The Church has always maintained a strong musical tradition and the Choir has always played a large part in its life and work.
The earliest choirmaster was Mr Robert Taylor. In those days, there was no organ. The choristers stood round Mr Taylor and as he played the violin, they learned new hymns and anthems.
In 1862, a harmonium was bought to accompany the orchestral music and in 1878, the pipe organ was installed.
The present series of Good Friday concerts began in 1868. For the first two years only excerpts from oratorios were given and then in 1870, the first full oratorio performance took place. Since then, there has been an unbroken record of an oratorio performance being given every Good Friday at Union Street. The visiting soloists usually came from Durham Cathedral or Newcastle and were brought by ‘trap’ from Fence Houses Station to Hetton. Finance was a problem and the fees of the singers had to be carefully considered.
When the organ was installed it was necessary to engage a visiting organist to accompany the oratorios. Miss A Strachan was the first of our own people to play for a Good Friday concert.
The earliest programme that has been found is for the 15th oratorio. It was ‘Judas Maccabaeus’ given in 1885 and the conductor was Mr R. Strachan.
The orchestras in those early days were somewhat larger than we have today with often over 30 players being listed. The volume of sound produced must have been awe-inspiring. Many are the men and women who regularly played for us, and many too who did not accept any payment for their services. Their reward was the joy of playing in the concert.
The Good Friday concerts continued without a break during both world wars. The plaques on the walls of the choir were placed there in memory of two of their members, Pte Norman Armstrong and Pte Thomas S Pratt, who lost their lives in the 1914-1918 war.
In 1943, the choir arranged a series of Celebrity concerts, which brought to Hetton some of the finest concert artistes of the day. Some of the singers included Miss Isabel Baillie, Heddle Nash, Kathleen Ferrier, and pianists were Ernest Lush, Walter Susskind and Margot Wright, as well as the principals of the Carl Rosa Opera Company.
Singing an oratorio has been a long standing tradition. There has been an unbroken record of 141 performances of the Good Friday oratorios, with choir, soloists, orchestra and organist. A very unique record indeed and probably not matched anywhere in the country.
Sadly, on 22 April 2011, the 141st and final Good Friday concert took place. Over the last few years, the Church Choir numbers have dwindled and we have relied more and more on helpers from local choirs. Added to this, it proved to be more difficult enlisting singers in certain sections of the choir, especially the tenors. At the Choir Annual General Meeting it was reluctantly decided that 2011 should be the last Good Friday concert. The last performance was Messiah. The soloists were Susan Kemp Jordan - Soprano, Alison Snell - Contralto, Paul Smith - Tenor and Arthur Bewick - Bass. The conductor was Richard Brice and the organist Tom Rennie. The concert was well supported - both audience and participants enjoying an extra special evening. History was made as the tradition of Good Friday oratorios at Hetton Methodist Church went out with a bang!