10 sites of (historic) musical significance in London – 6. Royal Albert Hall… 

PICTURE: Raphael Tomi-Tricot/Unsplash

Arguably the grandest music venue in London, the Royal Albert Hall, named in memory of Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, has been hosting musical events since it first hosted a concert in 1871.

The Grade I-listed hall, which has a seating capacity of more than 5,000 and which did suffer from acoustic problems for many years (until mushroom-shaped fibreglass acoustic diffusers were hung from the ceiling following tests in the late 1960s), has been the setting for some of the most important – and, in some cases, poignant – music events of the past 150 years, not just in London but the world at large.

Among some of the most memorable are the Titanic Band Memorial Concert – held on 24th May, 1912, just six weeks after the sinking of the iconic ship to remember the 1514 people who died with a particular focus on the eight musicians who played on as the stricken vessal sank, the ‘Great Pop Prom’ of 15th September, 1963 – only one of a handful of occasions when The Beatles and Rolling Stones played on the same stage, and Pink Floyd’s gig of 26th June, 1969 – coming at the end of a UK tour, the on-stage antics saw the band banned (it was short-lived, however, they returned just a few years later in 1973).

Other musical figures to have taken to the stage here include everyone from composers Richard Wagner, John Philip Sousa, and Benjamin Britten to the Von Trapp family, jazz greats Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and the likes of Shirley Bassey, Bob Dylan and Elton John – a veritable musical who’s who of the past 150 years. The venue also hosted the 13th Eurovision Song Contest in 1968.

Of course, Royal Albert Hall is famous for The Proms, an annual festival of classical music which was first performed here in 1941 after the venue where it had been held since 1895 – the Queen’s Hall on Langham Place – was lost to an incendiary bomb during World War II.

Prom stands for ‘Promenade Concert’,  a phrase which originally referred to the outdoor concerts in London’s pleasure gardens during which the audience was free to walk around while the orchestra was playing (there are still standing areas during performances). The most famous night of the season is the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ which, broadcast by the BBC, features popular classics and ends with a series of patriotic tunes to stir the blood.

LondonLife – The BBC Proms

Last weekend the Last Night of the Proms was held at Royal Albert Hall, the culmination of the summer music season’s 117th year.

The origins of the Proms go back to 10th August, 1895, when Robert Newman, manager of the concert venue Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, London, decided to offer a popular program of music in a less formal “promenade arrangement” which would be accessible to the masses and would ultimately lead them to a greater appreciation of classical music.

He offered conductor Henry Wood the opportunity to conduct the first Proms season, known as ‘Mr Robert Newman’s Promenade Concerts’. Early on, Wood and Newman established the tradition of having a Wagner Night on Mondays and a Beethoven Night on Fridays and Wood used the platform of the Proms to promote up-and-coming performers.

In 1927 the BBC took over the management of the Proms, now formally known as the BBC Proms, and has continued in that role ever since bar an interruption during World War II. It was during World War II, incidentally, that the event moved to the magnificent Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington (the magnificent interior of which can be seen above), after Queen’s Hall was gutted following a bombing raid on 10th May, 1941.

The eight-week Proms program has since continued to widen with the introduction of complete opera performances in the 1960s, concerts by foreign ensembles and other music styles including jazz, Gospel and that specifically targeted at children.

Now including more than 70 main concerts, the music festival – for which standing tickets can still be bought continuing the tradition of ‘promenading’ – also continues to also be a showcase for new works. For more on the Proms, see www.bbc.co.uk/proms, and for more on the venue, see www.royalalberthall.com.

PICTURE: Courtesy of BBC, Chris Christodoulou