After 40 years at the helm of South Chiltern Choral Society Gwyn Arch has laid down his baton. He speaks to TREVOR HOWELL about his musical influences, and how much he has enjoyed being musical director of one of the most celebrated choirs of South Oxfordshire.
GWYN ARCH will be some act to follow. Not only has he the conductor’s gift, but a conversation with him about his life leaves you humbled by the staggering amount this modest, yet determined and versatile musician has achieved.
He was born in Southampton but his family moved to Birmingham and then Ipswich, and it was his Welsh father who was his first great musical influence. As a missioner and licensed lay reader, he organised the local annual pantomime for the deaf and dumb of the parish. Gwyn remembers watching awestruck as the members danced to the vibrations produced by the piano’s contact with the stage.
The Ipswich secondary school he attended did not have a choir or an orchestra, but it boasted an excellent music teacher, who was also a gifted composer. From him Gwyn learned composition and piano.
In 1951, after A-levels and National Service, Gwyn went to Selwyn College Cambridge to read English. One day, while dabbling with pop songs on the piano, he was approached by a student looking for someone to replace the university jazz band’s pianist. Could Gwyn handle the chord charts and books he was shown? If so, there would be money in it and lots of gigs. Two weeks later Gwyn was playing. He joined Oxford University’s jazz band too, while studying for his diploma in education. He says: “Jazz taught me everything I needed to know about harmony.”
After graduating he taught English for nine years at Rickmansworth Grammar School, becoming head of English. Part of the job included running the drama club, but there were 80 girls to just 10 boys, and the girls had aspirations for the West End stage. Gwyn wrote plays and mounted big productions, but the girls always ended up short-changed.
His solution was to write his own full-length musical for secondary schools called The Parker Plan, a show about Teddy boys. It was published by Boosey & Hawkes and performed the world over. It also led to the formation of a girls’ choir, marking Gwyn’s first foray into choral music. After a successful audition by an Elstree TV company, they performed for 10 weeks on the station’s Sunday morning programme.
After Rickmansworth he moved to the Reading area, landing a job as senior music lecturer at Bulmershe College. He stayed for 20 years. Again, 80 per cent of the students were girls, training to be primary teachers. This prompted him to set up another female choir, which he took to the Llangollen Festival. They came joint 21st out of 22 the first time round. He persevered for 10 years until they eventually won first prize in the Seventies. They also entered another UK singing competition, Let the People Sing, and came first eight years running.
He took his choir to Europe every year for 20 years and to the USA eight times. Although successful in UK competitions, the choir did not succeed at international level because they were up against the high quality of Eastern bloc choirs, strongly influenced by Hungarian composer Kodaly. Because people were too poor to buy musical instruments they focused on the voice. Children in Hungary had music lessons every day. To see the system at first hand Gwyn would take his choir to the Kodaly Festival and visit schools. In one class, 10-year-old children effortlessly sight-read the English May Day carol Now is the Month of Maying in three parts.
Gwyn considered his time at Bulmershe the best musical years of his life. On retiring in 1985, his attention turned to arranging, especially for UK male voice choirs (135 arrangements in total). His prolific output includes around 300 pieces for women’s, mixed-voice and children’s choirs.
It wasn’t until Gwyn and his family moved to Sonning Common in 1964 that he became involved with the South Chiltern Choral Society. Within a week, his wife Jane had joined. A year later its conductor resigned and Gwyn was offered the post. Initially, numbers fell because of his choice of music but a new generation of singers gradually appeared, and there are now 100 members.
So what has given him the most joy in his time with the choral society? Gwyn singles out two concerts: the Verdi Requiem in 2008 and Haydn’s Creation of last year, both performed jointly with the 80-strong Ensemble Vocal de Meylan from Grenoble.
He has loved every minute of his 49 years as musical director of various choirs.
He says: “I concluded that I should retire now because I cannot add much to my career. I no longer have the energy, my hearing is down by 20 per cent and I’m not the musician I once was. The choir deserves someone new, vigorous and energetic.”
His successor is 26 year-old Paul Burke, a music graduate from Oxford. But Gwyn will continue to conduct the Reading Male Voice Choir, created in 1971 as a spin-off from South Chiltern. They are less demanding, he says, and, on the whole the music is easier.
Public recognition of Gwyn’s service to music came with the award of an MBE in 2006. He says: “If you have been able to devote most of your life to music you are particularly fortunate, because you receive so much gratitude from the people you conduct. They frequently thank you for introducing them to certain pieces — you are lucky to be the one in between.
“Conducting is about the mind and body working together, and it is fantastic exercise for the upper half of the body.”
Perhaps this explains why eminent conductors are able to go on for so long. Gwyn is one such example. He is still busy doing arrangements, especially of Gershwin. It’s his greatest passion and he will simply never stop.