Recently I have been looking through the Henry Watson Music Library, in particular Gustav Behrens’ notebooks. Behrens was the Chairman of the Hallé Orchestra Society and his collection of notebooks contain News clippings, letters sent to members, speeches by Behrens, and annual and financial records. Altogether they give an insightful look at the effects WW1 had on the Hallé Orchestra and how different people came together to keep the concerts running during a financially tense and difficult time.
With the war beginning in 1914 the Hallé came into trouble firstly with their conductor Michael Balling being away in his German homeland. A letter addressed to Balling from August 24th 1914 says ‘the whole matter of your conducting the concerts during the continuance of the war is fraught with many difficulties’. As a result, it was decided that there would be a number of guest conductors during the coming concert season with the orchestra finally settling with Thomas Beecham. For the entirety of Beecham’s time as a Conductor during the war he didn’t take a fee which almost certainly helped towards the Halle’s war time success. Interestingly, advertisements were put out asking for purely English conductors in contrast to the German Mr Balling.
As the war progressed the Halle was faced with financial difficulties and tough decisions to make in order to save money and make a profit. It is clear from the records that it was a priority to keep the musicians of the Halle in work. In a speech to the members of the society the Chairman, Gustav Behrens, spoke of how musicians would be ‘placed under the painful necessity of applying for public relief’ if they weren’t in work over the winter season. The speech goes on to say that the musicians will be paid but only half that of their normal rate which the players accepted. Because of this at the end of the 1914-1915 season a profit was made in contrast to the previous season which had made a loss. With the sacrifice the musicians had made in mind, they were then refunded with the profits. During this time a committee was also set up to help musicians of the North. A clipping from the Daily Post advertises the ‘Committee for Music in War Time’ in which Behrens was an Honorary Treasurer. It outlines its duties which were to ‘cover the interests of needy musicians’ by ‘giving employment to singers and instrumentalists who are entirely dependent on their professional work’.
Over the span of the war years the repertoire of the Halle changed. Thomas Beecham, the newly appointed conductor took the opportunity the war on Germany created by introducing music from other nationalities where previously there had been a great focus on German music. One article from the Guardian on September 10th 1915 expresses how there were as many as ’52 composers and almost every nationality from Europe’ in the 1915-1916 season programme. The same clipping also reports ‘the music of living German composers is almost by legal necessity barred’. It wouldn’t have been right to play current German music, but in contrast music by the Great Masters like Wagner and Beethoven, who came before the current German Empire, were very much accepted and loved so Beecham took the opportunity to put on big Wagner nights. Beecham also introduced Saturday concerts where smoking was allowed and there was a more relaxed feel, these concerts proved popular and continued after the war.
The Society’s Annual Reports throughout the war highlight the problems the Hallé encountered during each seasons’ year and how they planned to overcome them, such as increasing subscription fees or asking for an increase of money from Guarantors. Subscription numbers appear to drop throughout the war and the Annual Report for 1916-1917 explains ‘darkness of the streets’, ‘shortage of petrol’ and ‘curtailment of Railway accommodation’ are all reasons as to why subscribers hadn’t been attending the Concerts.
It has been really interesting to see through the collection how the Halle was plunged into change during WW1. They faced but overcame many troubles by sacrificing wages and concerts, changing and updating the music played and adding Saturday concerts, all which contributed to keeping the public morale high during the War. In a detailed article from The Times on 20th March 1918, the Halle is described as having a ‘new lease of life’ since the war had begun. It has also been lovely to read how the Musicians livelihoods were at the forefront of the society’s priorities. With the article also mentioning the great success of the Music in War Time Committee being a ‘sign of the increasing interest in serious music’.
By volunteer, Kezi Porter