Willis’s Rooms began life in 1765 as Almack’s, a suite of fashionable Assembly Rooms in King Street, St. James’s (not far from the St. James’s theatre demolished in the 1950s) built for the eponymous William Almack. They included a ballroom decorated in the Classical style where popular weekly subscription balls took place well into the nineteenth century, and rooms let for numerous purposes including concerts, lectures and readings. When Almack died in 1781, the rooms passed to his niece and were re-named Willis’s Rooms (she was Mrs. Willis).
A variety of musical events took place in the Rooms in the following century. Saturday 11th February 1792 saw the first of Samuel Harrison and Charles Knyvett’s Vocal Concerts . An advertisement in the Times on 9th February gives the programme which consists principally of glees and other light songs, but also included Angels ever bright and fair from Handel’s Theodora sung by Mrs. Harrison.
“Mr Harrison and Mr Knyvett most respectfully acquaint the Nobilty and Gentry that their FIRST VOCAL CONCERT will commence on SATURDAY EVENING next at eight o’clock…”
[The Times. 9th February 1792]
The University Library has copies of some of the popular ballads performed at other Vocal Concerts including: William Horsley’s Cold is Cadwallo’s Tongue and In the dead of night. The Vocal Concerts continued, albeit erratically, until 1821.
John Ella’s Musical Union performed regularly at Willis’s Rooms (the records of the Musical Union held here at the UL will be the subject of a separate post). Ella believed that the audience should prepare for a concert as much as the musicians and so he introduced the programme note (or “synopsis analytique” as they were delightfully called) that we recognise today, describing the works to be played, complete with musical examples and biographies of the performers.
The fare was chamber music and each year between 1845 and 1858 at Willis’s Rooms and thereafter until 1880 first at the Hanover Square Rooms then at St. James’s Hall, eight afternoon concerts were given.
Hector Berlioz was no stranger to Willis’s Rooms: John Ella was a friend of his and Ella invited Berlioz to the concerts whenever he was in London. For example, in the programme for the Musical Union concert on 28 March 1848 there is a note saying:
“We are proud to number among the visitors to this day’s performance one of the most remarkable musicians, composers, and critics of the age – Hector Berlioz. The orchestral, descriptive pieces of this composer have, throughout Europe, created the deepest sensation among all those who could sympathise with the daring persistence of his original genius.”
What a splendid tribute.
Berlioz was on the podium himself at the rooms on 7 April 1848 when he conducted his Hungarian March from La Damnation de Faust at a concert of the Amateur Musical Society.
For a short time, there was competition for Ella from the Quartet Association (which included the ‘cellist Alfredo Piatti and the pianist/conductors Charles Halle and Sterndale Bennett) who gave concerts at the Rooms between 1852 and 1855 in an attempt to popularise chamber music. The Sterndale Bennett collection at the Bodleian Library in Oxford includes programmes from the 1852 and 1853 seasons.
Sadly, the buildings did not survive World War II as they were bombed in 1944.