Monday 4 January 2021

The pocket watch and the news periodical: how the public concert developed in 17th and 18th century London

Hanover Square Rooms
Hanover Square Rooms

In 1672 John Banister, a former violinist at the court of King Charles II, set up a concert room in his house and started giving what seem to be some of the first public concerts in Britain. Given that classical music has been part of Western European culture since the Middle Ages, it is perhaps surprising that that public concerts, something that we rather take for granted as an essential part of contemporary classical music, are such a relatively recent phenomenon.

Classical music at this period was very much in the hands of patrons, whether kings, princes or aristocrats, performances were often invitation events, whether they be a grand display as part of a prince's magnificence, or a simpler salon. To hold a public concert series, you need the confluence of at least four notable features  - sufficient musicians of a calibre that people might want to hear them, an audience interested and affluent enough to pay, a method of communicating to people the when, what and where of the concerts, and accurate enough timekeeping so that people can assemble at the correct time.

These latter two are necessary indeed. The fact that public concerts developed in London in the late 17th century is partly because the production of newspapers gave a means of advertising the concerts, and the increasing availability of pocket watches meant that people had a means of telling the time accurately enough. Portable watches developed considerably in the 17th century, intially as pendants and by the 1670s Charles II's introduction of the waistcoat into Britain is said to have led to men keeping watches in pockets. Whilst, regular news periodicals developed in late 17th century Britain partly because of changes to controls in the right to print, and the London Gazette (published from 1665) became the first official journal of record, thus offering regular place for advertising.

Of course, these contitions predispose that you have persons of a certain quality; early concerts were certainly not mass entertainment and the history of mass entertainment in classical music is an entirely different story.

That London satisfied my first two criteria is partly down to politics and partly to its size and its increasing commercial success.

Whilst the Restoration of King Charles II led to a resurgence in the musical arts in Britain, after the restrictions of the Commonwealth, the Restoration Stuart monarchy never had as much money as it desired, the King was always beholden to Parliament. This meant that there was no major financial support for the arts from the King, and the King's musical servants often had to supplement their income with more commercial enterprises. That is why Henry Purcell produced odes and welcome songs for the monarchs as well as the dazzling theatre music, it was the latter which paid!

The two subsequent political settlements, that of 1688 when William and Mary took the throne, and that of 1714, when the Hanover dynasty replaced the Stuarts, only served to emphasise Parliament's fiscal control. It also served the purposes of the Whig establishment which brought in the Hanoverian settlement, that the king did not live in great magnificence. In Hanover as Elector, George I had a theatre in the Electoral residence, the Leineschloss, but in London, there was no such thing. Though the Hanoverian kings did support the arts, there was never the large-scale Royal sponsorship that could happen in other countries. The rule of King Louis XIV and his successors in 18th century France relied on a high degree of magnificence, which included opera and concerts. In London, lacking this central emphasis people did things for themselves.

London was commercially booming, there was money around to be spent and a mercantile class led to the creation of an urban elite who seemed to either lack the wherewithal or the desire to create their own musical establishments. The Duke of Chandos in the 1710s was unusual in this respect in that he did keep a musical establishment, but few others followed him and so London's urban elite satisfied its musical desires in concerts in rooms above taverns, musical clubs and more. There seems to have been something of a musical culture in taverns during the mid-17th century; this is poorly documented, but undoubtedly this culture helped generate the lively musical atmosphere in London in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

It helped that from the 17th century the city was something of a magnet for Continental musicians and this increased during the 18th century. London became known as a place where musicians could come and make money. Part of this explosion was that without a dominant court or an opera house, London was more of a free for all. In Paris, for instance, Le Concert Spirituel (a particularly early concert series which ran from 1725 to 1790) was specifically designed to run during Easter and on religious holidays, when the opera and the theatres were closed.

Thomas Britton, the musical small coal man, by John Wollaston
Thomas Britton, the musical small coal man,
by John Wollaston
So all our criteria are filled, and when Mr Banister opens his concert room, he is able to give concerts. This would only be the beginning, in 1678 a group of professional musicians known as the Musical Meeting opened a concert room near Charing Cross and musicians such as Henry Purcell performed there. By 1700, quite a few musical societies arranged performances in the rooms of taverns, but the most intriguing was Thomas Britton, the coal merchant. Known as 'the musical small coal man', his concerts, all taking place in a cramped room above his coal warehouse, ran from 1678 to 1714 and attracted top-flight musicians including possibly Handel.

These would be quite small affairs, nothing like the modern concert halls, and there would be a sociable element too. In a way, the musical life of the period is rather like the vigorous gig culture in late 20th century London with major bands coming to prominence in gigs in small venues. And there was a strong admixture of amateur music-making, some of the musical clubs started as private diversions and then became more formalised. The more public events were often done as subscription concerts, and the subscription series is quite a dominant feature of the 18th-century concert culture. The pricing was often strategic, with the more high end being designed at a price which kept inferior people out!

This free-form gig culture lasted until the 1720s when more structured elements started to develop, musical societies were created such as the Castle Society, formed in 1720 by the composer Maurice Greene (it was so-named because in 1724 it started meeting at the Castle Tavern) which was very much about gentleman amateurs who rehearsed and performed, but both it and other such societies included professional musicians amongst its members, blurring the boundaries. The benevolent Society of Musicians was formed in 1738, and a regular subscription series started at Hickford's Room. Hickford's Room was re-built in 1714 but we know little of the details of the concert series. In the 1730s Handel developed his Lenten oratorio season almost by accident (he was forbidden to stage his oratorio Esther), but this became a regular fixture up to Handel's death in 1759 and after, with the events combining oratorio performance with other instrumental items such as Handel's organ concertos and concerti grossi.

So, during the 18th century, London developed a concert hall culture, but much of it was rather ad hoc until the 1760s when a society hostess, Teresa Cornelys (a former singer) created a concert series initially at her home in Soho Square. In 1765, she engaged Johann Christian. Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel, whose annual series up until 1781 formed the first regular subscription concerts in London. After three seasons the composers themselves took over the management, transferring the concerts in 1775 to their new purpose-built Hanover Square Rooms. But from the outset, these concerts were specifically designed to be exclusive, not only expensive but potential audience members had to undergo a social screening! Even at Hanover Square, the atmosphere was more of a drawing-room, a prestigious entertainment with first-class performers making it attractive to the fashionable elite.

But for much of the century, another dominant element was the pleasure garden. Given that varied nature of English weather, the very idea of these seems odd, but Vauxhall Gardens, Ranelagh Gardens and many others were major elements in the capital's musical and leisure culture. The events at Vauxhall attracted major performers and musicians such as Handel wrote music for performance there. 

The concert at Vauxhall - Thomas Rowlandson 1779
The concert at Vauxhall - Thomas Rowlandson 1779

The proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens from 1729 was Jonathan Tyers, he very much created Vauxhall as a fashionable destination, and he was a great supporter of Handel and his music. Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks received a public dress rehearsal in Vauxhall Gardens in Apri 1749 and attracted a spectacular audience of around 12,000. The whole package was something different to today; at a pleasure garden, you could walk and talk, canoodle in an arbour, eat and drink, and hear first-class music performed by well known performers [Bridget Cunningham and her London Early Opera have been exploring the repertoire on a series of discs on Signum]. And it was all very democratic, anyone could go providing they were suitably dressed.

That is not to say that our 18th-century gig culture disappeared, Simon McVeigh's Calendar of London Concerts 1750-1800 lists over 4000 concerts, advertised in London daily newspapers from 1750 to 1800. These are subscription concerts, benefits, oratorio performances, meetings of musical societies, as well as the concerts at the principal pleasure gardens. That is around 80 concerts per year, which isn't bad for a city the size of London in the 18th century. (The population was around 630,000 in 1715, rising to 750,000 by 1750 and reaching a million by the end of the century.)

One of the musical high points happened in the 1790s thanks to Johann Peter Salomon, a German violinist, whose father was an oboist in the orchestra at the court in Bonn. Salomon's first public appearance in London was in 1783 and by the 1790s he ran the subscription concert series at the Hanover Square Rooms. It was Salmon who invited the composer Joseph Haydn, who made two extended visits to London. Salmon was also a founder of the Philharmonic Society, another important step on the codifying of musical culture in London.

As a result of his visits, Haydn created his twelve last symphonies and six quartets for Salomon, but there was creativity elsewhere too, thanks to the technological advances in John Broadwood's pianos there was a strong London piano school with composer-performers such as Muzio Clementi, Johann Baptist Cramer and Jan Ladislav Dussek.

Remarkable characters at Mrs Cornelys Masquerade - artist unknown (By permission of the National Portrait Gallery)
Remarkable characters at Mrs Cornelys' masquerade - artist unknown
(By permission of the National Portrait Gallery)

But London's concert life remained very much a mixture, whilst there were these formal public subscription series, there were still music societies meeting in taverns, and there was also plenty of music-making happening privately, from small-scale soirées featuring the finest performers of the day to the elaborate ode in Buckingham House gardens with which Queen Charlotte surprised George III in 1763. Again, we can detect modern parallels, so that a composer impresario like Handel would appear at a private soirée with one or two of his star singers to reward patrons of the opera or to tempt potential supporters and patrons. And, in fact, some performers such as the violinist Francesco Geminiani were positively reluctant to appear on the public stage and tried to restrict their career to private performances.

In this, we can see these very different forms of concert-going co-existing, the idea of a formal modern concert series with set performers, dates and programmes, and the private, exclusive patronage, along with what we might anachronistically call a lively programme of Fringe events. It was the interaction between these, that gave London's musical life something of its liveliness.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Researching the mathematics of emotions: composer Arash Safaian on his recent fantasy about Beethoven's music, This is (Not) Beethoven - interview
  • Berlioz and the creation of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice as a 19th century masterpiece - CD review
  • Awaiting re-discovery: Grétry's Richard Coeur-de-lion returning to Versailles for the first time since 1789 proves to be a work of charm and imagination - CD review
  • Irlandiani: Carina Drury's new disc explores the links between Italian composers in 18th century Dublin and Irish traditional music - CD review
  • Inviolata: lutenist Jacob Heringman returns to the fascinating genre of Josquin's sacred music intabulated for lute and for vihuela  - CD review
  • A thirty-year gap and clarinettist Ernst Ottensamer's last concerto recording: conductor Richard Stamp talks about the challenge and rewards of bringing his latest disc to fruition  - interview
  • Beethoven transformed: the second volume of Boxwood & Brass' series brings three bravura Harmoniemusik arrangements created in Beethoven's Vienna  - cd review
  • A sense of sharing material with each other: lutenist Ronn McFarlane and gambist Carolyn Surrick in Fermi's Paradox - CD review
  • Richness of invention in the contemplation of God in the beauties of nature: Iestyn Davies and Arcangelo in Handel's German Arias - concert review
  • Pagliacci: A powerful stripped back staging of the Verismo classic reveals the work's integral strengths  - opera review
  • Beethoven's Fidelio streamed from Opera North - opera review
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