Most exquisitely performed: A. J. Ellis, Mendelssohn and the 1837 Birmingham Triennial Festival

Birmingham Town Hall in the 1830s

Sitting quietly on the shelves in our reserve stacks is a little volume of programmes for the 1837 Birmingham Triennial Festival. What’s so special about that, do I hear you ask? Read on to discover more…

First, a little background on the Birmingham Festival. Begun in 1768, to raise money for the General Hospital, the Triennial Music Festival concerts were properly established from 1784. Such was their success, that the now-famous Town Hall was built to house performances, opening in 1834. Concerts continued until the First World War.

Mendelssohn‘s association with these concerts is well-known. Adored by the British concert-going public (including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert), this extraordinarily gifted composer, conductor and virtuoso pianist was lionised wherever he went (Liszt, eat your heart out).  It was for the 1847 Festival that he composed his sublime oratorio Elijah which was then performed at every subsequent Festival and is now a much-loved favourite of the repertoire.

Mendelssohn by Eduard Magnus, 1845

Ten years earlier Mendelssohn was also at the Festival and so was one Alexander John Ellis. Not long graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge as sixth wrangler in mathematics, this young man had been looking forward to the occasion greatly. He kept all his programmes, collected newspaper reviews and had them all carefully bound into a smart volume complete with marble endpapers. Not only that, but he annotated them with his impressions of the music he heard and their performance thus giving us an invaluable first-hand commentary on the Festival.

So what was the bill of fare? On the morning of 19th September there was the Chevalier Neukom‘s oratorio The Ascension and a miscellany of sacred pieces; in the evening another miscellaneous selection including an improvisation on the organ by Mendelssohn which received ecstatic reviews in the Birmingham Advertiser.

“[Mendelssohn] developed the extraordinary powers and rich quality of tone of the instrument in a manner which will not for a long time be forgotten. We scarcely know how to trust ourselves to speak of his genius.”

 Wednesday morning saw Mendelssohn conducting his oratorio St. Paul which clearly had a profound effect on Ellis as his programme is littered with exclamation marks of approval and at the end he says:

“A most exquisite oratorio. I have never been so much struck with anything since I first heard the Messiah”.

Ellis was able to compare the two works as Thursday morning brought with it a performance of Handel’s Messiah (This morning was the greatest treat of all”) for which people queued from eight in the morning with the Hall full to bursting in only eight minutes and for which ticket touts were much in evidence.

Programme for Birmingham Festival Wednesday 20 September 1837

A miscellany concert in the evening included the world premiere of Mendelssohn’s second piano concerto (with the composer at the keyboard of course) which Ellis deemed

“Most exquisitely performed, and a beautiful composition into the bargain”

and which sent the Birmingham Gazette into transports:

“…the lion of the night was impatiently looked forward to…his masterly performance…exhibits all the sensitiveness of a most refined feeling and all the energy of a nervous impulse. The applause was unbounded…”. Phew.

Finally, on the Friday Mendelssohn opened the proceedings with a Bach prelude and fugue on the organ (the timing was changed so that he could then dash back to Leipzig for another engagement – things haven’t changed have they?), and the oratorio The Triumph of Faith by August Ferdinand Haeser (subscription required) was given together with a miscellany of sacred works.

Ellis was clearly thrilled by the whole experience, adding a little note at the end saying:

“This Festival which I anticipated such pleasures in for so many months beforehand, has fully realised my expectations.”

Alexander John Ellis

No wonder he took such care of his programmes and I hope he went on to enjoy many more musical events. By all accounts he was something of a character in later life, as according to the Dictionary of National Biography “…he wore a greatcoat (except in summer) which he called Dreadnought. It contained twenty-eight pockets, into which he stuffed manuscripts and ‘articles for an emergency’. He carried with him a large bag containing a variety of tuning forks, together with two sets of nail scissors—one for each hand—a corkscrew, string, and a knife sharpener…”. Marvellous.


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