This post is the first in a series about bygone concert venues all featuring in the programme archives here at the University Library. Where to start? Pick a place at random….Exeter Hall which stood from 1831 to 1907 on the site of what is now the Strand Palace Hotel in London.
The Hall, which became the home of the Sacred Harmonic Society, primarily a focus for relgious activities, including meetings of the London Temperance League and the YMCA, was also the venue for meetings of the anti-slavery campaign in the 1840s (the first of which was attendent by Prince Albert). However it also played an important role in London’s musical life for many years.
The building itself was of some significant size and its tall-but-narrow entrance given grandeur by the corinthian columns with which it was flanked: the Great Hall held 3,000 people and had a platform which would accommodate 500. There was also a smaller hall underneath the Great Hall.
The Sacred Harmonic Society, after a period of lengthy negotiation, was given permission to perform in the Hall which was to be its home for the next forty years. Mendelssohn visited the Hall a number of times during the 1840s as both conductor and organist and was made an Honorary member of the Society in 1842.
On 21 July 1843 Spohr conducted his oratorio The Fall of Bablyon in the Hall for the Society – there is a copy of the handbill in the UL concert programme archives – and declared himself “…much moved with its excellent execution…”. Michael Costa, conductor of the Philharmonic Society, was appointed conductor-in-chief to the Sacred Harmonic Society.
Whilst the Sacred Harmonic Society undoubtedly were the main performers in the Hall, they did not have a total monopoly. John Hullah’s singing classes, begun in 1841, were hugely popular with both teachers and the general public. In 1849 Louis Jullien gave two concerts in the Hall, for which the UL has programmes, and in 1852, Berlioz conducted six concerts of the New Phiharmonic Society in the Hall. The first, on March 24th included selections from his symphony Romeo and Juliet. In a letter to Liszt of March 1852 he writes: “I have just had a most glorious success at Exeter Hall, and that at the very time when you were conducting the second performance of ‘Benvenuto’ at Weimar.” The fourth and sixth concerts included Beethoven’s ninth symphony and of the first of these performances, Berlioz writes in a letter of May 22nd to Joseph d’Ortigue: “…The Choral Symphony which had never managed to go well here produced a miraculous effect, and I had very great success as a conductor…”
The roll-call of famous names of the day goes on with an appearance by Jenny Lind in a performance in 1848 of Elijah in aid of the Mendelssohn Scholarship, which brought in £1,000 – a tidy sum.
All good things come to an end, and in 1881 the Hall was bought for the YMCA, and the Sacred Harmonic Society evicted as the new owners considered oratorio performances frivolous. According to the Daily Chronicle, Sankey (as in Moody and Sankey hymns) was the only person allowed to perform in the Hall…”Sankey and Bliss passed muster; Handel and Mendelssohn were pulled up short.” and so the hall moved on to a new, virtually music-free, chapter in its life until it was demolished in 1907 to make way for the Strand Palace Hotel.
Coming next…the Hanover Square rooms.