The choir has an unbroken history since 1846, when the Exeter Oratorio Society was set up, making it one of the oldest musical organisations in the country. The first concert (Handel’s Messiah) was in 1847 and the choir, under one name or another, has performed concerts in Exeter in every year since then. Its 60th anniversary was celebrated in 1906 with the publication of a History of the Choir, which was found in the Westcountry Studies Library.

In 1930, the Exeter Oratorio Society merged with the Cathedral Augmented Choir to form the Exeter Musical Society. The choir’s centenary was celebrated with a performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in 1946. In 1965 the choir gave the first of its carol concerts in Exeter Cathedral, which has since become an annual tradition. Until 1988 the society consisted of singers and orchestral players; the orchestral players then renamed themselves Exeter Symphony Orchestra.In 1995, its 150th anniversary season, the choir changed its name to Exeter Philharmonic Choir.

Founded logo

Although we have quite extensive records of the organisation and performances of the choir since WW2, unfortunately most of the older records were destroyed when the house of the society’s secretary was bombed in 1942, so our information about its early history is limited.



Exeter Oratorio Society (EOS)

According to the 1906 booklet The Story of Sixty Years: Musical Exeter and its Oratorio Society (author unknown), the founders were “a party of the Vicars Choral and Exeter gentlemen, who, in 1846, returning fired with enthusiasm from one of the performances of the then lately established Handel Society in London, were inspired with the idea of a similar Association in Exeter.”

At the second meeting, attended by 40 people, the entrance fee was set at 2 shillings and 6 pence, and the subscription at 1 shilling a month, afterwards reduced to 8 shillings a year.

The first concert (Handel’s Messiah) took place on April 8th 1847 in Congdon’s Royal Subscription Rooms, Exeter. There is a facsimile copy of the list of performers here. The demand for seats “was such that, on the day, tickets were sold at a guinea apiece”. Unfortunately this financial success did not last, and there were some difficult times over the next 60 years.

In 1907 the Western Counties Musical Association was amalgamated with the EOS, with joint conductors until 1919. In that year Ernest (later Sir Ernest) Bullock became the conductor of the society – the first of Exeter Cathedral’s choirmasters/organists/directors of music to do so.

In April 1913, in the Victoria Hall, the society performed Handel’s Samson in the afternoon, followed by H J Edwards’ Ascension and Coleridge-Taylor’s A Tale of Old Japan in the evening. This arrangement of several different works performed on the same day was not unusual, but must have been very demanding for the performers. There is a copy of the programme here.

We know that performances usually took place in the Victoria Hall, Queen Street, until it burned down in 1920. Thereafter, Exeter Cathedral became the regular venue, though there is a suggestion that the Civic Hall was also used.

Exeter Musical Society (EMS)

A note in the choir archives from a founder member of the EMS, Hilda Stockman, dated 1990, tells us that the EMS “admitted all religions”. Her recollection was that the EOS had Church of England-only membership.

Unfortunately the records for this period were destroyed in the 1942 bombing of Exeter, though the society continued to perform in the city throughout the war. One thing we do know is that for most of the life of EMS the conductors were the successive heads of music (under a variety of titles) of the cathedral, until the appointment of Raymond Calcraft in 1988.

In 1946 EMS marked its centenary with a performance of The Dream of Gerontius in the cathedral. At this point concerts took place in the context of a service, without the credits for conductor and soloists that we expect today, as seen here . A handwritten note on that document lists Walter Widdop, Frank Taylor, Muriel Brunskill and GD Cunningham, presumably the soloists for the occasion.

A note in the archives, undated but probably mid-1970s, gives the membership of the choir at that point as approximately 250, with 50 players in the orchestra.

A concert marking the 60th anniversary of the name Exeter Musical Society was given in March 1991 to coincide with the Mozart celebrations taking place that year.

In 1988 the choral and orchestral sections of EMS split, with the choral side continuing under the musical directorship of Raymond Calcraft. EMS concerts 1930-1994

Exeter Philharmonic Choir (EPC)

In 1995, in its 150th anniversary season, the choir changed its name to the Exeter Philharmonic Choir. List of concerts 1995 -date.Reflecting Ray Calcraft’s interest in the music of Spain and of Rodrigo in particular, in 1998 the choir toured in Spain, singing in Madrid and Salamanca. At the end of the tour in 1998 the choir was awarded the prestigious Rodrigo medal for promoting the music of Joaquin Rodrigo. 2002 the choir presented a Rodrigo centenary concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. During these years the Choir also released a recording of Rodrigo’s major choral works and gave concerts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Exeter and also in Cheltenham.

Andrew Millington, who at the time was also Director of Music at Exeter Cathedral, was appointed as EPC’s Director of Music in 2003. The choir toured Germany in April 2007, giving concerts in Heidelberg, Fulda and Würzburg. In May 2012, it performed in the Isle of Wight with the Polish Naval Band as part of the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the defence of Cowes by the Polish destroyer ORP Błyskawica, and also gave a concert in St Stephen’s Church, Bournemouth, as part of the town’s May Festival.

Early in 2012 EPC took part in the recording of The Lazarus Requiem, a new work by Patrick Hawes, and gave the first performance in March 2012 in Exeter Cathedral; you can listen to extracts from the recording here. 

Andrew retired as the choir’s Director of Music in May 2017. His final season, which coincided with the 170th anniversary of the choir, saw the performance of three masterworks: Handel Messiah, Verdi Requiem and Elgar The Dream of Gerontius.

Howard Ionascu, Director of Chapel Music and Quiristers at Winchester College, was appointed as EPC’s Director of Music in September 2017. At the same time, Stephen Tanner was appointed as Associate Director of Music.

View a selection of old Choir Programmes

List of Choir Conductors

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