This is the post that should have come along before Treasure Grove and Wot no ice cream?. Why? Because St. James’s Hall is the venue where these concerts all took place. We have a small, but fascinating collection of about 250 programmes spanning 1867 – 1904 for the Hall from Hans Richter’s orchestral concerts, to the Monday and Saturday Popular concerts of chamber music together with a pot-pourri of others suitable for all days of the week.
The Hall stood on Piccadilly where the Piccadilly hotel now stands. Opened in 1858, it remained the main concert venue in central London for fifty years, until the Queen’s Hall took over and it was demolished in 1905 to make way for the hotel. Financed by the music publisher Tom Chappell, the intention was to capitalise on the growing audience for classical music which the Crystal Palace attracted. Its main hall held about 2,000 people and it also had two smaller halls. Designed by Owen Jones, the interior was in his favoured Moorish Alhambra style.
“Sofa seats 7/6d”: those were the days…can you imagine sinking into a sofa at the Wigmore or collapsing onto a chesterfield at the Barbican? Actually, the St. James’s Hall sofas weren’t at all comfortable according to Sir George Henschel, a leading tenor and conductor of the time “dear old, uncomfortable, long, narrow, green-upholstered benches with the numbers of the seats tied over the straight backs with bright pink tape, like office files.” [H. Henschel, When Soft Voices Die. Methuen, London, 1949].
The roll-call of top-notch musicians who appeared there is hugely impressive: from Paderewski and Liszt, to the much-loved Joseph Joachim (how I would have loved to have heard him play the Chaconne from Bach’s D minor Partitia for solo violin – I could only ever manage the Allemande) and his quartet, pianist Charles Hallé and his wife the eminent violinst Wilma Norman Neruda leading her regular quartet of Louis Ries, Ludwig Straus and Alfredo Piatti at the Monday Pops chamber concerts. The Hall was also, of course, home to the Philharmonic Society after it moved from the Hanover Square Rooms in 1869 until 1893, and for Hans Richter‘s London Symphony Concerts (not to be confused with the LSO we know and love today which was founded in 1904, with , confusingly, Hans Richter at the helm).
The artist Charles Ricketts remembers one particular occasion which, for me, encapsualtes the central role in London’s musical life that the Hall played:
“Something vanished from the artistic life of London when St. James’s Hall was pulled down. Not only do I associate Wagner and Brahms with its cheap, uncomfortable gallery, but also the hearing of Richter, Joachim, and Grieg accompanying his wife…I have kept till now one of my most cherished and sentimental recollections of the place. The reader must imagine an audience, unlike any of to-day, with a large percentage of quite elderly people, women of a grave and refined type, who might have been relatives of Florence Nightingale…there was a perceptible hush, then a ruffle of applause, when a little elderly woman appeared on the platform. She was trimly dressed in modest nut-brown silk, her grey hair crowned with lace and a velvet bow; her deportment was at once dignified and restrained, her bow that of a princess…She played the Waldstein Sonata with delicate precision and an air of detachment…She then played Schumann’s ‘Arabesque’ rapidly, fluently, with a tender and ardent sense of beauty…After the ovation she bowed like a queen. The player was Clara Schumann.” [Charles Ricketts, Self-Portrait (p.8)]
But we mustn’t forget the other main attraction at the Hall: the Christy Minstrels whose “black face” entertainments went on in one of the smaller halls downstairs, often in direct competition to the “serious” stuff going on upstairs in the main hall (and even attracting the great George Henschel’s wife and daughter to go and listen to them instead of to Joachim’s quartet!).
Let’s leave the last word to Henschel’s daughter Helen, who wrote in her biography of her father When soft voices die “Those who ever heard music in the St’ James’s Hall will always mourn its loss…I wonder if it can be entirely imagination that endows it with a unique atmosphere of intimacy and charm, a warmth of welcome to those who came there to make music and to listen to it.”