A Cambridge Guildhall medley

Our collections of concert programmes here at the University Library include about one hundred for events which took place at the Guildhall in Cambridge between 1878 and 1980. Whilst they in no way give a full picture of the musical activity which took place there, they do, nonetheless, offer a tantalising glimpse of the rich variety of music-making on offer.

Handbill for Dvorak's 1891 Guildhall concert

Handbill for Dvorak’s 1891 Guildhall concert

In 1878 the Guildhall was not the building we know today: its roots can be traced way back to 1224 when Henry II granted the burgesses of Cambridge possession of a house on the site for use as a town jail. Slowly but surely, over the ensuing centuries, the site developed with a Shire House  built on the site in the eighteenth century and then, when a new Shire Hall was built on Castle Hill in the 1840’s, the site was further developed with a new hall and library opening in 1862. Finally in 1939 the building we know today, designed by Charles Cowles-Voysey, was completed.

But what of the concerts? They come in all shapes and sizes: choral, orchestral, recitals and chamber music presenting musicians of impeccable international reputation such as the Amadeus Quartet, Clara Butt, Alfred Cortot, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Nikita Magaloff, The Paganini Quartet, Josef Szigeti, and Jennifer Vyvyan. There are also five programmes for Dr. Mann’s Festival Choir, the pre-cursor of what is now the Cambridge Philharmonic Society.

Here are a few of my personal favourites:

An International Celebrity Subscription Concert series programme from agents Lionel Powell and Holt

An International Celebrity Subscription Concert series programme from agents Lionel Powell and Holt

A little blue handbill announces that on Monday June 15th 1891 Dvořák will conduct a concert of his own music, which included his eighth Symphony in G major and the Stabat Mater. Dvořák, to his great excitement, was in Cambridge to receive an honorary doctorate from the University and agreed to give this concert with CUMS. Stanford, then Professor of Music, had to work hard to reassure Dvořák that it would be alright for him to visit England and that he was safe from the bout of ‘flu which had been sweeping the country. The programme proper is housed in the CUMS archives, also here at the Library.

During the 1920s Cambridge was one of the venues for the International Celebrity Subscription Concerts promoted by the concert agents Lionel Powell & Holt. The list of artists is stellar: Jan Kubelik, Kreisler, and Vladmir de Pachmann are just a few of them. What is just as impressive are the splendid designs for the programme covers by Henry Holiday such as the one for Clara Butt’s concert above.

Chelsea Opera Group performance of Mozart's Magoc Flute.

Chelsea Opera Group performance of Mozart’s Magoc Flute.

The War years were also rich musically as many bands moved out of London for the duration. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, for example, was based in Bedford from 1941 and under its conductor Sir Adrian Boult, became regular visitors to the Guildhall as did the Boyd Neel Orchestra. Unlike the Powell and Holt programme designs however, these are no-nonsense down-to-business affairs presenting good solid musical fare.

From the late 1950s, the Guildhall became the Cambridge venue of choice for Chelsea Opera Group productions and we have programmes for those, including the – now legendary – Mozart and Berlioz performances conducted by the late, much-missed Colin Davis.

Nowadays, concerts no longer take place in the Guildhall as the focus of activity has transferred to the Concert Hall in West Road and the Corn Exchange.


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