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Choir life is music to David's ears

By Mark Andrews | Music | Published:

David Barnett isn't entirely sure, but he believes he may have beaten Luciano Pavarotti in a singing competition.

Newport Male Voice Choir performing in Edgmond

"I can't be certain, because he wasn't famous then, he was just another member of one of the choirs," says the stalwart of Newport Male Voice choir.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, the choir – which this years celebrates its 75th anniversary – was among the best in Britain, if not the world. It competed on a regular basis with choirs from the four corners of the globe, and was sometimes asked not to abstain from competitions to give others a chance.

"The pinnacle was in 1954, when we came second in the Llangollen International Festival," he says.

"There were 20 or 30 choirs from all over the world, from Russia, from America, and from Italy.

David Barnett with a picture of the Newport Male Voice choir during the early years

"Pavarotti was in the Italian choir, his father was the conductor.

"I couldn't tell you whether that was one of the choirs we came above or not.

"I don't really remember anything about him, it was before he was famous, he was just a young singer in one of the other choirs."

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David, now 82, joined the choir as a fresh-faced 16-year-old about 1953. The conductor was his future father-in-law, William Wilde, who had held the baton since the choir was formed 10 years earlier.

"He was a very tough taskmaster," says David, who went onto marry Mr Wilde's daughter, Elaine.

"He was a very talented musician, and also a very good footballer.

"He was a goalkeeper who had a trial with Stoke City. He had to make the choice between being a footballer and a musician, but in those days footballers didn't get paid much, so he decided to focus on the music."

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Today the choir is a very different beast to the one he joined 65 years ago.

"Today we are a concert choir rather than a competition choir," he says.

"Today we sing songs from the shows and easy-listening popular songs, we're doing Frank Sinatra and a Perry Como medley," says David, who lives in Lilleshall.

"In the early days it wasn't the sort of music you would want to listen to. Music was chosen that would show off our skills, rather than because it sounded good."

To mark the choir's 75th anniversary, the choir holds an open day on Saturday, where prospective new members are invited to find what it is about. During the session at Trinity Church in Newport, those attending will be given the chance to learn and perform three different songs.

"You do not need to be a good singer," says Alan.

"People often say they can't sing, but there are very few people out there who are really unable to sing, if they are given a bit of coaching.

"People who turn up will be given a little bit of coaching, it will be very basic, to show them how they should breathe, and things like that."

The different voices will also be explained, and people will learn to sing in harmony with each other.

"Being in a choir is all about team work," says David.

"We all make mistakes, but if one person forgets their lines the others will help out.

"We might notice, but you rarely get a mistake that the audience will be aware of."

David Barnett pictured in 2000 with then conductor Ann Quirke, and the present conductor Vivian Redfern

David grew up singing at St Nicholas's Church in Newport, where Mr Wilde was also the choirmaster.

"As soon as your voice broke, you moved into the male voice choir," he says.

It was Mr Wilde's reputation as a top musician that led to the choir attracting members from the surrounding areas, and during the latter stages of the Second World War, it took part in a number of concerts to raise funds of the war effort.

While it was resolutely a male-only choir, it did recruit the BBC's soprano soloist Gwen Davies as a guest performer, and she went on to become its vice-president.

When music festivals were revived after the war, the choir began picking up accolades. In its first festival at Brownhills, near Walsall, in 1945, the choir picked up two class awards, followed by two more at Loughborough. In 1947 it won the coveted Midland Championship for Male Voice Choirs. Then in 1949, it won the prestigious Cheltenham Music Festival.

"The adjudicator, Dr Armstrong Gibbs, was so impressed by the choir's interpretation of his work that he wrote and dedicated a piece of music to William Wilde and the choir," says the present director of music, Vivian Redfern.

It was also the first choir to perform on BBC Radio's Friday Night Is Music, which was recorded live from St Nicholas's parish rooms, and would make regular appearances on the programme.

The choir won the Minsterley Eisteddfod nine times.

"We won it so many times that if the other choirs new Newport was going, they wouldn't compete," says David.

"They asked us not to go, they said we were too good. We didn't mind, because there were plenty of other competitions we could enter."

William Wilde died at the age of 56 in 1969, but the choir continued to compete at a top level, winning the English National Championships at Blackpool in 1972 and 74.

The choir's success also saw it travel the world, performing in Hungary, the United States, the Czech Republic and Malta among many other places.

"We were the first English male voice choir to perform at the JFK centre for performing arts," says David.

"I think the trip to America was probably the most memorable experience, but Hungary ran it pretty close."

The choir performed in Budapest in 1996, not long after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, although David does not recall it as being significantly different from visiting any other country.

"It was a beautiful country and the people were lovely," he says.

"I remember we were sat next to the Russians. We couldn't speak Russian, they couldn't speak English, but somehow we managed to talk to one another. I think having a few drinks helped."

  • Newport Male Voice Choir holds its singing day on Saturday at Trinity Church, Wellington Road, Newport, from 10am to 3.30pm. Anybody who is interested in learning more about the choir is welcome to attend, and there is no obligation to join, and people can arrive and leave at times to suit themselves. For more information telephone Alan Wright on 01952 813267.
Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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