Anna Maria Barry, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic – Celebrating 175 Years of the Original Liverpool Sound

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the Liverpool Philharmonic: the UK’s oldest surviving professional symphony orchestra. The occasion has been marked with a major new exhibition in Liverpool, which I was recently able to visit during a research trip to the city. The exhibition traces the story of the Liverpool Philharmonic from its Victorian roots through to the present day. Documents on display give a fascinating insight into the world of nineteenth-century entertainment and celebrity culture.

The exhibition is situated in the Hornby Library, within Liverpool’s impressive Central Library. It is focussed around large display cases which contain an array of materials from the Philharmonic’s substantial arhive. This archive, held at the Central Library, has recently been catalogued with the help of a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. These archival materials, including minute books, programmes, photographs and news-clippings, map the development of the Philharmonic from its foundation in 1840.

The Hornby Library
The Hornby Library

In this, the same year that Samuel Cunard launched his fortnightly Atlantic crossing, the first meeting of the Liverpool Philharmonic was held at Mr. Lassell’s Salon in Great Richmond Street. The aim of the new organisation was to promote ‘the science and practice of music’ through a series of four concerts each year. Early programmes on display indicate that these were largely dominated by the music of Bishop, Rossini and Auber. The success of the early Philharmonic was such that it soon outgrew its venue and, in 1849, the first Philharmonic Hall was opened. For a fee of £105, a sum equivalent to £4,630. 50 today, Felix Mendelssohn agreed to compose and conduct a new work for the opening of the new Hall. Sadly he died before he was able to fulfil this engagement. This new Hall, however, provided the Victorian city with a new centre for cultural entertainment that was not limited to music; in 1852 the Hall expanded its activities to include theatrical entertainments and literary readings. Documents on display offer an insight into the workings of the venue, providing an insight into the celebrity culture of the period.

A watercolour of the Philharmonic Hall in 1852

A minute book from 1852, for example, documents the decision to offer opera star Pauline Viardot the considerable sum of 60 guineas for a performance. Other star performers at the Hall during this period included Jenny Lind and Clara Schumann. A visitor’s book on display features the autograph of Charles Dickens, who gave a series of his famous readings at the Hall in 1858. He appeared over four days, from the 18th – 21st of August, selling out the Hall at its full capacity of 2,300 people. Dickens cannily took the opportunity to sell his books at the readings, which featured ‘Dombey and Son’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ amongst others. In a letter to Forster, Dickens wrote of these appearances, ‘They turned away hundreds, sold all the books, rolled on the ground of my room knee-deep in cheques and made a perfect pantomime of the whole thing.’ Such was his popularity that Dickens returned a few months later for further readings. Thackeray also gave readings at the Hall, and his autograph is also on display.

Later in the Victorian period the Philharmonic continued to flourish, notably under the management of Charles Hallé; star singers including Nellie Melba and Clara Butt made regular appearances at the Hall. Items on display from this era offer further fascinating glimpses into the mechanics of the celebrity industry in the early twentieth century. Press cuttings on display from 1909, for example, document the opera star Luisa Tetrazzini’s legal battles with Oscar Hammerstein over a broken contact, while records from 1910 document  the Philharmonic’s difficult relationship with Edward Elgar and their failed efforts to secure his appearance at the Hall.

A particularly fascinating letter on display from the 1920s reveal the outrage caused when controversial birth-control campaigner Marie Stopes attempted to book the Philharmonic Hall for a public lecture. The letter reveals that the ‘Society for Constructive Birth Control’ so offended the Hall’s committee that they prevented tickets being sold.

To complement the display cabinets, interactive screens are positioned around the exhibition where visitors can listen to recordings and watch interviews with key figures from the Philharmonic’s recent history. Elvis Costello, for example, talks of his relationship with the Hall where his Mother once worked. A sole criticism I would make is that the layout of the exhibition was counter-intuitive; whilst a timeline detailing the history of the Liverpool and the Philharmonic ran around the room clockwise, the exhibition cases were also displayed in chronological order, but ran around the room anti-clockwise. I would prefer to have seen the exhibits displayed beneath the relevant section of the timeline.

This exhibition proves what my own research into nineteenth-century music has repeatedly confirmed; the richness of musical archives and the great insight they offer into Victorian culture. These archives so often reveal much about the cultural landscape of the nineteenth century and the worlds of literature, performance, politics and celebrity culture that musicians were so often inextricably connected with.

The exhibition runs until 31st July.


One comment

  1. The Liverpool Phil has been innovative in its time. In the early 1950s it ran a series of low-price Industrial Concerts aimed at groups from local companies. These were so popular that each concert was repeated on a number of occasions.
    In lighter vein, Fritz Spiegl’s April Fools concerts predated the more widely known Hoffnung concerts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *