The Toronto Choral Society was founded in 1845. Music was a hugely popular form of entertainment for a rapidly growing and prosperous population, so a group of citizens formed a choral society in order to give concerts and foster the development of the local musical community. F.W. Barron, the headmaster of Upper Canada College, became the choir’s first president, and James P. Clarke, organist at St. James Cathedral, was its first conductor.
From the very beginning, the Toronto Choral Society has been an integral part of the city’s life. The Choral Society’s debut concert took place at the opening of St. George the Martyr Church on June 25, 1845, with a diverse program including selections from Beethoven, Handel, Mozart and Rossini. That October, the choir’s second concert helped commemorate the King’s College Triennial, and the choir established the tradition of performing two concerts a year.
When Toronto’s first streetcar line opened in 1861, the TCS was there to celebrate the occasion. In 1863, the choir performed at the opening of one of Toronto’s most beloved concert venues – Massey Hall. In 1872, the Toronto Choral Society presented the city’s very first performance of Handel’s Messiah – more than a century after the work was written. In 1860, TCS became a non-auditioned ensemble and that tradition also continues to this day; the Choir welcomes anyone who simply wants to sing.
On his retirement in 1872, conductor James P. Clarke was succeeded by an equally distinguished musician, Dr. Edward Fisher, founder of the Toronto Conservatory of Music. He presented Mendelssohn’s Athalie in the Horticultural Gardens Pavilion, in what is now Allan Gardens.
In its early years, TCS actually commissioned and performed new compositions. Francesco D’Auria, who assumed the conductor’s post in 1892, directed the choir that year in the premiere of his own work Gulnare, with words by Mrs. Edgar Jarvis.
TCS In the 20th Century
Records are sketchy for the first half of the 20th century, but we do know that TCS’s tenor and bass sections were depleted during the Second World War. Public performances were suspended, and, for a time, so was the Toronto Choral Society.
Fortunately, in 1986, the Toronto Choral Society resumed operations under the direction of Eric Hanbury, organist and choirmaster at St. Peter’s Anglican Church. The choir resumed the tradition of two major performances a year, occasionally interspersed with smaller community concerts. Mr. Hanbury led the choir in works by Mendelssohn, Bach, Wesley, Bruchner, Pinkham, and Rutter, as well as compositions by Canadian composers such as George Fox and Healey Willan.
In 1990, Maura McGroarty, a classically trained singer and choral specialist, became the Toronto Choral Society’s director. Her vocal expertise helped the choir’s singers, most of whom have little formal musical training, to learn important technical elements of choral singing. Under Ms. McGroarty, the choir performed works by Handel, Bach, Rutter, and Healey Willan, and explored Canadian and American folk songs as well as other light, popular works.
The TCS Today
In 1994, leadership of the Toronto Choral Society was assumed by Geoffrey Butler. Under his guidance, TCS has expanded in new directions, performing a rich and challenging variety of sacred, secular, and popular vocal compositions from around the world.
In 1996, TCS celebrated its sesquicentennial with a concert that returned the choir to its roots. The program revisited 1845 and two important social movements of the time: Irish immigration to the New Word, and the escape of American slaves to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Combining traditional Irish music and African American spirituals with historical readings, this poignant program was one of the most popular in the choir’s history and was repeated, by popular demand, in 2001.
In fact, thanks to Mr. Butler’s eclectic approach, every season, and every concert, is distinctive. Other notable performances have included Ramirez’s Navidad Nuestr, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (with harp and children’s chorus), Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy in C Minor, performed with the Oakville Symphony Orchestra at Oakville’s annual Waterfront Festival, and Carl \Orff’s Carmina Burana. In 2004, the choir reprised Handel’s Messiah.
In spring, 2005, the TCS Choir completed a series of three concerts celebrating the history and cultural diversity of the city with “Toronto: A Musical Mosaic.”
In keeping with the choir’s tradition of community involvement, the choir has performed benefit concerts for Toronto’s Settlement House, Fife House and the “Out of the Cold” program. The choir was also part of the first annual “Sing for Sight” gala, whose proceeds benefit the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
Looking to the Future
As it grows to better serve the needs of the greater Toronto community, the Toronto Choral Society has grown to include three choirs. The main TCS choir is the descendent of the original choral society, non-auditioned and more than 120 members strong.
In 1999, Mr. Butler received a grant from the United Way to found a choir drawn from the homeless community of Toronto. The Street Haven Women’s Choir meets weekly at Street Haven at the Crossroads, a downtown shelter serving the needs of women. Since its inception, it has been the subject of a documentary and has been heard in the music video In Her Mother’s Eyes.
In 2000, a smaller auditioned group, North 44°, was formed. North 44° also performs concerts and appears by invitation at special events and guest performances.
In 2013, Toronto Choral Society launched a choir for children that is modeled on the same mission, values and principles as the Toronto Choral Society. This choir is led by Artistic Director Sarah Parker.
The Toronto Choral Society has undergone many changes in over 150 years, but it continues to provide exciting, challenging and entertaining choral music for singers and audiences in the Greater Toronto Area. If you would like to become a member of the Toronto Choral Society Choir, or are interested in supporting its activities by becoming a sponsor, please contact us by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 416-410-3509, and leave a message with your name and telephone number.