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.
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
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
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
'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
from Symphony No. 2
No. 2 in D
Merry Wives of Windsor
Midsummer's Night's Dream
This received an encouraging notice in The Mail
'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
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
'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
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
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.