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Celebrating 200 years of the Royal Philharmonic Society

Thu Mar 7 2013

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Our concert this Friday marks, to the day, the 200th anniversary of the first concert given by the Philharmonic Society of London (later the Royal Philharmonic Society) which was set up in 1813 by a group of professional musicians with the aim “to promote the performance, in the most perfect manner possible, of the best and most approved instrumental music”. The Philharmonic was truly international in outlook, introducing the finest musicians of the day to London audiences and commissioning a wide array of composers of the time (including notably Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony), and out of the Society’s annual concert seasons which continued unbroken for over 175 years, the UK’s rich tradition of orchestral playing was born. Today the RPS still continues to champion excellence in all levels of performance and to commission outstanding new repertoire.

It’s not only in the 21st century that new music sometimes faces a hostile reception. Schumann was a considerably ‘slow burn’ for British audiences – even his close friend, William Sterndale Bennett, who succeeded Wagner as conductor of the Philharmonic in 1856, privately considered his music ‘eccentric’. Nonetheless the Philharmonic Society made determined efforts, giving the first London performance of the First Symphony in 1854 and inviting Clara Schumann to London, for the first of many visits, in 1856. Clara’s advocacy of Robert’s music was passionate and as soloist in the Piano Concerto she was praised for making “her husband’s curious rhapsody pass for music with an uninitiated audience.” (It’s heartening to note the work did later become a firm favourite Philharmonic repertoire piece, with 28 performances given by 1910).

However Clara’s efforts to persuade Sterndale Bennett to mount a performance of the cantata Paradise and the Peri were sadly ill-advised. It was a hot summer evening and any members of the audience who didn’t fall asleep apparently witnessed – to the dismay of the conductor – Clara trying to direct at strategic moments from a place within the orchestra. The critics were unanimous in their condemnation: A “more dreary concert was never listened to”.

Disheartened by this experience, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sterndale Bennett waited some 18 years after the world premiere in Germany to give the first UK performance of Schumann’s C major Second Symphony with the Philharmonic in June 1864. But London still wasn’t ready. While critics were ready to acknowledge his mastery – “to those who understand him Robert Schumann may represent everything that is noble and beautiful in music” – and praised the “most magnificent” Philharmonic performance, the music itself still caused general mystification. The same commentator in The Era wrote that that the work was “disjointed, incomplete and unsatisfactory in the extreme.”

Fortunately critical opinion changes with time and as we celebrate the RPS’s 200th Birthday with the performance on Friday, we’d like to thank those early pioneers of the Society for their vision and determination to shake up our musical perceptions.

Thanks to the RPS for sharing this with us…

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