A musical history of the city of London

As both a magnet for the great performers and a creative melting pot, London has been one of the great cities of music for several centuries, explains Michael White

London music history

It’s obvious enough that London has a place in music history. Vaughan Williams wrote a ‘London’ Symphony. Haydn composed 12 of them (not that they tell you much about the city). Elgar celebrated London’s earthy vigour in his Cockaigne Overture (a word that for Victorians referred to a general kind of ‘Cockney’ naughtiness). And Holst commemorated Hammersmith in an exquisite minor masterpiece for wind band.

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But how London ranks against the other leading music cities of the world is more equivocal. One school of thought is that London has done best when it has embraced the wider world, welcoming musicians from abroad to come and be part of the party – sometimes taking the party over, in fact. Musicians from abroad have always poured in, establishing a more mixed demographic of creativity and performance than we’ve sometimes been happy to admit.

That they came to London rather than any other English city with a claim to cultural significance is because, rightly or wrongly, the capital has always dominated the economic and artistic life of the country – to a degree that didn’t happen elsewhere in Europe, and especially not in Germany where, for centuries, power was apportioned among rival princeling states, each with its own court and ambitions.

Looking back, the English cathedrals were, of course, important centres of religious music-making that cultivated special relationships with major composers. But from early times, the Chapel Royal in London was still the ultimate prize. And while English aristocrats may have had secular musical establishments on their country estates, they were rarely if ever on the scale of the German Electors or prince-bishops. Royal patronage counted for more. So it’s no surprise that the first great period of English music is that of the London-based Tudor court from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I: a span of nearly 100 years that produced work of lasting stature in times of turmoil as the country swung back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism.

No one could deny that the Tudor composers did, ultimately, produce a kind of music that was identifiably ‘ours’. But there was still plenty of cultural traffic passing back and forth across the channel, carrying inevitable influences. The (probably) London-born and (certainly) London-buried lutenist John Dowland worked in Paris and Copenhagen as well as here. The madrigalist John Ward went to Rome. And, moving forward into the Stuart era, the young prodigy Pelham Humfrey was packed off to study in France as part of Charles II’s efforts to re-establish music at his court after the cultural disaster that was Cromwell and the Commonwealth.

That said, the chief adornment of the Restoration court was Henry Purcell, who combined a Chapel Royal position with being organist of Westminster Abbey. And as the entirety of his short life was spent within a few streets of the Abbey, it’s fair to say that few composers of such great distinction have led lives so London-centric. But it was very different for the next figure of stature to dominate the city’s music, George Frideric Handel. German-born, he was a traveller who learned his craft in Italy before arriving here in 1710. And though he settled into the life of a devoted Londoner, he never lost his German accent or the creative DNA that his apparently so English music actually acquired elsewhere.

But Handel was a gift of magnitude to London; and if anything, the magnitude was overwhelming – with a shadow that fell heavily across the decades following his death in 1759. Throughout the late-18th Century, as musical life flourished in central Europe, London didn’t do so well. Its wealth, combined with the emergence of a cultivated middle-class, continued to attract overseas musicians like Johann Christian (the so-called ‘English’) Bach who premiered symphonies at Mayfair’s fashionable Hanover Square Rooms and songs in the Vauxhall Gardens. But there was no native Mozart or Haydn, who only came as visitors. And as the 19th century took hold, no native Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann… the list goes on.

Among the many problems was the sporadic nature of concert life in a city that still had no fixed, permanent orchestras. And it was in an attempt to create more regular structures (along European lines) that the Philharmonic Society, later to acquire the prefix Royal, was formed in 1813. It did much to raise the game for London music, but there remained one major issue: the lack of an outstanding concert venue – an Amsterdam Concertgebouw, say, or a Vienna Musikverein. The Philharmonic Society joined forces with the architect John Nash to build the new Argyll Rooms, which played host to the unending flow of foreign stars who rolled in: luminaries like Weber, Spohr and Liszt. But the Argyll burned down in 1830 and it wasn’t until 1871 that Queen Victoria opened the Albert Hall – a place whose vast scale served limited uses.

No one, though, should underestimate the cultural legacy that Prince Albert (yet another German) brought to London. It was as huge as the hall that bears his name, as was the degree to which the capital’s musical life in the 19th century was effectively ruled by European immigrants. Today, their names aren’t always household, but they’re still around and visible. In Ecclestone Square, Pimlico, for example, there’s a plaque to the conductor Sir Michael Costa: a towering figure whose knighthood disguises the fact that he came from Italy and made his mark by founding the New Italian Opera that flourished at Covent Garden in the 1840s and ’50s. He also ran the Philharmonic Society concerts, directed the gargantuan Handel Festivals at Crystal Palace, was music director at Her Majesty’s Theatre and held the same post at Her Majesty’s Opera. In short, he more or less mopped up the top jobs.

Another who made an impact was the French conductor Louis Jullien. His time in London ended badly, with a bankruptcy and other problems, but until then he was celebrated as the showman at the heart of what effectively became the prototype for London’s Proms. Shamelessly flamboyant, he came with an array of absurd platform rituals, but the public adored it. Just as they also adored the 40-year reign over London’s chamber music of the Italian cellist Alfredo Piatti, who all but abandoned his international career to take up residence in St John’s Wood and run the ‘Popular Concerts’ that were a bedrock of high-level performance. And talking of adoration, if there was one composer that mid-19th-century London was in thrall to (from the royal family down), it was the German Felix Mendelssohn.

Needless to say, the home-grown composers, conductors and performing musicians on the London scene felt oppressed by this kind of competition and obliged to try and match it by learning their craft abroad – in Dresden, Paris or the other leading European music centres. It wasn’t until the arrival of the 20th century that they began to find confidence in their own native powers. But it’s interesting that whatever this new, nationally conscious generation brought to London’s musical life – and it was considerable – the major players weren’t necessarily Londoners by inclination or loyalty. Elgar and Vaughan Williams had houses in the city, and in the case of Vaughan Williams there were a fair number, with smart postcodes in Westminster, Chelsea and Regent’s Park; but the hearts of both men belonged elsewhere – in Gloucestershire, the Malvern Hills, or rural Surrey. Of the next generation down, William Walton only lodged in London, courtesy of wealthy friends, and soon escaped to Italy. Britten had assorted boltholes around Hampstead, Islington and St John’s Wood but remained ‘rooted’ (as his own Peter Grimes sings) on the Suffolk coast.

For a variety of reasons, though, in the middle of the 20th century London overtook Vienna, Paris, Berlin, New York – anywhere you’d care to name – as the great music city of the world, at least in terms of performance. It was partly down to the policies of an enlightened Arts Council, which supplied the means for orchestras, opera companies and concert life to function on unprecedented scales; partly down to the BBC, whose presence in Portland Place has been perhaps the single most decisive factor in the city’s musicality through the past 100 years; but equally attributable to London being the geographical gateway between America and Europe, which made it a natural stopping-off point for all the world’s great musicians as they travelled back and forth.

So yet again, the city’s musical fortunes depended largely on visitors. And for that reason, its survival at the top of the pile is far from certain – a combination of COVID and Brexit suggests there may no longer be so much back and forth, at least in the short term. But if history offers any meaningful advice, it’s that London is a world city with a world outlook too big for self-sufficiency. Like ancient Rome, it thrives by offering its ‘citizenship’ to all-comers – the capital has to carry on reaching out as it always has, absorbing genius from whatever origins. Going it alone is simply not an option. 

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