This marriage of the past and present encapsulates the work of 21st century Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS). While perhaps historically best known for commissioning Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, today the RPS’s mission is to create a future for music and it is building up a membership of supporters – both professional musicians and music lovers alike - who share its priorities. The Society’s activities have developed from simply promoting a London concert series, to a wide-ranging national programme of opportunities for young performers and composers, discussion and debate on the issues confronting classical music today, and the exploration of ways to engage and inform new audiences.
To understand how the Society has made this fascinating (but not always straightforward) journey we need to look back to the London of 1813. In the city where Handel, Boyce, Purcell and Haydn had flourished there was certainly no lack of talent: revolution had driven many fine continental instrumentalists to London, and there were plenty of native musicians too but, extraordinary as it may seem now, there was no permanent symphony orchestra. So, on 24 January 1813, a group of them met together to form a collective of musicians and music-lovers that would come to play a pivotal role in the musical life of this country.
The aims of the fledgling Philharmonic Society were ‘to promote the performance, in the most perfect manner possible, of the best and most approved instrumental music’ and to ‘encourage an appreciation by the public in the art of music’. This was at a time when most concerts consisted of a hotch potch of vocal tit-bits and virtuoso show pieces. The Philharmonic Society was determined to make a case for serious symphonic and chamber music, ‘that species of music which called forth the efforts and displayed the genius of the greatest masters.’ And these ‘masters’ were the living European composers of the time, Beethoven, Cherubini and Carl Maria von Weber.
The Society lost no time in forming associations with such composers. As early as 1815 Cherubini was invited to conduct his new symphony and overture, commissioned by the Society. Four of Beethoven’s symphonies were performed in the Society’s first season, and the British premiere of his Fifth Symphony was given by its orchestra in 1816, the Seventh in 1817 and his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1820. In 1822 the Society paid him £50 to commission a new symphony. After seven years the investment paid off with the delivery of the radical score of the 9th Symphony.
The Philharmonic Society not only reinvigorated British musical life by inviting foreign composers to London to conduct their works and to honour them (Carl Maria von Weber was made the first Honorary Member of the Society in 1826) but it represented a new spirit of egalitarianism, attracting an audience unified in ‘one great object: the love of their art.’ It was noted by the press that this commitment made them an impressive audience: ‘silence and attention are preserved during the whole performance’, an uncommon phenomenon at the time.
The 1830s were marked by the Philharmonic Society’s happy association with Felix Mendelssohn, which began when he conducted his Symphony No. 1 in 1829 and led to the British premiere of his ‘Hebrides’ Overture, and to several commissions including the ‘Italian’ Symphony. Mendelssohn was also responsible for introducing fine musicians such as Joseph Joachim and for conducting the early ‘Royal Command’ performances to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
In the mid-19th century conductor Michael Costa did much to modernise the Society’s orchestra, asserting authority over the leader and creating a more homogenous sound. When Costa retired, Richard Wagner stepped in for one remarkable season: his dramatic ritardandi and long, malleable musical lines alarmed critics, but many recognised they had glimpsed the future in his masterly performance of Beethoven’s final symphony.
Without the Philharmonic Society, it is unlikely the stream of legendary soloists and composers would have been visiting Britain regularly in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries: Clara Schumann made her debut in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, and Rubinstein thrilled and terrified audiences with his sheer volume. Violinist Pablo Sarasate and pianist Hans von Bülow caused a sensation on their visits, as did the young Pablo Casals. One composer who became closely associated with the Society was Antonín Dvorák, who introduced his Symphony No. 6 in 1884, conducted the premiere of his seventh the following year, his Violin Concerto in 1886 and the ‘rich treasure’ of his Cello Concerto in 1896. From 1893 right up until 1941 the new Queen’s Hall became the home of Philharmonic Society concerts, with both Grieg and Saint-Saëns invited to conduct there within months of the hall’s opening and among the many, many distinguished soloists Adelina Patti, Clara Butt, Paderewski, Rachmaninov, Pablo Casals and Fritz Kreisler, all of whom were awarded the Gold Medal.
The Society took on the ‘Royal’ title to mark its centenary in 1912, but as the classical music world became more and more professionalized, it found it increasingly hard to compete with the plethora of successful orchestras and agents negotiating escalating fees for international artists. The young Sir Thomas Beecham threw them a life-line when he took over in 1914, using his theatrical brilliance and his own money to see the RPS through the difficult war years. A succession of distinguished conductors and significant premieres ensued, but the Society needed to rethink its role. When Beecham formed the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1932, it became the performing body for the Society which continued to promote an annual concert series right in to the 1980s. (Incidentally Beecham also created a ‘glorious confusion’ after the War, by setting up the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which performed, but not exclusively, for the RPS.)
By the time Tony Fell, formerly Managing Director of Boosey & Hawkes, took on the Chairmanship in 1997, a radical rethink was overdue. Together with the newly appointed administrator, Rosemary Johnson, the Society was reinvented as a unique organisation at the heart of British musical life, bringing together a membership of both music professionals and music lovers, to ensure excellence, creativity and understanding across the classical music world. This revival was made possible by the sale of the RPS’s rich archive of letters and manuscripts to the British Library in 2002, which provided the RPS with the stable financial foundation it had lacked throughout its history.
It seems that cultural thought has come full circle since the founding members set out their ambitions for the Philharmonic. As Sir Brian McMaster, former Artistic Director of the Edinburgh Festival, says in his recent report on the arts to the government: ‘The time has come to reclaim the word ‘excellence’ from its historic and elitist context, and to accept that the highest quality and the broadest audience can go hand-in-hand. The very best art and culture can change people’s lives, and everyone – regardless of their background or where they live – deserves the chance to experience the very best.’
These words resonate with Rosemary Johnson who urges anyone who feels that music is essential to their lives to join the RPS. ‘Everything comes back in the end to the enthusiasm, expertise and support of our members – without their input and support the RPS would not have the impetus to carry on. We are a small charity with a big heart, we don’t receive any public funding but without a doubt we make a significant impact on the cultural life of this country.’