Leanne Langley: A Place for Music

John Nash, Regent Street and the Founding of the Royal Philharmonic Society

Extract from a talk given by Dr Leanne Langley to RPS Members at The Royal Institution on Wednesday 19 January 2005

“The traditional founding narrative of the Royal Philharmonic Society is only a fraction of the real story, the tip of an iceberg. ... In the beginning, the Society was not just about concerts, or even about great orchestral music.  The founding in early 1813 was in fact the first step of a longer strategic plan to build a purpose-designed centre for music in London - within the heart of a new and improved, picturesque and efficient West End envisioned by John Nash and the Prince Regent in 1811. ...  Besides an orchestra, the Society also planned an academy, a music library, an instrument retailing shop and a music printing and publishing business. ...

    The sweep and inventiveness of Nash’s whole idea for Regent’s Park and Regent Street was unparalleled in London as a piece of town-planning. ... His networking method to get the street built required constant improvisation, energy, imagination, flexibility. ... To be sure, all the musical strands were in place before 1813; Nash could not have conjured a ‘Philharmonic Society’ from nothing. ... Prestige, good odds on a speculative property investment, and a future for several musical enterprises would have been part of the attraction for everyone, uniting former rivals in a common goal. ... Beneath the surface of calm politeness, we can detect more clearly than before the modernity and shrewdness of English music professionals at this date, seizing a chance to work collectively for their own career advancement in a commercial environment, putting forward a coherent identity, and recognizing the need to bring along the public in stages.  Yet with hindsight we can also see the seeds of impending difficulty ...  The fire of 1830 was merely the final blow in a string of disasters.  With so many contingencies in the background, it now seems a minor miracle that any new public rooms got built and the concerts continued all along at such a high level. ...

  At the very least, it’s clear the founding was a highly coordinated, carefully orchestrated affair, absolutely in step with the birth of Nash’s New Street; and moreover, that several ideas and many functions emerged in the earliest years, all of them meant to build and support a richer cultural life.  In that sense, John Nash seems to me a central, unacknowledged enabler of new music in Britain - every bit as important as any composer, patron, publisher, player, conductor or educator you care to name, past or present. ...  We need to put Nash back in the frame, for it was he who really forged a place for music at the centre of British culture and society in the early 19th century. ...

  By embedding ‘1813’ in your new logo, and giving a modern edge to ‘creating a future for music’, I believe you’re capturing - re-capturing - more of the founders’ original intent than perhaps you knew.  They surely would have been astonished and proud to see where the events of 1813 have led.”       

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Placido Domingo, world renowned tenor and conductor. RPS Gold Medal Member and Patron of the Susan Chilcott Scholarship.

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