Fifty gradations of tone: concert life at St. James’s Hall

In amongst the runs of programmes for Monday and Saturday Popular concerts and the Richter concerts at St. James’s Hall, the University Library also has a box of some fifty miscellaneous programmes for concerts between 1876 and 1901. They are fascinating in that they give us a tantalising glimpse into the variety of music-making which took place there and I thought it might be fun to take a closer look and to share a few of my favourites.

Philharmonic Society concert 1876

Philharmonic Society concert 1876

Our story begins on Monday 1st May 1876 with a programme for the Philharmonic Society (not Royal, of course, until 1912). Intriguingly, the concert opens with the Overture to Anacreon by Cherubini – the work which also opened the very first Society concert back in 1813, which, says George MacFarren in his admirable programme note “May be taken as evidence of the great esteem in which the music was held at the time…”.

Five years later, on June 11th 1881, we have a programme for one of Wilhelm Ganz’s orchestral concerts. A scion of the Ganz family of musicians, Wilhelm had played as second violin in the New Philharmonic Society orchestra including those concerts given under Berlioz’s direction – what memories those concerts must have generated. His orchestra was, in fact, the New Philharmonic Society orchestra which he re-named for this purpose in about 1880 upon Henry Wylde’s resignation as conductor. Looking at the orchestra list, it is clearly a family affair as we find one H. Ganz in the cellos and C. Ganz responsible for the triangle. We are treated to Gluck’s Orfeo (Berlioz would have been proud) and in the second half Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, a selection of songs performed by Eveline Syrvid and the overture to Le Domino Noir by Auber (plenty to keep the triangle player busy there). This must, surely win the prize for sheer eccentricity in programming.

Wieniawski recital 1891

Wieniawski recital 1891

Then in amongst what must have been breath-taking-but-lengthy recitals by Rubinstein, Wieniawski and Paderewski presenting a cornucopia of show-pieces, a series of orchestral concerts conducted by George Henschel, a couple of chamber concerts led by Donald Tovey , complete of course with his inimitable programme notes, we come to a handbill for a series of concerts to be given by the Meiningen Orchestra under Fritz Steinbach. This was the first visit of this 300 year old band to England which, at the time, had developed a close association with Brahms and boasted Richard Mühlfeld (for whom Brahms wrote his quintet) as their principal clarinet. The Musical Times review (Vol. 43 no. 718, 1. Dec 1902) is suitably complimentary: “the four Brahms Symphonies at these concerts were rendered with such life and impulse, with such a spirit of romance, that one felt their power in quite unaccustomed degree; the conductor seemed to be re-creating rather than giving a rendering of the music. The orchestra consists of a fine body of players, especially as regards the wood-wind, in which department the tone and phrasing were exceptionally fine.”

[Breaking news: we have now found the actual programmes for these concerts, lurking in another box of miscellaneous items]

Meinigen Orchestra season at the Hall

Meinigen Orchestra season at the Hall

Finally, it is impossible to write about St. James’s Hall without mentioning Joseph Joachim, one of the greatest of all violinists. Almost part of the furniture, he not only appeared regularly at the Monday and/or Saturday concerts but also with his own quartet, giving six or seven concerts across the season – to have been in the audience to hear their late Beethoven quartet performances would have been an experience to treasure.

So many fascinating avenues to explore in our St. James’s Hall collection: watch out for more…

SW

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