Hitting All the Right Notes

by Laura Storey

Burnley’s century-old choir is still getting the north singing...

In 1920, the decision was made at Burnley Town Hall to introduce a choir to the community. Advertisements in local press beckoned aspiring vocalists to join the venture, resulting in 101 singers in the augural show.

Hosted at the Palace Hippodrome in Burnley, the performance began with the timeless Christmas hymn ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and ended in traditional style with the National Anthem. It was the start of one of the north’s leading community choirs, Burnley Municipal Choir, attracting both amateurs and professionals from across Lancashire. Since its inception, the choir’s beloved shows have entertained and fostered a sense of unity within the community, celebrating a shared passion for music.

Rehearsing at the Life Church, Burnley

“We have a lot of experienced musicians in the choir, and they come from various professions,” Press Officer Hilary Wood explains. “Our dynamic musical director, Nigel Wilkinson, has developed an exciting partnership with East Lancs. Sinfonia, who accompanies us at most of our concerts.

The choir is fortunate in attracting outstanding international soloists, and tickets for the choir’s concerts are in great demand. We sold out completely for the Messiah concert. The audience has grown to expect a very high standard performance, which provides an amazing experience for everybody.”

The choir in times gone-by

Despite inviting accomplished musicians such as Soprano Soloist Grace O’Malley and award-winning Mezzo Soprano Samantha Oxborough, the choir remains a welcoming space for both amateurs and professionals, bringing together individuals from different backgrounds and ages.

With a history spanning over a century, the choir has become an integral role of Burnley locals’ lives, playing a part for generations. With a family connection dating back to the 1920s, Treasurer Maureen Howarth attests to the choir’s enduring legacy. She discovered her connection after joining the choir when one of the members found some old programmes, and she uncovered her grandparents’ names within them. “My grandmother was recorded under her maiden name so they may have even met in the choir,” she explains. Her father followed in her grandparents’ footsteps and sang as a soloist. Maureen’s participation, beginning six years ago, has added another chapter to this rich history.


“With a history spanning over a century, the choir has become an integral part of Burnley locals’ lives, playing a role for generations.”

While classical pieces dominate the choir’s repertoire, popular pieces take precedence in the summer, celebrating the pop opera of ‘Les Misérables’ or the romantic magic of the Phantom of the Opera. For the choir, ‘Handel’s Messiah’ is a winter favourite and performing the staple to a packed St Peter’s Church is a highlight of the year.

The Choir at Burnley College

“My favourite piece is ‘Handel’s Messiah,’” Maureen smiles. “My dad passed away in October 2020 before I sang the piece for the first time with the choir, but I always remember him singing the solo tenor part. My father was an outstanding tenor and a far better singer than I could ever hope to be.” Her love of singing first drew her to the choir, but the community found there kept her going back. “I have made new friends and connections; getting to know people who knew my dad has been great.” Amidst the classics, the choir’s warm atmosphere is a standout feature.


Vice Chairman Barry Harper reflects on the friendly and inclusive environment, providing a haven for locals and newcomers. Barry joined the choir after relocating from Leeds, finding a musical outlet and a community of friends. Hilary says, “It’s friendly, inclusive, welcoming, and there are no auditions to join. It is open to anybody. The membership now is well over 100, and it seems to grow in numbers and popularity – it’s incredible.”


The choir meets each Wednesday evening at Burnley College. “We’re privileged to practise there,” Barry explains. “It’s a very nice environment; it engenders the social side of the choir with the café and all its facilities. We are fortunate and indebted to Karen Buchanan, the Principal, for allowing us to use it. It’s very difficult to find places suitable for people to sing, so the lecture theatres at the college are fantastic.”


As the choir gears up for future performances, including Karl Jenkins’ ‘The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace’ and Haydn’s Mass for Troubled Times in April, the invitation stands strong for potential members. Maureen says, “Just come along! There is no audition.” She adds, “Someone is always around to help, and there are plenty of online resources to help members learn their part. You can see if it suits you, and not everybody likes every piece of music we do, but it does broaden your horizons!”

With a smile, Hilary concludes, “Most people that come to try don’t ever leave.” For those seeking more information about upcoming performances and events, the choir’s Facebook page, facebook.com/BurnleyMunicipalChoir is the place to be.

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