Discovering the RPS Archive

IMG_1451My first visit to the Royal Philharmonic Society’s archive; a wealth of scores, letters, papers and miscellanea that trace its 200-year history of music-making and commissioning, was well overdue. In truth, my overriding memory of archives is of long hours spent in search of the magic document which would transform my thesis into a revelatory masterwork (alas, it proved elusive). However, even a superficial exploration of the RPS collection, under the expert guidance of RPS council member and British Library curator Nicolas Bell (and free of impending deadlines), offered a fascinating window on UK concert performance history.

Musician fees among the financial papers

Sold to the British Library in 2002, and so providing the RPS with the stable financial foundation it had lacked throughout its past, the collection is now housed in the library’s cavernous basement, which extends to a depth of over 24 metres. A conveyor belt system whirrs overhead as publications (the library owns over 150 million in total) are ferried across the building. Among the 270 scores in the RPS archive is the autograph manuscript of Mendelssohn’s First Symphony, which the composer presented to the Society after giving the work’s premiere with them in 1829. The collection also includes autographs by nineteenth-century composers who have stood the test of time less well: Ignaz Pleyel, Cherubini, Sigismund Neukomm, Spohr, Cipriani Potter and William Sterndale Bennett.

Equally revealing are the documents relating to the day-to-day running of the Society. Minutes which (once you have deciphered the fountain pen scrawl) describe, for example, concern over whether or not to invite Richard Wagner to conduct the orchestra in 1855. (He came, but the experience was mutually disagreeable.) From a seemingly insignificant list of the Society’s orchestral players, it is possible to gauge a surprising amount about the orchestra in the early nineteenth century, from the quantity, hierarchy and fees of the players, to the Germanic and Italian names suggesting musicians who had come from abroad.

Beethoven's hair
A lock of hair from Ludwig

There’s also some downright weird stuff, such as the strands of Beethoven’s hair gifted to the Philharmonic Society; one of many keepsakes taken from the composer’s death bed. Of far more historical significance is the score of his Ninth Symphony, sent by Beethoven to the Society in 1824. It carries his autograph dedication to the society and the copyists’ work is liberally corrected in Beethoven’s hand. Other composers had a less productive relationship with the Society. I stumbled across a letter from a young and relatively unknown Edward Elgar, who was ‘naturally anxious to obtain a hearing in London at the Philharmonic’. The response clearly displeased him; a subsequent letter affirmed ‘I, of course, do not intend to “submit” any composition of music to the judgement of your “Directors” (although the relationship would later flourish with Elgar’s rising success).

With such treasures, the RPS archive provides an important record of repertory and performance practice, and of historic decisions regarding the Society’s role, membership, commissions and collaborations – decisions which continue to be made today. Who knows what researchers will be uncovering in the RPS archive another two hundred years down the line…

Helen Pearce

(With thanks to Nicolas Bell and the British Library. Discover more about the archive on the RPS website)

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Beethoven Bust Reflects on the Bicentenary

With András Schiff at Wigmore Hall
With András Schiff at Wigmore Hall

Schaller’s iconic bust of Beethoven was given to the RPS (then the Philharmonic Society) in 1870 by Fanny Linzbauer in recognition of its generosity towards Beethoven in times of need. It was displayed on the concert platform of every Society concert thereafter; a tradition which was re-established this year as part of the RPS Bicentenary celebrations.

As 2013 draws to a close, we catch up with the Beethoven Bust to see what he made of it all…

Beethoven Bust, it’s been quite a year.

It has indeed. It’s incredible to think all the way back to our launch party with Alfred Brendel at the Argyll Arms pub. We recently rounded off the Bicentenary celebrations at Wigmore Hall with another world-renowned pianist; on 21 December the RPS Gold Medal was awarded to András Schiff after his 60th Birthday Recital. I’m so glad that the presentation is available to watch online. I think the cameraman caught me from my good side!

It sounds like quite a night. I hope you’ve been enjoying a well-earned break over Christmas.

Yes, I even got a Christmas present! The RPS gave me a bag of chocolate coins. I think they were alluding to the fifty pounds they gave me back in 1822 to commission my Ninth Symphony. I’ve increased my rates since then, though.

We won’t expect a new piece from you any time soon. What have been your highlights from the Bicentenary year?

That’s a very tricky question! Hearing so many new commissions, both by established composers and from younger composers at the start of their career has been really inspiring. 22 composers were commissioned by the RPS to write new pieces in 2013; the most in any year since I’ve been around! The BBC Prom in August with the fantastic National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Choir of Great Britain was definitely a stand-out moment for me.

On stage with Vasily Petrenko and the NYO at the BBC Proms
On stage with Vasily Petrenko and the NYO at the BBC Proms

Could that have anything to do with the fact they were performing your Ninth Symphony?

Well, it does seem to have aged well (just like me). But Frieze, an RPS co-commission from Mark-Anthony Turnage which they performed first, had me spellbound.

And the same programme travelled to New York in the Autumn for sell-out performances by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra?

So I hear! Sadly I didn’t make it across the Atlantic as well – my passport’s a century or two out of date. I have been appearing at RPS concerts and events all around the UK though – Manchester, Poole, Birmingham… It’s like the old days between 1871 and the last RPS concert series in the 1980s, when I always stood on the concert platform.

Fantastic! So over time you’ve become a much-loved icon of musical excellence and support for the living composer – two causes at the heart of the work and ethos of the RPS.

Sounds about right – and I’m back by popular demand.

But the RPS Bicentenary year is coming to an end. Does this mean you’ll be retiring from public life again now?

I may take things a little slower, but I’ll be making the odd guest appearance. Besides, I still have my Twitter feed @beethoven_bust to manage!

Your Pinterest page is looking pretty healthy too. Who would have thought…

Ode to Joy

Beethoven Super Sunday gets off to a flying start!
Beethoven Super Sunday gets off to a flying start!

A green plaque commemorating the first UK performance of the RPS’s most famous commission, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, was unveiled yesterday on Regent Street. The plaque marks the former site of the New Argyll Rooms, which is now a NatWest bank. It was unveiled by RPS Chairman, John Gilhooly and Councillor Michael Brahams, Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London. The occasion was accompanied by a new fanfare by Bertie Baigent, a young composer from the National Youth Orchestra, performed by players from the NYO.

PlaqueThen it was straight off to the Royal Albert Hall for more Beethoven 9 celebrations with the NYO at the BBC Proms. (Take a look at last week’s blog, where NYO musicians talked about the unforgettable experience of playing at the Proms). Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was preceded by the world premiere of Frieze, a Beethoven-inspired RPS co-commission by English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage.

A bow for Beethoven Bust
A bow for Beethoven Bust

The NYO shared the Royal Albert Hall stage with singers from across the British Isles – and of course the Society’s bust of Beethoven, who kept an eye on proceedings from his perch in front of Vasily Petrenko’s podium. Not so dissimilar, then, to the 1824 premiere of the 9th Symphony in Vienna, when the by-then profoundly deaf composer stood behind the conductor to guide the tempo. Beethoven was oblivious to the applause which erupted at the end of the work, until one of the soloists turned him around to face the audience.

Rapturous applause from a packed Albert Hall also greeted last night’s performance – a fantastic end to our Beethoven Super Sunday. Huge congratulations to all the performers!

Missed the Prom? You can listen on iPlayer until 17th August. The concert will also be broadcast on BBC4 in 2 parts on 18th August and 6th September.