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  • Belfast Between The Wars


Northern Whig, Wednesday 8th October 1924

The Belfast Philharmonic Society, having been founded in December, 1874, this season commemorates its jubilee. To have to its credit fifty years of unbroken and successful musical activity is a record by no means common, especially for a provincial society – it is, we think, unique in Ireland – and it is one which certainly calls for something more than a mere passing reference. There may be, indeed there no doubt are, other societies which have been in existence for a period of fifty years, or even longer (the London Philharmonic Society, so far as memory serves, dates from about 1813), but very few, if any, of these societies are in such a position that they can start the present season’s work with a balance of over £50 to their credit. The Belfast Philharmonic Society fortunately is in such a good position, and this without taking into consideration the legacy of £500 left to it by that generous benefactor of the city, the late Miss Riddel. Perhaps the present time may be a fitting one in which to refer briefly to the circumstances of its formation, and also to say something of its subsequent history, for in the past we have been too prone in speaking of the growth of the city to lay stress on the material and industrial to the exclusion of the artistic.


Before we can understand fully the circumstances which led to the Philharmonic’s formation it is necessary first to consider the state of affairs musical in the years immediately preceding 1874. After the old Anacreontic, which existed from 1814 until 1866 the principal musical body was the Classical Harmonists’ Society. Later there was formed the Belfast Musical Society. It was then found that there was not sufficient scope for both, the Classical Harmonists, whose work was mainly instrumental, being in anything but a flourishing condition. In September, 1872, some members of both societies (among them Sir Charles Brett, still, happily, an active member and present secretary of the Philharmonic), having the best interests of music at heart, suggested that it would be a much more satisfactory state of affairs to have one efficient society which would embrace all the musical forces of Belfast. Every effort was made to bring this about, but with no success. However, the desire for union becoming stronger with the experience of the next two years, ultimately gave rise to further negotiations. These were brought to a conclusion satisfactory, if not to all the individual members, at least to the committees of the respective societies concerned; and so in October, 1874, the new society started rehearsing “Elijah,” the public performance being given on Wednesday evening, 2nd December, under the baton of Henri Stichi, the first conductor. An interesting fact to note is that the Philharmonic, becoming trustee for the musical effects of the Anacreontic and Classical Harmonists’ Societies, is carrying on, in unbroken line, the work commenced over one hundred years ago.


Although the society was now safely launched its difficulties were by no means at an end. These were chiefly caused by two things. The first, one which has long since been overcome, was the rivalry of other societies started in opposition. The second, and by far the more important, for it is still felt, was the scarcity of competent orchestral players in the city. In the earliest days there was no orchestra, the society having to engage De Jong’s and other orchestras to play the accompaniments. By degrees, however, orchestral members joined up, and no doubt all the conductors. Sir Robert Stewart, Beyschlag, Dr. Koeller, and the others contributed something to help on this side of the society’s growth. But in this the greatest advance has been made in the time of the present conductor, Mr. E. Godfrey Brown. It has been a long and very arduous task, but we are now beginning to reap the benefit. Indeed little more progress can be made till we have permanently resident in our midst more good brass and wood-wind players.


Little need be said of the actual works performed, as a fairly comprehensive list of these is given in every programme. It is only to be expected that till well on in the twentieth century, performances of oratorios predominated, with occasionally an opera or cantata. In recent years, while the great classics, notably Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, have by no means been neglected, tendencies have been somewhat less conservative, and performances of fine modern works by Elgar, Stanford, Parry, Vaughan Williams, Borodine, Holst, Harty, Norman Hay, and others have been given.


The arrangements for this season promise well. Something is provided for all, both lovers of oratorio and those whose tastes are more in sympathy with modern work. There is, as always, a fine array of soloists, and it is a sign of the times that they are all English, and those of the very best. The season will commence appropriately with a performances of “Elijah” on October 17, the soloists being Miss Dorothy Silk, Miss Helen Anderton, Mr. Ben Morgan, and Mr. Herbert Heyner. The soloists for the second concert on November 14 will be Miss Megan Foster, Mr. John Goss, and the brilliant young cellist, Miss Beatrice Harrison. The work to be performed is Vaughan Williams’s setting of “Towards the unknown region,” for chorus and orchestra. Again there will be the usual “Messiah” performances on December 12 and 13, with Miss Dora Labette (an impeccable artist), Mrs. John Seeds, Mr. Hughes Macklin, and Mr. Foster Richardson as soloists. The third concert in February, which brings Miss Harriet Cohen (pianist), Miss Daisy Kennedy (violinist), and Mr. A. Jordan as soloists, will also give us another first performance of a work by Dr. E. Norman Hay, this time, “To Wonder,” a tone poem for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra. The last concert on April 9 will be the special jubilee concert, and it is fitting that the greatest English oratorio, Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius,” should be the work chosen. For this, the soloists engaged are Miss Olga Haley, Mr. John Coates (by many considered as an even better Gerontius than Gervase Elwes), and Mr. Harold Williams, while the conductor will be Sir Henry Wood.

The Philharmonic Society has done much during its long life to forward the cause of music. Names of many, prominent in the city, have been associated with its work. Certainly it deserves the hearty sympathy and support of all music lovers. N.F.


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