Concert programmes: University and College music societies

Programme for a CUMS concert (uncatalogued Music Department collection)

Music has always played a central role in the life of the University and its Colleges both as a practical art form and a subject of study (it has been a part of the syllabus since 1463). As a result, a rich variety of musical and choral societies has grown up, some going back well over 150 years, others more recent, some no longer in existence, but all a part of the tapestry of music in Cambridge. They include the world-famous Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS), founded in 1843 and the focal point of music-making in Cambridge; its sister the CU Music Club (CUMC) which started life in 1889 and was principally a focus for chamber music (it was absorbed into CUMS in 2010 and the Tuesday lunchtime concerts are its legacy); Boris Ord’s CU Madrigal Society which enjoyed a comparatively brief flowering from 1924 to 1968 but established the tradition of “singing on the river“; the CU Handel Opera Group, the CU Chamber Choir, CU Opera Society, the New Music Society, the Purcell Society, the Cambridge University Baroque Ensemble, the CU Collegium Musicum … the list goes on. These are complemented by equally long-established individual college musical societies such as those at Selwyn, King’s and Caius.

This post is an overview of the concert programme collections held at the University Library in the University Archives for these societies, as well as more modest collections in the Music Department. Only the material in the University Archives is formally documented, but work to add Music Department collections in this category to the Concert Programmes Project website has now started and records for college society holdings from Christ’s to King’s are available.

Programme for a CUMC concert (uncatalogued UL Music Department collection)

So where to start if you are looking for the programmes of a particular society? JANUS, provides access to information about archives held across Cambridge (both University and non-University) and includes records for both organisational and personal repositories. The catalogue can be searched by keyword and you can also browse by repository and personal name. In the case of music societies, catalogue records provide brief historical sketches at collection level, together with more detailed descriptions of the contents of the collection. Here you will find records for CUMCCUMS, the Opera Society and the Madrigal Society. Concert programmes can also be found in individual college archives whose records are available via JANUS, for example Selwyn and Clare. They can also turn up in the personal papers of individual alumni/past fellows, such as Percy Young (Selwyn), whose archives are deposited with the University or relevant college.

Gonville and Caius Musical Society programme (Music Department college programmes collection)

The Music Department also holds material but this is far from complete as it has accrued piecemeal over time through donations by individuals who have added programmes for events they attended (some, for example have E. J. Dent’s name on them). Deep in our basement we have incomplete runs of programmes for CUMS, CUMC, CUOS, the Madrigal Society, the Handel Opera Group, the Marlowe Society, Cambridge University Chamber Choir, any number of smaller societies and each of the colleges. The CUMS programmes, for example, date from the 1890’s to the 1990’s and the Music Club range covers the 1950s to the 1990’s. Nonetheless, each collection gives a representative flavour of the society’s or college’s output and it is, of course, fascinating to see as you browse through the performers, who has gone on to achieve greatness in the musical world. A few names to conjour with: John Eliot Gardiner, Mark Elder, William Glock, Andrew Davis and Andrew Kennedy…who will it be from our current cohort I wonder?

Anyone interested in the history of music-making in Cambridge could do no better than read Frida Knight’s excellent account: Cambridge Music.  Cambridge: Oleander Press. 1980


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