Music at the Crystal Palace

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

A brochure, signed by the present manager, Sir Henry Buckland, has been issued purporting to set out the history of the Crystal Palace. I am astonished, for I fail to find one line about its past great musical prestige, nor the mention of any name associated therewith. Yet the Crystal Palace during fifty years occupied in England the position the BBC seeks to hold: but it has not yet found a Sir George Grove. Grove was distinguished in many and varied ways, and incidentally was secretary of the Society of Arts at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was of the company that moved that building and for the best for what it stood to Sydenham, where he himself resided until his death in 1900, from which date we watch the decline of the Crystal Palace as the English temple of music.

Grove doubtless brought Manns to the Crystal Palace (1855), for they were men of similar outlook, each filled with a long-pursuing enthusiasm, and the result of their collaboration was that audiences at Sydenham heard many of the works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Spohr and Weber before they were known in London. (‘The first time in England’ was a familiar line in the programme.) Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, Goetz, Raff, Rubinstein, Liszt and Strauss entered London from the south.

The centre of attraction was, of course, the remarkable efficiency of the orchestral playing, due to the wind and a portion of the strings being permanent, which gave Manns opportunities for rehearsal possessed by no conductor in London. Grove says that the orchestra at the weekly symphony concerts varied between seventy and eighty, made up of 16 first and 14 second violins, 11 violas, 10 cellos, 10 basses, with single wind. References to the exceptional quality of the band’s interpretation and playing may be found in the musical criticisms of Bernard Shaw which have been recently collected and reprinted.

For forty years Grove wrote the analytical notes for the concerts, and these notes became famous throughout the country. He ceased to be secretary to the Palace company in 1873, and then began to work on the Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a great memorial to the man who first made it and now unapproached by any similar work in any language. Durham honoured him with a DCL eulogising his contributions to Bible research and geography. Grove was also a born organiser, and had much to do with the establishment of the Royal College of Music, becoming its first director: small wonder then that distinguished students came first before the public at Sydenham. He himself would sit in the back gallery, with favoured pupils around him.

Picking up the brochure again, I see that Sir Henry Buckland does mention music so far as to say, when referring to the Handel Festivals, that music is no longer a paying proposition. (Neither are the picture galleries, museums and parks of London.) From their inception Michael Costa had conducted the Handel Festivals In 1883 Manns succeeded him and continued as conductor until 1900. I hesitate to differentiate between the work of Grove and Manns, but I venture to say, for the moment, that it was Manns who first encouraged the British composer to believe that he had something to say that was worth listening to.

He was a chivalrous man, and kindly. He gave the first performance of William Wallace’s symphonic poem, The passing of Beatrice. When Wallace went down to the Palace for the rehearsals, he had not previously met Manns, and did not know where to find him. He wandered through those courts and corridors, until at length a friendly hand touched his shoulder and a kindly voice said, ‘If you would like to attend the rehearsal you may go inside. We are just going to rehearse a rather remarkable work by a young Englishman called The passing of Beatrice.’ It was August Manns speaking to the composer.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, October 1935