The Wigmore Hall, in Wigmore Street, Londen W1, opened its doors on 31 Mei 1901 with a concert that featured, among others, Italian composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni and the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. The concert hall was known until 1916 as Bechstein Hall, after the German piano manufacturer whose showrooms were next door and which had built the hall. Bechstein was forced to cease trading in Britain during the first world war and the venue was sold and renamed Wigmore Hall and opened under the new title in 1917. In these past 120 years it has become established as one of the world’s great recital venues.
“Great buildings catch the eye but great concert halls must catch the ear, too … A fine acoustic does not just make the music created on stage sound better: it is part of the creative process itself.” So opens Stephen Hough’s 2019 book, Rough Ideas.
Here is Stephen reading that first chapter en, above, a link to his own arrangement of Bach/Gounod’s Ave Maria performed from an empty hall – in a concert that was the first live performance on BBC Radio 3 since Britain’s initial March 2020 inperking. It thus marked an end to the national musical silence. It was a glimmer of hope for the industry and a profoundly moving experience.
The Adair concerts were a series of Sunday entertainments for first world war veterans who who had physical and psychological wounds, what is now called PTSD. The programmes included magicians, impersonators, ventriloquists, bell ringers, singers and ensembles. Free cigarettes were distributed, probably Woodbines. One of the charms of this flyer is the important notice that smokers are urgently requested not to drop ash on the upholstery or carpets. The all-important raffle guaranteed a full house. The concerts were organised by the entertainer Basil Leakey, known as Alan Adair. We hope to organise future concerts and outreach work for 21st-century veterans.
Celebrated German soprano Lotte Lehmann gave masterclasses in 1957 en 1959, which were hugely popular with students and audiences. A young soprano (later a mezzo-soprano), Grace Bumbry, was a participant in the first, and here is pictured with Lehmann. Bumbry became a trailblazer for a generation of African American singers and went on to perform in leading opera houses across the world. In 1959, a 25-year-old Janet Baker took part in Lehmann’s masterclass. The British-born mezzo – now Dame Janet – recently celebrated her 85th birthday with this remarkably candid interview at the Wigmore Hall, in conversation with the actor Simon Callow.
Arguably one of the greatest string quartets of the 20th century, the Amadeus’s members included three Jewish refugees who had been driven out of Vienna after Hitler’s Anschluss of 1938. Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel, Peter Schidlof and Martin Lovett made more than 200 celebrated recordings covering repertoire by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert as well as 20th-century greats Bartók and Britten, who wrote his last string quartet for them, which premiered directly after his death in 1976. By coincidence, Britten is buried alongside conductor and composer Imogen Holst, who underwrote the costs of the debut recital of the Amadeus Quartet given here at the Wigmore Hall in 1948.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, known as the African Mahler, was a frequent visitor to the hall in its first decade, often appearing in performances of his own works; his song collections and his works for violin were extremely popular. He wrote his remarkable Nonet in F minor for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano in 1893 when he was only 18 jaar oud. Here – above – is a sparking account of the Nonet, recorded in an empty hall on 1 Augustus 2020 with Wigmore Hall associate ensemble, the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective.
A 23-year-old experimental musician and artist appeared in the final number of a concert given by folk musician Tim Hollier and singer Amory Kane. His name was David Bowie, and he was only a few months away from releasing his groundbreaking single Space Oddity. Perhaps an unexpected figure in the hall’s history, it was not his first appearance because, the previous year, he had performed here with his multi-media folk and mime trio, Feathers. His 1969 appearance saw him take to the stage not as a musician, but as a dancer. As Hollier, Kane, guitarist Rick Cuff and drummer Clem Cattini played the evening’s final song, Evolution, Bowie donned a space suit to perform a contemporary, balletic dance which may have represented a journey towards rebirth, removing pieces of his costume as the piece progressed.
Described by the conductor Arturo Toscanini as possessing a voice “..heard once in a hundred years”, die American contralto Marian Anderson gave her Wigmore Hall debut on 15 Junie 1928 was a regular visitor here thereafter and a key figure in the struggle of African American artists against racism in the US during the mid 20th-century. She was once refused permission to sing to an integrated audience on Washington’s Constitution Hall, she went on to become the first black soloist to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In this debut programme she performed African American spirituals alongside Purcell, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy and music by British composer Roger Quilter, with the composer himself at the piano.
This Berlin-based World League for Sexual Reform coordinated a policy for greater openness around sexual equality, led by Magnus Hirschfeld, the German physician and sexologist. He presided over the league’s third international congress in London, attended by many leading British feminists. Other London venues did refuse the congress, and the Wigmore’s management was hesitant before agreeing to take the booking. Lasting several days, the congress hosted presentations by physicians and school principals as well as eminent writers including George Bernard Shaw en Bertrand Russell, while HG Wells, Hugh Walpole and Aldous Huxley sent in their endorsements.
The congress concluded that it was against all kinds of censorship on sex subjects in literature, scientific publications, picture and other representations. It also declared that no campaign for sexual emancipation was possible without sexual education of young people, and that education should not only enlighten the young as to scientific facts, but also awaken in each individual a sense of personal responsibility in regard to his or her sexual life and social relations.
Many of the league’s books and records were destroyed at its headquarters during a Nazi raid in 1933, and the league was abolished in 1935.
One of the foremost lieder singers of her time, and celebrated in Viennese operetta and operas of Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was a huge champion of the Austrian composer Hugo Wolf (1860-1903). This signed photograph of her is in the Wigmore archives along with this charming, undated, handwritten account of her debut recital.
This is one of my favourite programmes in the archive, for an event arranged by the Society of Authors, and given by a company of poets and actors. Readers included John Gielgud en Edith Evans alongside TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas en Louis MacNeice reading their own work. The Times critic noted: “If the second part of the programme, that was devoted to contemporary work, declined in splendour, it was more the fault of the poets than the poetry. Mr C Day Lewis, Mr Louis MacNeice and Mr Dylan Thomas came off much better in reading their own work than Mr Walter De La Mare, Mr TS Eliot, and Miss Edith Sitwell.” The Queen, and the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were present for this remarkable event.
And finally, here is an exclusive live cabaret recording with the acclaimed Miss Hope Springs, who takes us on a rollercoaster ride over an hour-long performance earlier this year. Her alter ego, Ty Jeffries, is a prolific composer and writer who is influenced by the golden age of Hollywood and the great American and British songbooks. Wigmore Hall has been a regular haunt over the years for similar artists including Hinge and Bracket, Kit and the Widow, and even Dame Edna Everage. Enjoy the show!