The RPS at War 1914-1918

The first signs from the Society’s archive of the impact of the war concern what at any other time would have seemed minor matters. The autumn 1914 season began in a blaze of patriotic glory with the band of the Life Guards invited to play the national anthem. At the concert, on 3 November, they also played the fanfare Stanford had written for the coronation Durbar in Delhi. At one concert the following season, the same spirit may have led the soprano soloist to replace ‘Un bel di’ from Butterfly with Aida’s ‘Ritorna vincitor’.

Chappell’s, the lessees of the Queen’s Hall, forbade the use of particular makes of piano – and as a result, after that Chappell grands were used where needed at all concerts. A circular letter was sent out regretting that `in view of the Royal Proclamation’ foreign advertisers were to be excluded from the concert programmes. The music publishers Augener were deeply offended, submitted copy stressing their Britishness, and from 1915 their advertisement, as ‘the ALL-BRITISH edition’ appeared in every programme.

The Directors of the Society’s concerts of course resolved in October 1914 that no engagements should be made with ‘alien enemies’ for the duration. That phrase was used again when at the General Meeting of autumn 1915 it was decided to remove all enemy names from the list of Honorary Members printed in each concert programme. As well as Bruch, Richter, Richard Strauss and Nikisch (who had conducted a memorable Beethoven concert for the society in 1912), Czech names were also removed; when it was then resolved that ‘German’ names elsewhere should remain, this resulted in the anomaly of Jan Kubelik being removed from the list of Hon. Members but remaining in the list of recipients of the Society’s gold medal.

Subscription costs, the starting time of concerts, and above all, the payment and membership of the orchestra, were more serious matters. The initial decision to lower the cost of subscriptions from 30/- to 21/- was short lived, as was a proposal in 1915 to alter the time of concerts from 8 to 8.30pm in an attempt to encourage `Society folk’ to attend and so make up the fall in audience numbers caused by so many ‘professional subscribers’ being unable to afford to take up their usual subscriptions. In fact the concerts of the 1914-15 seasons started at 8pm., but thereafter, with darkened streets and the risk of air raids, 6 or 6.15pm. became the rule.

The decline in subscriptions was in part a product of the serious inflation of these years, and seasonal losses began to rise alarmingly. At a meeting in September 1914 the orchestral players agreed that if necessary they would accept 50% of their contracted fees. The following month it was reported that the organist had joined ‘Kitchiner’s army’; it was then resolved that the names of those ‘absent at the war’ should be put in the orchestra list - though it would seem from the programmes that this was not done, at least with any thoroughness. But the problem of players away in the forces remained throughout, and lasted even beyond the end of hostilities: one of the Society’s historians relates how Albert Sammons, who had shared the first desk of the first violins for the first two seasons of the war, was barely released in time to rehearse and give the first performance of the Delius violin concerto at the concert of 30 January 1919. The name of John Barbirolli first appeared among the cellos of the orchestra for the 1917/18 season, but by February 1918 a plea had to be sent to his commanding officer asking if `Mr T. Barbirolli’ could be released to play at the concerts – he was known as Tito, a shortening of his second name, and he appears in the orchestra lists as G. B., for Giovanni Battista, Barbirolli.

The Society began the war asserting the intention that concert arrangements already made should be `adhered to as much as possible’, but by early October Mengelberg, who had conducted five of the seven concerts the previous season, telegraphed to say that it would be wise to engage British conductors at least for the first two planned concerts. To the Society’s great advantage, at any rate in the short term, they turned to Thomas Beecham. At the end of the 1915-16 season, despite a record loss, with the help of a substantial contribution from Mr Beecham (as he still then was) it was possible to pay the orchestra 75% of their contract – 25% above the guaranteed minimum. After the close of that season the Society received a letter from his assistant to say that Beecham had too many other commitments to be able to continue to conduct for the Society. The immediate response was a resolution to suspend the concerts for a year; but Beecham’s letter has all the appearance of having been merely a stratagem aimed at complete control of the Society and its concerts. In October a prospectus was issued for a season of six concerts under ‘the general artistic direction’ of Sir Thomas Beecham and by the time the season opened Beecham had become the first of the Directors and his assistant Donald Baylis had taken over as Hon. Secretary.

This arrangement remained in place to the end of the 1917-18 season, when the Society finally rebelled against the takeover. But the fact remains that without Beecham’s financial help the concerts would have been unable to continue – and indeed the Society had to rely on subsidies from Balfour Gardner to continue thereafter.

During the war years Beecham left his unmistakable mark on the repertory. Debussy and Stravinsky were at last featured, alongside his favourite Mozart works. In the first wartime season he paid for the Halle choir to be brought to London to sing in Berlioz’s Te Deum, and programmed the first Philharmonic performance of the Symphonie Fantastique. Nor did Germanic music besides Mozart entirely disappear. Myra Hess played Schumann’s piano concerto, Bach pieces were performed; it is difficult to imagine the Philharmonic going for long without a performance of Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides’ Overture, and it began the concert of 15 April 1918. There was a somewhat contentious performance of Wagner’s overture to Die Meistersinger – programmed under its English title – in 1916. But although Beethoven had always been the Society’s core composer, only the `Eroica’ was given, in a single performance, during the entire period of the war; an insert in the programme for the February 1916 concert reveals that a performance of the Ninth Symphony, the Society’s ‘own’ work, had been scheduled for the last concert of the season, in March, but would not take place due to the obstacles to assembling a chorus at a time of ‘difficulties of transport and the abandonment of railway concessions’. It was replaced with a programme much more to Beecham’s taste.

In the early years of the century music by British composers was already beginning to play a larger part in the programmes, and the process of expanding this repertory continued during the war, both under Beecham’s baton, and at a remarkable concert on 18 March 1915, when Parry and Elgar conducted their own works, and Percy Pitt began the evening by leading a performance of Vaughan Williams’s overture The Wasps. This marked a long and fruitful association between the Society and Vaughan Williams which ended only with the premiere of his Ninth Symphony in 1958, the year of his death. Cyril Scott, Balfour Gardner and Edward German were among those to receive first performances at the concerts.

The reliance on Beecham saved the concerts. As well as underwriting every season, he conducted all but five of the Society’s wartime concerts; despite his ousting in 1918, he was to rally to the cause twice more in the Society’s history. But the problems he so much helped to surmount, underlined the difficulty of financing the Society’s short seasons with its specially assembled orchestra, a difficulty which was only to increase as the century wore on. Perhaps the most creditable aspects of the record are that the concert tradition remained unbroken, and that, in Cyril Ehrlich’s words, `the society’s concessions to xenophobia were mild by the standards of the day’.

Arthur Searle
RPS Honorary Librarian (1983-2019)

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