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.