The Proms season has begun, which means there’s just one place to place to be for a summer of classical music in London. The Proms have been held at the Royal Albert Hall since WWII (they were first held at the Queen’s Hall – more later). There are over 70 concerts a year and there’s a big variety, which means there’s something for everyone. I’m not going to talk about the Proms itself but would definitely recommend visiting (of course I would) – take a look at the BBC Proms website for the programme and remember that no Prom is ever fully sold out in advance – there are over 1000 Promming tickets to every concert. You can find more details about how to Prom here. If you want to know more about attending the Last Night of the Proms, click here.
But what I really want to write about is the history of the RAH and some of the amazing history that has taken place there. Queen Victoria opened the hall in 1871, 10 years after the death of Prince Albert, the Hall’s namesake and dedicatee. You can spot little nods to her (borderline obsessive) devotion to him around the hall – such as little ‘A’s in the railings. The Hall is in an area of London often known as ‘Albertopolis’ – it’s just south of Hyde Park, the location of Albert’s Great Exhibition – which is also home to the Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum, Royal College of Music, and several other Victorian educational institutions. Just opposite the hall in Hyde Park is the Albert Memorial which Victoria built in his memory – it’s a handy place to sit and eat your sandwiches before a Prom.
There’s a luxurious bumper crop of historical figures who have stepped foot inside the hall. Here’s some of the notable classical music names:
- The Hall was home to a Richard Wagner festival in 1877, where the man himself conducted the first half of 8 concerts. “After his turn with the baton he handed it over to conductor Gerhard Richter and sat in a large arm chair on the corner of the stage for the rest of each concert.”
- In 1875, Giuseppi Verdi visited the hall with performances of his new Requiem as part of a tour. He conducted the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society in the British premiere of the work (the choir is now known as the Royal Choral Society).
- Edward Elgar appeared several times at the hall – including conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a Titanic Memorial Concert in May 1912.
- In 1911 Sergei Rachmaninoff performed a piano recital as part of a series of concerts in London.
- Composer and Sufragette Dame Ethel Smyth conducted a military band in a concert in 1922.
- In 1871, Camille Saint-Saens performed a series of organ recitals, as did Anton Bruckner (whose recitals included an improvisation on ‘God Save the Queen.’)
- Ralph Vaughan Williams conducted his own London Symphony here in 1955.
- Proms founder Sir Henry Wood conducted countless concerts
- The Proms has hosted dozens and dozens of starry names – Georg Solti, Pierre Boulez, Adrian Boult, Dame Joan Sutherland, Dietrich Fischer‐Dieskau, Jacqueline du Pré. Given that the Proms have been held at the hall for over 70 years I won’t list them all, but be safe in the knowledge that it’s quite a lot!
- The hall has held concerts and recitals with such stars as Luciano Pavarotti, Dame Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso.
- Billie Holiday sang at RAH in 1954.
- I took my mum to a Prom for the first time a couple of years ago, and it was the first time she’d been to the hall since seeing Marvin Gaye in the 1970s (so jealous!)
The Royal Albert Hall website runs an excellent blog about some of the historical moments that have happened there (and current ones too!), and there’s a truly excellent and fun Sgt.-Pepper-style tool to see some of the stars who have performed there.
And if you want to find out more about Proms-specific history, you can explore their archives here.
I said that the Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall from the Queen’s Hall during the Second World War. The Queen’s Hall, towards the northern end of Regent’s Street and next to BBC’s Broadcasting House, was the original home of the Proms when Henry Wood began them in 1895. It was so badly damaged by a bomb in 1941 that all that remained of the inside was a bronze bust of Henry Wood – the same bust that is brought out every year to overlook the stage at the RAH during the Proms.
But before its destruction, the Queen’s Hall was London’s premiere concert hall. It was said to be near-perfect as a venue. During its time it held host to a plethora of classical music megastars. I am just going to uninterestingly list them here and we can just imagine them all talking their walk along Regent Street before heading in for a concert.
Claude Debussy, Edward Elgar, Edvard Grieg, Joseph Joachim, Fritz Kreisler, Maurice Ravel, Hans Richter, Camilla Saint-Saens, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Anton Webern, Eugene Ysaye.
Well let’s hope that they all like pizza because on the site where the hall once stood is now a Pizza Express. Don’t get me wrong, I like a calabrese just as much as the next blogger, but it does feel a little anti-climactic. There is a green plaque marking the hall’s location, and there is one spot where you can see a bit of the old hall. Head around to Great Portland Street, and almost opposite Little Titchfield Street is a small courtyard between two shops. Here you can see, on the brick wall at the back, some white columns that were part of the hall’s exterior.
Hey, I didn’t say it was spectacular. But it is an interesting little bit of history that I for one had been walking past on an almost daily basis and had never noticed until a colleague marched me round to point it out. Who knows what else I’ve been idly strolling by!
Pins on this post
- Royal Albert Hall
- Queen’s Hall (no longer standing)