Harborough Singers set to celebrate their 40th anniversary

Members of the choir marching in Debrecen, Hungary in 1978
Members of the choir marching in Debrecen, Hungary in 1978

The Harborough Singers choir celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Choir member Gill Guest has been looking through their archives and wants to reach out to former singers.

Over four decades, many, many people from the Market Harborough area have sung with this local choir. Or with the choirs at Robert Smyth School and the Market Harborough Upper School that are responsible for its existence.

You may have sung yourself. Or, if you didn’t, you probably know a family member, a neighbour, or a work colleague who did, or does still – like the Harborough Mail’s own former editor Gordon Birch, who has recently rejoined the choir after some time away.

Over the coming weeks we hope you’ll join us for a rummage through the choir’s substantial archive of photos, concert programmes, newsletters and random bits of rubbish. If you’ve your own collection of pictures stashed up in the attic, why not email them in to newsdesk@harboroughmail.co.uk? We’d love to see them.

So, to kick us off, here’s one of the earliest – and most significant – pictures of the choir. It was taken in Hungary, at the 8th International Béla Bartók festival in Debrecen in 1978.

It shows a young choir, along with singers representing many other countries, processing along Voroshadsereg Street under a banner proudly labelled ‘Harborough, Anglia’.

This trip was the first time the choir had acted as ambassadors for the town anywhere more foreign than Wales. And believe me, back then, Hungary was extremely foreign.

The Iron Curtain had yet to fall. The place was patrolled by armed soldiers no older than ourselves. There were stringent currency limits. Only £5 per head was allowed into, or out of, the country. Which was a trifle awkward when we won a serious amount of prize money.

Most of the young singers in the photograph had never been abroad before. Perhaps it was the strangeness of being surrounded by communists. Or the strain of learning to sing in Hungarian. But something about this trip created bonds of lifelong friendship and cemented the choir into the lasting unit that it is today.

Furthermore, it established the identity of ‘The Harborough Singers’ as distinct from the various school choirs from which it had sprung.

The explosion of school singing in the town had begun in 1972 with the arrival of a young music teacher named Barry Clark at what was then called Market Harborough Upper School. Barry was, and still remains, passionate about singing (he now conducts a fine ladies choir in Kettering called Belcanto). Back in 1972, at the Harborough school, he started a girls choir.

Before long he had half a dozen different choirs all singing and competing very successfully. His absolute gift was being able to mould kids with no particular musical ability into groups that could achieve outstanding musical success. However, when his most experienced singers began to leave school he was unwilling to lose that expertise. So he started to invite them back.

To undertake specific choral challenges, like representing England – and the small town of Market Harborough – in deepest, darkest, Hungary.

Rehearsals for this group would be held infrequently and intensively, at weekends or during the summer holidays. A practice the choir continues to this day.

By now we had gained the name ‘Harborough Singers’. The school was about to change its name yet again, the third confusing alteration in just a handful of years, and would now carry the name of the town’s illustrious benefactor, Robert Smyth.

After some debate, bearing in mind that many choirs sing under fairly anonymous geographical names such as ‘Cantamus’ or, indeed, ‘Belcanto’ – we nailed our colours to the mast.

Harborough was our home, and the Harborough Singers we would be.