The Early Years
In 1971, the ‘Abbey Music Society’ was brought into being by the then Vicar, Rev Arthur Beaghen (1944-1975). He wanted to encourage more people to come into the Abbey. With the help of churchwardens Dr Michael Pym, Jim Toogood (who continues to be a valued member of our committee) and a small organising team, the first concerts took place that year, mainly using local performers. John Hughes our present Chairman and Richard Wood our present Treasurer were recruited to the team a few years later.
The PCC report on the 1972 season states the aim of the committee – to promote, help and encourage suitable musical or dramatic performances of as high a standard as possible in the Abbey. The committee decided on four performances per season. As seating and heating were not as comfortable as they are today and the ideal length of performance was thought to be 60 to 90 minutes. The Society’s aim was not to make money but to avoid making a loss. MAMS continues to be a not-for-profit organisation to this day.
Because of the lack of heating in the Abbey at that time, the committee also decided to avoid the colder months of the year and limit concerts to the months between March and October. (Caroline Pym remembers singers standing by the Tower House Aga in the early years, warming up their voices to perform!) Happily, the Abbey’s current heating system now keeps us warm even in very cold weather and this doesn’t have to be a consideration.
Until recently committees didn’t have the luxury of being able to research performers on the internet but despite the occasional lower quality performance, the Abbey chill and hard seating, Dr Pym’s informal team were very successful in attracting good audiences… Did they ever dream the Society they had started would last over 40 years?
Famous Names Over the years the Society has occasionally been able to afford to give Malmesbury the opportunity to experience live performances by famous musicians such as the world renowned concert pianist Piers Lane; cellists Natalie Clein and Julian Lloyd Webber and the celebrated chamber choir The Sixteen.
As as well as this our audiences have enjoyed concerts from highly accomplished artists such as clarinet players Emma Johnson and Jack Brymer; flautist Susan Milan and harpist Caryl Thomas.
Orchestras String Quartets and Ensembles have included the Purcell Quartet ; the City of London Sinfonia; the Onyx Chamber Orchestra (members of the former Bournemouth Sinfonietta) and The Emerald (now Bristol) Ensemble. The breathtakingly accomplished Carducci and Coull Quartets have also become firm favourites.
Our Choral Tradition is well established with regular performances by high quality local choirs such as Malmesbury Singers; Bath Camerata and the Bath Bach Choir and, from further afield, Oxford Camerata and Christ Church Cathedral Choir.
Encouraging young performers has become one of the primary aims of the Society and we have over the years enjoyed marvellous performances from aspiring musicians, for example Wells Cathedral School Choir and Orchestra, and Swindon & Wiltshire Youth Orchestras.
Concerts from young professionals who have since established their careers have included The Prometheus Quartet (member Ben Hughes is now principal cello with the BBC Concert Orchestra) and the Doric Quartet (who are now heard on BBC Radio 3 and in concerts around the world.)
The Abbey Organ From 1974, it was realised that the Abbey’s Willis Chamber Organ (which was originally in the Music Room of Burwells in Bristol, home of Sir George Willis and given to the Abbey in 1938) needed to have a complete overhaul or be replaced. The specification for a new organ was completed by 1981, and a massive PCC/Abbey fund raising campaign began. The William Johnson Organ was installed in 1985 on a minimal footprint (which has made tuning a challenge ever since!) The organ is much loved by congregation and concert goers alike. Ian Tracey, Organist and Choirmaster at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral has referred to it as ‘a Little Giant’ (the one he is used to being the real giant!) Since its installation, MAMS has been able to invite Cathedral Organists for organ recitals, resulting in some thrilling performances.
Widening Our Horizons Recently, we have been marvellously entertained by new breed groups like Red Priest and Pantagruel, who bring excitement alongside virtuosic skill to the concert hall and our audiences have been thrilled by innovative young musicians like the Katona Twins (classical guitar duo); Cellophony (multiplying the exquisite tones of the cello 8 times) and Voces 8 (who achieve similar magic with their voices).
Over the last 40+ years in this small town of Malmesbury, MAMS have put on hundreds of concerts in the Abbey and brought us wonderful musicians offering sometimes delightful and sometimes challenging music. We hope this healthy mixture, stretching horizons as well as entertaining and transporting audiences with high quality music, will continue well into the future.