Hallé the pianist

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

A substantial appreciation of Charles Hallé — typical of the many articles in which Brian was chiefly concerned to relay the best anecdotes!

Elated with my success over Bennett the journalist, I looked around and my eye lighted on a book by Hallé the pianist, the man who founded the orchestra of that name5. In the year 1896 they published his Life and Letters, begun by Hallé père and finished by Hallé fils. The older man was a shrewd observer with a fine sense of humour, which one would not suspect looking on his long, lean face. He had personal relations with Liszt, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Heller, and others: and consequently I approach Hallé as a sailor would a veteran who had spoken to Nelson, Hardy, Collingwood, and the others. We are given cleverly drawn sketches of great musicians, and obtain more vivid portraits than might be secured by reading two volume biographies.

This gift of rapid portraiture may have influenced the career of his son, CH Hallé, who was well known as a painter. Liszt is described as living apart from his kind and adopting strange methods of address. Hallé met the Hungarian in Paris, and was invited to partake of what proved to be a good though simple dinner, costing probably thirty francs. When the bill came, Liszt astonished Hallé by saying quite seriously that he could not give the waiter a tip of less than forty francs. On another occasion Hallé called on Liszt only to find him with his tailor in difficulties about the choice of a new waistcoat. He already had sixty, but never a one to suit his fitful moods.

At a concert at the Conservatoire in Paris, Liszt and Massart6 were to play the Kreutzer Sonata, but the audience would have none of it, a voice continuing to shout Robert le Diable. This was evidently a demand that Liszt should play his fantasia on airs from Meyerbeer’s opera, just previously successfully produced. Liszt very adroitly asked whether the audience would like Robert before or after the Kreutzer, but still they demanded Robert. So there was nothing for it but to dismiss Massart and proceed with the fantasia, which Hallé says was played with an astonishing display of virtuosity. The later playing of the Kreutzer fell very flat.

For a benefit concert on behalf of Polish refugees, Liszt asked Hallé to join him and play a duet for two pianos. Thalberg’s Fantasia on Norma was chosen for performance, Liszt on his own suggestion taking the second piano and Hallé the first. They ‘chanced it’ without previous rehearsal, Liszt exclaiming, ‘Let’s take the theme of the variations at a moderate pace: the effect will be better’. But he failed to observe his own wise direction. The first part of the theme is played on the first piano, accompanied by octaves on the second. Liszt began his octaves at such a furious pace that Hallé thought he would never get through the task alive.

But Hallé took his revenge in the second variation, where the theme, accompanied by chromatic scales, is tossed from one piano to the other. What happened then is best described by Hallé: ‘Liszt, instead of confining himself to chromatic scales, altered them by introducing double and additional notes, a feat of amazing difficulty which made my hair stand on end, but which I did not feel compelled to try to imitate.’ Hallé stuck to the music, played his chromatic scales neatly and rapidly, and at the end gained a round of applause, in which Liszt generously joined.

All this goes to prove that Liszt, at times, indulged in impulsive forms of display; but there was the other Liszt who, after untiring personal efforts, procured the erection of the Beethoven monument at Bonn. For the festival accompanying the unveiling, Hallé and Berlioz travelled together to Bonn, and there saw Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort.

Questions and things we think topical and new were with Hallé full fifty years ago, when we see him frowning on the craze for conducting without score. But evidently Mendelssohn was an exception, owing to his prodigious memory. Hallé mentions the occasion when Mendelssohn revived and conducted the St Matthew Passion of Bach. At the desk he found that a wrong score confronted him: but he conducted the whole work from memory, turning the pages of the wrong score before him as though nothing untoward had happened. Despite all this, Hallé says that ‘No conductor could write by heart twenty pages of the full score of a symphony or other work, exactly with the instrumentation of the composer.’ Nor perhaps could the composer himself do so7.

Mendelssohn was a great virtuoso on the organ, but by no means the peer of Thalberg or Liszt on the piano, though every bar he played bore the impression of musicianship. Hallé saw the coming and going of Wagner, being introduced to the young man by Heller when living in Paris in 1839. Wagner had so little to say at the time (which is surprising when we recall the later rhetorical eloquence), that Hallé concluded he was not quite ‘all there’.

Wagner was at that time under the patronage of Schlesinger the music publisher, who also issued La Gazette Musicale, subscribers to which were given free admission to a concert once a year, with the object of increasing the number of subscribers. Quite a good idea, if the place of publication is as small as Paris was within the ramparts. Well, at one of these concerts, given in the spring of 1840, Wagner’s overture, Christophe Columb was included in the programme. Hallé and Heller were present, and formed a very poor opinion of the work, which for lack of rehearsal or unfamiliarity with the idiom, they could but regard as a fiasco. Remaining in this state of innocence they were frankly astonished at the sensational success of Rienzi a few months later at Dresden. In 1876, when Hallé met Wagner at Bayreuth, the diffident young man had changed into a person who talked grandly about turning the little Franconian town of Bayreuth into the centre of civilisation.

But the composer who had the greatest and indeed a lifelong influence on Hallé was the Frenchman, Hector Berlioz. Hallé made ceaseless efforts in this country to make popular the works of ‘le vaillant Hector’, as he was often called. There never was a man, says Hallé, who loved his art more: he would declaim at length on the beauties of such works as Armida, Iphigenia or the C minor Symphony, his voice rising until it reached a shout. He was clearly the perfect conductor, using his players with similar control to that which the pianist has over the keys of his instrument.

We are told a story of Paganini which is new to me. Hallé had heard or read all the legends about the weird being, but had no opportunity of seeing him until he went to live in Paris8. Then he learned that Paganini could be found every afternoon at a certain music shop in the Passage de l’Opera, where he sat, enveloped in a long cloak, silent and motionless: he looked a ghastly figure: he just stared! Hallé also went to the music shop, where each stared at the other, though occasionally Hallé would play the piano. After one such performance, the spectre moved: Paganini rose and approached his violin case, whereupon Hallé’s heart bumped. What would he play? The violin was taken from its case, and very deliberately Paganini began to tune it with his fingers Then a pause, the suspense becoming intolerable. Surely now he’ll take the bow! But he didn’t, he simply put back the violin in its case and silently resumed his seat. And that was how Hallé heard Paganini!

Charles Hallé could have had little idea, when he accepted the conductorship of the Gentlemen’s Concerts at Manchester in 1849, that his name was to become so indelibly associated with the rarest type of musical culture, or that Hallé and Manchester could never thereafter he put asunder. The concerts were founded in 1745 and had developed habits and customs displeasing to the new conductor, one of these being the placing of the basses in front. A new band was organised; and later, in 1856, with the opening of the Art Treasures Exhibition, a first class orchestra was organised, local players being augmented by good men from the musical capitals of Europe.

Queen Victoria visited the exhibition, and at the Thursday orchestral concerts, conducted by Hallé, many in Manchester must have heard a symphony for the first time. In October the exhibition closed down, but not the band, for early in the following year Hallé began a series of orchestral concerts that have since become famous. The project was for thirty concerts, with sixty players, and in the first programme was Beethoven’s Symphony in C minor. But the people came in no great numbers, and Hallé was in despair. At length however, Manchester awoke, and large audiences became the order of the day. But the profits were not great, for the whole of them for the first season went to Hallé in the form of ten brand new threepenny bits, presented by the agents. The band went on, growing in grace and strength, until in 1885 it numbered one hundred, at which strength it has remained, the only subsequent addition being fame.

The programmes of the orchestral concerts were always of an international character, the most favoured composer being Berlioz the greatness of whose works Hallé never ceased to proclaim and give proof. He brought his orchestra to London to play the music of Berlioz; and at home the works of English composers of the period were frequently played. Up to the time of writing the autobiography (1895) there had been performed over 100 oratorios and other choral works, 100 symphonies, 214 overtures, 205 suites and miscellaneous works, 183 concertos, etc, reflection on which might restrain our adoration of present-day conductors.

Tchaikovsky was a newcomer at that day, but his symphonies Nos 5 and 6 were early known to Manchester audiences. They fussed a little recently when at a Royal Philharmonic concert Beecham revived a Rossini overture: but Hallé records the performances of nine of them, and no less than 22 by Auber, 10 by Cherubini, 5 by Boïeldieu, 4 by Spontini, and in addition symphonies by Raff and Spohr now well nigh forgotten. Considering the many performances of these French and Italian overtures, they must have been very popular with Manchester audiences.

The activities of Hallé continue to surprise me. He conducted for a time the Reid Concerts in Edinburgh and the Bristol Musical Festival, and succeeded Max Bruch at the desk of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society. From 1882 to 1885 in London he conducted the Sacred Harmonic Society He also established the Manchester Royal College of Music, and was its first principal.

It was from London, however, that Hallé’s fame as a pianist radiated, and as a young man his playing must have been magnificent. Berlioz, in a letter to Liszt, wrote: ‘I want you to come and hear a young German pianist named Hallé: he is tall, wears long hair: his playing reminds me of you in that he plays by instinct.’ Higher praise could not be given. He made his first appearance in England, as a pianist, in 1843 at the Hanover Square Rooms, and did not return until 1848, driven from Paris by the Revolution. Two years later he settled in Manchester, where he made his home until his death. Until Hallé’s time, piano recitals were almost unknown: he is said to have founded them.

During the season of 1861 and the two following, he played at St James’s Hall all the Beethoven sonatas in a series of eight recitals, the educational factor in which must have been far reaching. As an example of conscientious and forthright work, his Pianoforte School, begun in 1873, is unsurpassable: it is unique. In Manchester it was said that there were two Hallés: the profoundly serious conductor and pianist of the platform, and the man who at home romped with his children and amused his guests and all with his vivacious good humour. He was loyal, remaining constant to early friendships. As an instance, Hallé and Heller first came together in 1838, when they played a piano duet arrangement of the great C major Symphony of Schubert, then recently discovered. Heller’s sensitiveness and shyness made him useless as a soloist: so from that time onwards Hallé became his big brother. They frequently played duets together at concerts, and only at Heller’s death in 1888 did they part.

The surprise is that a man so retiring and modest as Hallé should have exercised an influence so far reaching in the country of his adoption: it is fame indeed to have established one of the world’s most famous orchestras.

  1. Sir Charles Hallé was born Carl Halle in Westphalia in 1819 and moved to England in 1848; he founded his orchestra in 1857. ↩︎

  2. Joseph Massart (1811-1892), celebrated Belgian violin virtuoso. ↩︎

  3. An interesting remark, in view of Brian’s own restoring of the opening of The Tigers (wholly different from his original) ↩︎

  4. In the winter of 1833-4; he spent much of his time in Paris thereafter until his death in 1840. In his last years Paganini was generally ill and reclusive. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, March 1936, pp. 490–492