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In September 1888 three Manchester businessmen sent out an invitation to a meeting to be held in the Crown Hotel, Fountain Street, Manchester, on October 1st. Eleven people attended, and 'a discussion took place as to the desirability of establishing an amateur Instrumental Society'. This was the beginning of The Beethoven Society, now over one hundred years old.

Original letter

At that meeting a Committee was appointed and the objects of the Society were laid down: 'the study and performance of such classical and other high-class music as comes within the scope of amateur ability'. One hundred years later these are still the objects of the Society - which has met regularly, without a break, ever since its foundation.

  

One of the original three men was E Gordon Cockrell, who was appointed to conduct the newly formed orchestra. He continued in that position for the next 35 years until his death in 1923. Martin Hertz and John Sever, the other two, were instrumentalists, and subsequently played with the orchestra for many years. John Sever led the 'cellos until 1930. Martin Hertz, a violinist, led the orchestra for several of the early years, and although he ceased playing in 1902, he retained an interest in the Society and was a Vice-President unti1 1939.

At the first meeting Sir Charles Hallé was asked to be President of the Society. He agreed, and up to the time of his death in 1895 took an interest in its work and progress. In addition, he gave Gordon Cockrell the valuable privilege of attending all rehearsals of the Hallé Orchestra. This connection with the Hallé was continued in future years - Sir Frederick Cowen (Hallé conductor in the late 1890s) was President from 1897-1902, and later conductors (Archie Camden, Clarice Dunington and Maurice Handford) also had Hallé experience. A number of orchestral players and soloists have also been Hallé members.

The first rehearsal was held in the 'Paint Room', a spacious apartment very close to the roof of the Free Trade Hall, on 16 October 1888. The 21 players attacked Haydn's Symphony No. 2 in D under the baton of Gordon Cockrell, and they continued to meet there until the end of that year. The numbers in the orchestra soon increased - 63 were playing at the end of the first season - and weekly rehearsals were then established. In 1893, on 14 December, The Manchester Guardian said:

'The programme to which we listened, and the manner in which it was given, at once put us at rest as to amateur instrumental capacity in Manchester. Here is an orchestra composed of some seventy performers, of whom not more than five or six are professional musicians. Some fourteen of the strings are ladies, and there is even a clarionet performer of the gentler sex'.

Then a more permanent home was found in Forsyth's Music Shop on Deansgate, where they met for the next 25 years. The Society had a good relationship with Forsyth's, and Gordon Cockrell writes in his history of the first 25 years that they were 'indebted for much kindly advice and consideration in the early days'. However, there were a few minor problems. In the Minutes of 1896 it is noted that

'Considering the bad effect of the heated atmosphere produced during rehearsal, Messrs. Forsyth be respectfully asked if they cannot assist in meeting this difficulty by introducing the Electric Light'.

Presumably the heated atmosphere was due to the gas lights and not to the temperament of the players!

The first concert was given on February 4 1889, and the orchestra played (among other things, and including some solo items):

  Overture, Figaro

Mozart

  Larghetto from Symphony No. 2

Beethoven

  Symphony No. 2 in D

Haydn

  Overture, Merry Wives of Windsor

Nicolai

  Intermezzo, Midsummer's Night's Dream

Mendelssohn

  Overture, Mirella

Gounod

This received an encouraging notice in The Mail (5.2.1889):

'The new Beethoven Society... seems likely in the future to become an important factor in local music... Mr. Gordon Cockrell has brought together a most promising body of amateurs, the orchestra numbering over 50 performers... In spite of the ambitious character of such a programme, the performance was on the whole very satisfactory and Miss Mabel Berry, who has a sweet voice of good range, sang the vocal valse from Romeo et Juliet in an acceptable manner in spite of an evidently bad cold'(!)

The first few concerts were held in The Gentlemen's Concert Hall in Peter Street. This Hall also saw the beginnings of the Hallé Orchestra, and orginally the concerts held there were all subscription concerts. Commenting on the Beethoven Concert held there in 1893 The Manchester Guardian critic said (14.12.1893):

'It is indeed, the old 'Gentlemen's Concerts' over again. It is perhaps forgotten what this title means. The 'Gentlemen's Concerts', like the 'Gentlemen's Glee Club', meant only the amateur orchestra and the amateur singers. No doubt a different association has attached to them of late, but we believe that is the simple meaning. And the Beethoven Society reproduces the old idea'.

Unfortunately this fine building was pulled down in the spring of 1898 to make way for the Midland Hotel. Gordon Cockrell said:

'The removal of this historic building was a great loss to music in Manchester, and its passing away was witnessed with great regret by many to whom it was endeared and who knew something of its time-honoured associations and wonderful acoustic properties. As a concert room of moderate size, it was ideal, and there is no modern hall in Manchester which can be compared with it from the point of view of either performers or audience'.

At the end of the 1898 season a special concert was held in the Free Trade Hall to mark the completion of the tenth season. The Manchester Evening News praised the occasion:

'the programme itself was very well performed, and... showed a marked improvement on anything they have done before'.
The Gentlemen's Concert Hall

However, another venue had to be found for the regular concerts, and fortunately a new home was found in Manchester Town Hall. Concerts were then held there every year until l970. Although transporting stands, instruments and equipment up and down the spiral stone stairs was never a task that was enjoyed, it was a matter of much regret when for financial reasons the annual invitation concert was no longer given in that majestic mural-clad concert hall. Many members have affectionate memories of those Town Hall concerts - when the Clock was sure to strike in the quietest, most inconvenient moments - and the City Council generously agreed to allow the Centenary Concert to be held there again.

Finance was a problem from the early days, and the Minutes are punctuated with desperate pleas from successive Treasurers for members to dip into their pockets to help balance the books. Primarily these difficulties arose because professional players were engaged to play regularly at rehearsals (as well as at concerts), either as principals or just to fill gaps in the ranks. It also cannot have helped the overall financial position in the 1890s when there was found to be a deficiency in the balance - although the defaulting Treasurer appropriately surrendered a viola to the Society to compensate for the deficit!

Both the size of the orchestra and the size of the audience greatly exceeded the numbers expected to-day. There were 63 subscribing players at the end of the first season and they played to an audience of 200-300 (felt at the time to be 'not as numerous as could be desired'). In the 1890s audience numbers had risen to over 600, and the attendance at rehearsals was averaging about fifty.

During the fourth and fifth seasons an attempt was made to run a Chorus in association with the orchestra, but this was not a success. It proved very expensive, and in addition there was not a great deal of enthusiasm for this venture. After a short time, the chorus was abandoned and a decision made to confine the future work of the Society strictly to instrumental work, collaborating with local choral societies if a chorus was needed for concerts.

Apart from the regular concerts given each year - which have always been invitation concerts - the Society has a long tradition of giving extra concerts to support charities. The most spectacular of these charity occasions was undoubtedly the Lady Mayoress's Garden Party held in 1895 in aid of the Manchester Adult Deaf and Dumb Institute. This took place in the Botanical Gardens, then on Chester Road, and the orchestra played on two successive evenings. On the second evening the orchestra combined with the band of the Lancashire Artillery Volunteers to play the Tannhauser and Coronation Marches as well as 'a most inspiring rendering of the National Anthem'. This festival raised the handsome sum of £729.

At the end of the century, the Committee was faced with a difficult decision. All the professional orchestras had adopted the lower concert pitch now in use today, but the Society still played in the old high pitch, and this was causing difficulties. For instance, grand pianos in most of the concert halls were now tuned to the new pitch. After much discussion the Committee decided to adopt the lower pitch, but they were aware that

'The alteration will cause considerable expense, more especially amongst the woodwind, with whom all of us sympathise'.

This was clearly the right move to make - in spite of the difficulties - though it was not carried into effect for another year as some of the members were unable to obtain suitably pitched instruments in time.

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