Magazine article The World and I

Musical Manchester

Magazine article The World and I

Musical Manchester

Article excerpt

England's Manchester has left behind the "dark satanic mills" of old, but continues its unexpectedly distinguished history as a center of music, with "the people's orchestra" and much more.

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I heard a siren from the dock, Saw a train set the night on fire, Smelled the spring on the sulfured wind, Dirty old town, dirty old town ... ----Ewan McColl

The traditional image of northwest England's Manchester is like the picture in folk singer Ewan McColl's famous song: grubby, industrial, a manufacturing inland port where the atmosphere reeks of sulfur, the buildings are low and dirty, and the loudest music is the clattering sound of mills. When I first saw the city, almost half a century ago, it looked very much like that. True, most of the mills had closed, and the Victorian architecture was some of the finest and best-preserved to be found in the British Isles; but in the gritty fifties those elaborate red brick cornices and facings were obscured with a residue from the industrial days of high empire, when the great cotton mills and their chimneys coated the city and surrounding villages, and even the rocks on the moors around Manchester, with a thick (and so it seemed then, eternal) layer of soot. The scene evoked Williams Blake's lines about dark satanic mills.

The Industrial Revolution had transformed Manchester from a minor town in the county of Lancashire into a giant of commerce whose business, in the well-known American phrase, was business--not at all the sort of place you would normally associate with the arts, and especially not with classical music. Indeed, as late as 1929 The Soul of Manchester, a collection of essays on life in the city, said gloomily,

"Perhaps it is impossible for the North of England [Manchester especially] really to live, move, and have its being in music--that is, to project its attitude to life (and the getting and spending thereof) by means of an art so immaterial in its substance as music."

That comment was, as the British say, a bit previous. In fact there had been a tradition of Thursday concerts of classical music since 1777, and open-air brass band performances in the parks were a regular feature of nineteenth-century Manchester life. And then about 150 years ago, a wave of immigration--mainly of east European Jews and Germans with a demanding taste for culture--flowed into Manchester, where they laid the foundations for what was to become one of the richest musical scenes in the British Isles. They backed the early stages of this with the abundant proceeds of Manchester's worldwide cotton textiles trade.

One of those German immigrants, Charles Halle, was a Westphalian driven out of Paris by the 1848 revolution and invited to Manchester by the local community of music patrons. In time he became Sir Charles Halla, after founding what is now the oldest symphony orchestra in the British Isles. The founding of the Halla orchestra marked the beginning of Manchester's transformation from a grimy epicenter of the Industrial Revolution into today's fresh-faced civic center of the arts--one of the finest in the British Isles--and of music above all.

Symphonic performances in Halla's time were almost entirely sponsored and supported by the new cultured immigrant class, who worked in the world of export and import. These concerts were formal black-tie affairs attended by the newly rich haute monde of the city, and in the middle of the nineteenth century a special venue was built to accommodate such events. The Free Trade Hall and its resident Halla Orchestra became bywords for the best in classical music performance outside London.

Halla pioneered a new approach to the performance of classical music, reaching beyond the financial elite to a wider audience and allowing informal dress into the concert hall. This approach was continued by the great conductor Hans Richter, who was brought in after Halla's death to lead the orchestra. …

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