The History of the Grand River Chorus

The Grand River Chorus of Brantford is a mixed voice concert choir presenting an annual series of classical choral music. The seventy voice choir prepares for its four major concerts each season by rehearsing Monday evenings. Occasionally the choir sings at community events and joins in performances sponsored by other groups in the community. The Grand River Chorus seeks every opportunity to raise the profile of choral music in the Brantford-Brant and Norfolk areas. It is a registered non-profit corporation supported through patron and community donations. The Grand Fete du Vin is the annual main fundraising event, and is known to be an evening of great wine and food.

The Grand River Chorus was founded in early 1999 by Robert W. Phillips of Waterloo. He saw the need in Brantford for an established concert choir, envisioning one that would offer the community the major choral works of the great masters. Working with a nucleus of auditioned singers that first year, Maestro Phillips presented, with orchestra, the choir’s inaugural concert, the Mozart Requiem in the spring of 1999. In September of that year the choir launched its first full season of concerts; it included Handel’s Messiah in December, and the German Requiem, by Brahms in April 2000. Since then the choir has performed major concert works of the masters, Handel, Bach, Haydn, Brahms, and Mendelssohn, as well as the music of more contemporary composers such as John Paul Halley, Imant Raminsh, Eleanor Daley, and John Rutter. Additionally, original works by local and regional composers have been introduced.

In its Ninth Season the Grand River Chorus produced its first CD, A Grand Christmas, participated in its first partnership venture with the Brantford Symphony Orchestra with the presentation of Haydn’s Creation, and presented its very first concert in Norfolk. The highlight of our eleventh season was our first ever tour to Europe, Following in the Footsteps of the Great Composers, where we sang in Germany, Czech Republic and Austria.

From its inception, the Grand River Chorus has performed to a high choral standard. Today, under artistic director Richard Cunningham, the chorus exists as a vital part of the arts in the Brant-Brantford-Norfolk area. The tireless efforts of its singers and conductor ensure that continued choral excellence is the driving force behind the success of the Grand River Chorus.

Brantford’s Rich Choral Tradition
By David E. Neumann (June 2006)
NOTE: This article was written to provide background information to accompany a display about Brantford’s choral tradition set up for the “Magic of Mozart” concert of the Grand River Chorus on Sunday, June 4, 2006 at First Baptist Church. The display was organized by the staff and volunteers at the Brant Museum and Archives. The concert itself pays tribute to the musical contribution of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in recognition of the 250th anniversary of this great composer’s birth. As we look back on this tradition, it is only fitting that we, in the Grand River Chorus, recognize the tremendous contributions that music leaders and choirs have made in our own community.

Brantford has a rich choral tradition going right back to its early days. In many ways choirs performed well beyond what could be expected for a small city. Between 1870 and 1920 Brantford experienced impressive growth of its manufacturing and employment base. This growth was powered by the mechanization of agriculture, and the opening up of farmlands in the west as new immigrants poured into the country. The impact of the wealth generated by these developments can still be seen around us today. The Sanderson Centre for the Performing Arts opened as The Temple Theatre in 1919, at the very end of this period that saw our community rise to become a top producer and exporter of manufactured goods.
The development of music, and choral music in particular, was often sparked by new arrivals coming to take positions in local churches. These music leaders, however, had an influence that went well beyond the tasks assigned them by the churches that recruited them. They brought with them skills and experiences they had developed in their motherland, Britain, and in some cases were motivated to demonstrate their accomplishments to that homeland. The founding of the Canadian Choir by Frederick Lord in the late twenties was motivated by his desire to enter a Brantford choir in the 1930 choral competition in Blackpool, England. That amazing story has been retold in local newspapers, the Brantford Expositor and the former weekly, the Brant News.

The Brantford Choral Union – 1860’s
Founded in the 1860’s by Canon Usher, the first Rector of Grace Church, the Brantford Choral Union was the first “singing society” in the small town of Brantford. Conducted by A. W. Smith this choir of mixed voices presented many fine concerts, accompanied by an orchestra of players from various military bands – Brantford then being a ‘British’ garrison town.

Brantford Musical Society (1893 – 97)
The Brantford Musical Society was founded in 1893 by Mr. Frederick G. Rogers, organist of Grace Church and Musical Director of the Young Ladies’ College. The high point of this organization was the performance in 1896 of the Oratorio Samson. Dr. Rogers had by this time assembled a mixed choir of more than 250 voices, accompanied by the 40 piece Harris Orchestral Club of Hamilton. The four soloists were from New York. Of this event, Ralph H. Reville wrote: Here then was a very ambitious undertaking, worthy of a city ten times the size of Brantford in the nineties. But the recital was a wonderful success both musically and financially. The choir sang the difficult Samson choruses with an attack and a sonority which left little to be desired.

Brantford Male Chorus (1901 – 05)
In 1901 the Brantford Male Chorus was founded by Albert David Jordan, organist of the Brant Avenue Methodist Church. This fifty voice choir presented choral concerts for four years. In 1903, when A. D. Jordan left to take a position in London Ontario, his brother, H. K. Jordan, replaced him as the conductor of the Brantford Male Chorus. A. D. Jordan, who made a huge impact on the music scene in London, later became the organist at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto (1925-32), and in 1931 founded the Toronto Chamber Music Society.

The Schubert Choir (1906 – 1941)
Mr. Henri Kew Jordan, who came to Brantford in 1902 to take the position as Musical Director at the Brant Avenue Methodist Church, in 1906 founded the Schubert Choir, as an enlargement of the Brantford Male Chorus. This chorus of 100 – 150 voices presented annual choral concerts that delighted the Brantford audiences. Here is an excerpt from a review of its first concert in 1907: In the unaccompanied work the choir proved most substantially its ability to retain the pitch, especially where the modulations were of a trying nature calculated to bring up fears in the hearts of those familiar with the selections. The singers had been trained to watch the conductor, and following that great secret of choral success, they went on to victory.

During its time the Schubert Choir hosted a number of other performances by the Pittsburgh Orchestra under Victor Herbert and Emil Paur, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Little Symphony from New York, and many well known individual performers. In 1929 the choir earned first place in the principal event at the American National Eisteddfod in Scranton, PA. In 1937 the Schubert Choir was invited to perform at the convention of American Music Educators held in Buffalo. In 1939 the choir gave two performances at the World’s Fair held in New York. A review in the Brooklyn Eagle stated: Few mixed choruses can equal and probably none rival the singing of the Schubert choir of Brantford which was heard here last night.

Brantford Oratorio Society (1917)
The Brantford Oratorio Society was formed in 1917 by W. J. Schofield, organist at First Baptist Church. He conducted the choir until 1919, presenting Handel’s Messiah for the second time, when he handed over the leadership to Dr. Frederick C. Thomas, organist at Grace Church. By 1927, under his direction, the Oratorio Society had presented works such as Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise, Handel’s Messiah, Elijah, The Creation, Handel’s Nerbudda, and a concert version of Carmen. Dr. Thomas was also the founder (1923) and conductor of the original Brantford Symphony Orchestra. In 1927, Ralph H. Reville concluded that Dr. Thomas had accomplished more for the cause of music in this city than any other individual.

The Canadian Choir (1928-45)
The Canadian Choir was founded and conducted by Frederick Lord, who in 1923 had come from England to Brantford to take a position as organist and choir master at First Baptist Church. A highlight of this choir was its entry in a 1930 festival in Blackpool, England. It placed fourth out of 23 choirs entered. The Canadian Choir was the first choir from Canada to perform in Britain. On its return it performed at Massey Hall in Toronto, and in 1937 and 1938 performed in historic Town Hall in New York City. On one occasion, the CBC recorded the choir singing at Zion United Church. Frederick Lord was also a composer. Two of his anthems are in the church library: Eventide, and Jesus, to Thy Table Led. The works of Frederick Lord may be found in the National Library of Canada.

The Cockshutt Male Choir (1935 -60)
The Cockshutt Male Choir was sponsored by the Cockshutt Plow Company, and conducted by Frank Holton (Music Director at Wesley United Church), G. A. Smale, and Lansing MacDowell. During its day it made a large contribution to the artistic life of the community.

Brant Men of Song (1960 – )
The Brant Men of Song is the longest running choir in the history of Brantford. It was founded in 1960 with Frank Holton as its first conductor. In 1996, Scott Millward, took over as Director and in 2008 Amy Groleau conducted until 2011 when Bill Schatz was appointed with Amy remaining as accompianist.

The Tudor Singers of Brantford
Founded by James Brown in 1986, the Tudor Singers, a mixed voice, chamber choir, presenting a repertoire of fine Baroque and Renaissance choral music in the Brantford area for more than a decade, was for many years, directed by Alvin Spaxman. Some years after the Tudor Singers organization was dissolved, its library of music was donated to the Grand River Chorus. Alvin Spaxman was the founding President of the Grand River chorus.

Grand River Chorus (1999 – )
The Grand River Chorus is a Brantford based, auditioned, mixed voice community choir offering four concerts per year. It was founded in 1999 by Robert Phillips of Waterloo; he was the choir’s first artistic director. In May 2004, Richard Cunningham assumed the role of Artistic Director.

Appreciation and References

  • Appreciation goes to the Brant County Museum and Archives staff and volunteers for their assistance with the research and in planning the display.
  • Ruth Lefler, Reminiscing: Brantford Man was leader of internationally acclaimed choir, Brantford Expositor, February 26, 2005.
  • John M. Merriman, Canadian Choir’s major contribution to the musical life of Brantford, Brant News, February 22, 1978
  • History of The Choir, Official 1930 Program, for the Canadian Choir Tour of England
  • Spotlight on: Brant Men of Song, On Stream (BCN), December 2005.
  • Musical Brantford, by Ralph H. Reville, Brantford Expositor Souvenir Edition, 1927.
  • Various articles in special Brantford Expositor editions from 1907, 1909, and 1927.