Michael Kennedy

Legacy of an Eminent Victorian

‘Mr Hallé’s Band’ began giving concerts 150 years ago. Michael Kennedy on the great orchestra

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‘Mr Hallé’s Band’ began giving concerts 150 years ago. Michael Kennedy on the great orchestra

On the wet evening of 30 January 1858 in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, which had been opened only two years previously, the 38-year-old Charles Hallé launched his privately funded series of orchestral concerts. On the same date next week, 150 years later, the orchestra still bearing its founder’s name will celebrate the anniversary with a programme introduced by Dame Janet Baker. In a century and a half it has had only ten chief conductors. The tenth, Mark Elder, will be on the rostrum.

Carl Halle, as he was born, with no acute accent, was German and trained as a pianist although he conducted several operas in his home town of Hagen when he was 11. He went to Paris in 1836 and became a friend of Berlioz, Chopin, Liszt and the penniless Wagner. He gave recitals in fashionable salons, introduced Beethoven sonatas to the French and founded a series of chamber concerts. In 1848 the revolution drove him and his family to London where he found too many illustrious pianists chasing too few jobs. A Manchester businessman who had heard Hallé in Paris invited him to settle in Cottonopolis and take its music in hand. He taught himself English, took piano pupils, founded a chamber concerts society and became conductor of the quaintly named Gentlemen’s Concerts. He transformed the orchestra’s playing and in 1857 was allowed to enlarge it to 60 players to give concerts during the six-month Art Treasures Exhibition. The prospect of returning to normal when it was over depressed him and, with help from enlightened Manchester businessmen, he founded his own concerts. Thus began ‘Mr Hallé’s Band’, which gave a winter series in Manchester and visited concert halls from Bristol to Edinburgh, establishing the orchestra’s peripatetic lifestyle which continues today. For the next 37 years he conducted nearly every concert himself, played a concerto at most of them, founded a chorus, instituted cheap seats, introduced new works, championed Berlioz, taught the royal children, gave solo piano recitals regularly in London and in 1893 founded and became first principal of the Royal Manchester College of Music. He was truly an Eminent Victorian, a great educator, but what would happen after his death in 1895?

The three businessmen who founded the Hallé Concerts Society to preserve the concerts were determined to engage only the best. It took four years to prise the Austro–Hungarian Hans Richter from the Vienna Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra to settle in the Cheshire suburb of Bowdon. Permanent conductor in those days meant just that, not coming along for six concerts a season. Richter stayed from 1899 to 1911, bringing Elgar, Strauss, Bruckner, Bartók and Sibelius into the programmes. But towards the end of his tenure he encountered anti-German feeling in some quarters and criticism of his programmes — no Delius, no Stravinsky, no Debussy (‘Dere ees no French music,’ he said) — and there was a demonstration against him at a concert. Blaming eyesight, he retired to Bayreuth and was succeeded by another Bayreuth man, Michael Balling, the first to conduct Mahler in Manchester and the first to suggest (vainly) that the city should give financial support. The outbreak of war was the end of him and Beecham, Henry Wood and Elgar kept the flag flying. With the orchestra at a low ebb in 1920, the Ulsterman Hamilton Harty was appointed and for the next 13 years lifted it back into the top rank. Mercurial, witty and a superb conductor, he was responsible for the orchestra’s first recordings and broadcasts. Like Hallé and Richter, he attracted international soloists and recruited excellent players, who adored him. He left under a still unexplained cloud and there was no successor for six years. Beecham, Wood and Malcolm Sargent shared the brunt of work, but the committee would not risk appointing Beecham, for all his popularity. This was another critical time in the orchestra’s existence and it survived by sharing about 25 players with the BBC Northern Orchestra. In 1939 Sargent became conductor-in-chief.

War brought a boom in the public’s appetite for the arts and the Hallé found that its link with the BBC was causing it to miss engagements. It was decided to offer a 52-week contract and to appoint a new conductor, Sargent having decamped to Liverpool. The committee was sure the BBC players would stay with the Hallé but only four did, and when the new man, John Barbirolli, arrived from New York he was told he had four weeks to recruit nearly half an orchestra before a week of concerts in Bradford. (‘It was nearly fraudulent,’ he told me later.) But miraculously he did it (the orchestra had no home in the city until 1951, when the bombed Free Trade Hall was rebuilt, and played in cinemas and a circus ring) and so began 27 years during which he took the orchestra to new heights of achievement, took it abroad and made it his own. All attempts to lure him away failed, even though he was constantly engaged in a running battle over subsidies with the city council. This did not prevent his becoming a Freeman of the city. He and Matt Busby were the idols of Manchester. It was a golden age, but there were sticky passages too, now forgotten. When he died in 1970, he was regarded as irreplaceable. James Loughran, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Kent Nagano all did sterling work in different ways, but somehow the shadow of Barbirolli hung, however unfairly, over the concerts and the Hallé could find no one as charismatic as Simon Rattle in Birmingham.

In 1996 the orchestra entered a magnificent new home, the Bridgewater Hall, but the BBC Philharmonic had become the city’s leading orchestra. In 1998 the Hallé narrowly avoided bankruptcy and extinction. Two years later, with a new management, a new outlook and a new conductor, the 1943 miracle was virtually re-enacted. Mark Elder, not well known in Manchester then, revivified orchestra and programmes and the Hallé was soon being acclaimed, even by London critics, as the best in the country. The audience took Elder to their hearts as they had Barbirolli. It is now Elder’s Hallé as much as it was Hallé’s, Harty’s and J.B.’s. I have been listening to the Hallé for nearly 70 years as subscriber, critic and historian and I rejoice in the Elder ascendancy. Happy 150th — and Hallé-lujah!