 70 year old said: “I love this choir, I can’t imagine not being an Aeolian.

“Whatever your troubles, when you come to choir and sing, you can’t think of anything else and you go home in a better mood than you came in.”

The Aeolian Singers’ Golden Jubilee Concert will be held in St John’s on Saturday, April 5, from 7.30pm.

Fittingly, the group’s original Messiah conductor Roy Abrams is returning to play in the orchestra for the performance, this time on cello.

For tickets – costing £12 or £6 for under 21s – call the box office on 01442 871598.

The choir welcomes new members. To get involved with the Aeolian Singers, as a performer or a ‘friend’ of the choir, email or call 01923 772523.