The Orpheus Choir - Times Past

Posted on 19 January 2023

In partnership with the Glasgow Times, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Michael Gallagher writes about the Glasgow Orpheus Choir.

Glasgow has made an enormous contribution to the field of music. Its vibrant scene is legendary and it was recently awarded UNESCO City of Music status. Held within the City Archives is the story of one of Glasgow’s more unusual musical outfits: the Orpheus Choir.

The Orpheus began as the house choir of the Toynbee working men’s club at 25 Rottenrow. In 1901 the dynamic Hugh Roberton took over the conductorship and his talented band of amateurs began to flourish.
As its popularity grew, members of the choir (particularly women) decided to split from the Toynbee club and become independent, and in 1906 the Orpheus Choir was born. It took its name from the fabled musician of Greek mythology.

Roberton was a fascinating figure. The son of a Glasgow undertaker, he entered the family business as a young man and, whilst collecting fees in working class tenements, became aware of the poor conditions much of the city lived in. This proved a political awakening and he joined the Independent Labour Party. For Roberton, choral singing was the epitome of socialism: restraining individuality for the common good of the song. The Orpheus was, however, politically neutral.

Under the conductor’s energetic leadership, the choir went from strength to strength. After the First World War it performed to packed houses all over the UK and beyond. In 1926 it embarked on a tour of USA and Canada, giving 22 concerts in 20 venues over 26 days. They sang to presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens, including private performances at Balmoral and 10 Downing Street.

The Orpheus was not always feted by the establishment, however. Roberton was a resolute pacifist and his views led to the choir being banned from the BBC’s airwaves during the Second World War. This places the Orpheus alongside the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Prodigy on the Corporation’s censored list.

The choir sung a broad range of music, from folk tunes to classical pieces, but often with a particularly Scottish flavour. Despite its global popularity, the Orpheus was firmly rooted in its home city. “It is not enough to describe it as a Scottish choir,” said one music journalist in 1964, “it was essentially a Glaswegian affair.” Its conductor agreed, saying that “without Glasgow behind us there would never have been any worth-while story to write.”

Roberton was also a pioneer of the music festival movement, helping create the first Glasgow Music Festival in 1911 and the Edinburgh Festival during the 1940s. Quite what he would have made of Glasgow’s most recent festival – TRNSMT – is anyone’s guess.

The Orpheus Choir disbanded in 1951 when its conductor finally hung up his baton, in keeping with the belief that choir and master were indistinguishable. However it was replaced immediately by the Phoenix Choir, with Roberton as honorary president. The Phoenix endures to this day, carrying with it a fascinating part of Glasgow’s musical heritage.