Nicholas Yonge Society

International Chamber Music in Lewes

History of the Society

In the autumn of 1962, the poet and author James Reeves entertained the distinguished antique dealer Stephen Moore in the garden of his Lewes home. Here he suggested that the town needed a chamber music society. Previous soundings in musical circles around the town had suggested that such a scheme could not succeed, but the two friends decided to try.

An enthusiastic preliminary meeting was held at the home of Stephen and Catherine Moore and the Nicholas Yonge Society was born with Stephen Moore as Chairman and James Reeves as Hon. Secretary. Dr Nigel Abercrombie, then Secretary General of the Arts Council, who lived locally and was at the preliminary meeting, persuaded Sir Yehudi Menuhin to lend his name as president, a position he held until his death in 1999.

The society was named after the publisher Nicholas Yonge (c1560-1619) who was chosen as being a Lewesian of considerable importance in the development and performance of music in England. Yonge was behind the publication of Musica Transalpina (1588) a collection of Italian madrigals which stimulated the singing and composing of madrigals in the 16th and 17th century. The key contribution of Nicholas Yonge to music was celebrated at the new millennium by the commissioning, by the Society, of a bronze sculpture by Austin Bennett of two madrigal singers, now sited in a prominent position in the town's Grange Gardens.

The inaugural general meeting and membership-raising concert was on 17th May 1963 in the hall of Lewes Girls' Grammar School, although the Society now uses a hall at Sussex Downs College, Lewes. John Williams, then a young guitar student, played at that meeting and the first full season's concerts were given by Rohan de Saram, the Alberni Quartet, Richard Lewis (with Geoffrey Parsons) and George Malcolm. The venue then was the Girls' Grammar School. The piano was hired from Jackson's, the local music shop, which was in the building now occupied by the Castle Chinese restaurant. The Society has since acquired its own grand piano, a Grotrian-Steinweg, in association with the Sussex Downs College.

The increasing success of the Society was largely due to the untiring work of the two founders, the encouragement and professional advice of Dr Abercrombie, the wise counsels of Professor George Allen and the generous (and at the time anonymous) financial assistance of Miss Rhona Byron.