As the country celebrated VE Day on Friday, Choir members recalled 7 May 1995, when they took part in a huge celebration in Hyde Park attended by 52 Heads of State or Government, and hosted by HM the Queen. Named the Ceremony of Peace and Reconciliation, the event involved 12 choirs in all, including the Bach Choir, the Philharmonia and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, as well as the European Union Youth Orchestra and all sorts of military bands, ballet groups and children's choirs. Sir David Willcocks was the Principal Conductor.
"The music was due to start once Her Majesty the Queen and the 52 heads of state had arrived in their places", says Colin Duncan. "But all did not go to plan. Sir David Willcocks had already started the orchestra when an official rushed on stage to tell him to stop as not all the dignitaries were in place, but Sir David dismissed him with a firm gesture and carried on."
The choral pieces were a medley of songs from the British Isles – Greensleeves, Danny Boy, The Road to the Isles and Men of Harlech – the Hallelujah Chorus, a reduced version of the Ode to Joy, Dona Nobis Pacem from the B Minor Mass and the Polotsvian Dances. Colin described the Ode to Joy as "a somewhat bizarre adaptation of the choral section of Beethoven's Ninth which involved cuts and repeats, possibly to avoid the need for soloists". Sylvia Walker remembers the Dona Nobis Pacem: "It's my abiding musical memory: it's such glorious music and as the soprano line soared up, a flock of white doves of peace were released."
Choir members weren't sure how much the royal party actually heard: according to Alex Duncan, "They were half a mile away way across the park, and there was some sort of scare which meant they had to leave, and we were left singing pretty much to ourselves!"
Actress Patricia Hodge took part in the ceremony, with several readings including Everyone Sang by Siegfried Sasson, and Sir Ian McKellan gave the introduction. Caroline Aldred remembers seeing him take a photo of the Choir from the side of the stage. The ceremony took place in Hyde Park on what was a very hot day, but black Choir dress was de rigeur – and was very uncomfortable. Everyone was provided with a hot lunch in a polystyrene box and Caroline remembers the bonhomie behind the bandstand as "thousands of us" were served. She also remembers being very embarrassed when, later in the day, she saw herself on TV.
Choir members who took part were excited at being conducted by Sir David Willcocks at both the concert and rehearsals at the Royal College of Music beforehand. Says Sylvia Walker: "John Bate played the accompaniment at the rehearsal and introduced me to Sir David who shook my hand. I was completely star-struck and nearly fainted!" "It was very scary", says Hilary Bartlett, "especially as within the first 10 minutes he asked some girls sitting in the front row who were talking to leave. I asked him to write something on my music, which I still have: it's very precious."
Looking back, everyone involved agreed the day was very enjoyable. Says Rosie Rendall, "We had a great time and felt very privileged to be taking part."
Other members who were there included Helen Sadler, Gwen Spear and DeirdreCoffey.
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