The Black Bear at Senate House

The Black Bear Inn, Market Street. Demolished in 1848

As avid readers of this blog will remember, the Black Bear Inn here in Cambridge was notable for its concerts held from the 1770’s to the 1800’s under the auspices of its Music Club. Sadly, like so many of the fascinating old inns of this City, it no longer exists, but its footprint is still discernible. It stood on the corner of Market Hill and Sidney Street, opposite Holy Trinity Church and what is now Market Passage marks its yard. On its first floor was a large assembly room which was used for meetings, auctions and other public gatherings as well as concerts of the Music Club. We are very lucky here at the UL to have a volume of programmes for those between 1789 and 1809, acquired in April 1920 for one guinea (Cam.a.789.1). But, here’s a conundrum: what is the Black Bear Music Club doing giving a concert in Senate House? Read on to see whether we can unravel this little mystery…

Senate House, designed in the neo-Classical style by the architect James Gibb, was built during the 1720s and sits at the heart of Cambridge next to the Old Schools and opposite Great St. Mary’s the University Church, with Gonville and Caius College to the north and King’s Chapel to the south.  It is the centre of governance of the University, where its Regent House (the name given to that governing body) meets and where graduation ceremonies (or Congregations) are held throughout the year. Pevsner in the Cambridgeshire volume of his monumental “Buildings of England” describes Senate House thus: “a most elegant blend of English Wren tradition with new Palladianism (alternating window pediments) and with what Gibbs in his youth had seen in the Rome of about 1700….”. But what fun: this elegant building of Portland Stone sits on the site of no fewer than three inns or taverns – the Green Dragon, the New Inn and the Devil’s Tavern. This last, is probably the place from where the first coach service between Cambridge and London operated way back in 1653 – the vehicle had room for eight inside and four outside in a kind of giant basket on the back and the fare was about 10 shillings – about £50 today – for inside passengers).

Senate House in 1847 at the installation of Prince Albert as Chancellor

This engraving of Senate House shows an impression of the 1847 election of Prince Albert, the Prince Consort as the Chancellor (during Black Bear times, it would have been Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rdDuke of Grafton).

It is an atmospheric venue as a performance space (I speak from personal experience as in my undergraduate days it was where Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra gave many of their concerts) although the wooden benches don’t offer wildly comfortable seating for the audience. However, I suspect that would not have deterred our Black Bear Music Club friends who were not, perhaps, the sybarites we are today expecting ‘tout confort’ upholstery and arm rests.

Programme for the concert from the UL’s volume

The concert, given on 15thMarch 1803, was billed as a benefit night for John Scarborough, the concerts’ organiser and principal violinist, and presented extracts from Messiah and Israel in Egypt. But why Senate House? I offer four possible reasons:

  • The Black Bear was not really a suitable environment for sacred music
  • Senate House was a grander, more appropriate place
  • Senate House would accommodate many more people and thus boost Scarborough’s benefit income
  • The larger space would also allow more players and singers – especially for the Halleluja chorus!

And if any of our readers have other suggestions, then we’d be delighted to hear from you.

And what of the programme? It began with the Symphony and the first three numbers from Messiah with Mr. Adcock (a regular soloist at the Club) giving “Comfort ye, my people” and “Ev’ry Valley” leading to the chorus “And the glory”. Would the Club have taken advantage of the larger space to offer a decent size chorus I wonder rather than relying on their regular soloists to band together? Who knows, but it must surely have been tempting. And as an aside, I see the UL has an array of 19thcentury arrangements of extracts from this most popular of works, with choruses adapted for piano duet a favourite, including six prepared by Czerny published in 1837 (MR330.a.80.6).

Part two of this three-tier concert started with a Corelli concerto (I assume one of his concerti grossi), helpfully numbered as the 8th– might this have been Op. 6 no. 8 the ever-popular “Christmas” concerto? Trouble is, Corelli seemed to compose quite a bit in batches of 12 and there are also his opp. 1 – 5 to choose from each containing 12 concerti di Chiesa or da Camera. Your guess is as good as mine! The UL has an early edition of Op. 6 published by John Walsh in around 1735 (MR320.a.70.27) who was also Handel’s publisher.

Corelli Concerti Grossi Op.6 published by John Walsh [1725] 

Next were two numbers from Part I of Handel’s 1738 oratorio Israel in Egypt: the quartet “When the ear heard him” and the chorus “He delivered the poor that cried…”. Handel was composing at break-neck pace at the time, starting on 1 October 1738 just five days after he had completed his oratorio Saul and finishing a mere month later. Whilst the work wasn’t a huge success in Handel’s day, it is a popular piece today particularly with choral societies because of its large number of choruses and for the fun Handel had in depicting the plagues of Egypt. Sadly, the programme remains silent as far as the names of the four soloists are concerned.

Handel Concerti Grossi Op. 6 1739 title page.

Following a second interval, the final section of the concert began with a Handel Concerto Grosso. At least, I’m assuming that’s what is was “Grand concerto” perhaps loosely translates thus. But if it was, whether it was Handel’s op. 3 or op. 6 we can only guess – mine is for Op. 6. Once again it was John Walsh who published Op. 6 in 1739. Op. 3, published in 1734, was actually an illicit bringing together by Walsh of six concerti by Handel, dubbed by Walsh as Op. 3, rather than Handel consciously putting together a group. It is thought that Handel was not amused by this pre-emptive and commercially-driven sleight of hand by his publisher and took care to oversee work to bring out his Op. 6 in a proper manner!

And the concert ends with two more extracts from Messiah: the tenor recitative and aria from Part 2 “He was cut out of the land of the living” and “But thou dids’t not leave His soul in Hell”, followed by – what else – the “Hallelujah” Chorus as a splendid finale. Master Bennett was the soloist this time and then, no doubt, le tout ensemble gave their heartiest all to bring the concert to an uplifting close. One imagines the audience and performers spilling out into a chilly spring evening in Cambridge and hurrying the short distance down to the Black Bear for something to warm the heart before heading off home. And I hope John Scarborough benefitted mightily from his evening.

And as a final flourish, here is the Royal Choral Society in full voice…Handel would have loved it!



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1 Response to The Black Bear at Senate House

  1. Thanks, Susi, fascinating piece, and really uplifting performance on a rather dreary morning!


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