What happened to Queen’s Hall?
In 1941, a German incendiary bomb destroyed Queen's Hall, and the jewel in the crown of London’s music venues was lost. Andrew Green tells the story...
There were deeper, more elemental human tragedies on London’s worst night of the Blitz, but the loss of Queen’s Hall must have stopped the hearts of music lovers around the world; not least, surely, in Germany itself. One of Europe’s finest performance spaces in ruins. The compelling panorama comprising Broadcasting House, All Souls church, Queen’s Hall and the bulky Langham Hotel fatally fractured.
The circumstances in which Queen’s Hall was destroyed that May night in 1941 were cruel indeed. Two alert firewatchers, TJ Clark and R Rhodes, were on the case as soon as an incendiary bomb was heard thudding onto the roof. They duly drowned the flames… or so it seemed. It was a wicked tease on the incendiary’s part. When fire flickered again, hoses were dry. So appalling was this night (the House of Commons, Westminster Abbey and the British Museum were all hit) that London’s water supplies couldn’t cope. There was nothing to be done but watch Queen’s Hall burn.
The London Philharmonic had accompanied the Royal Choral Society in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius the afternoon before: how poignant a Queen’s Hall swansong that was. Roy Douglas (now 102) had played there as the London Symphony Orchestra’s organist a few days before. ‘I went to look at the hall the morning after the bombing,’ he says. ‘The roof had fallen in. There was little of the organ left: just burnt wood and melted metal. Only one small area of the hall hadn’t suffered, by the artists’ entrance.’
Henry Wood, the conductor who made Queen’s Hall’s reputation, had been staying overnight at his Stevenage hotel base. So concerned were staff not to upset him that they hid the newspapers. Wood’s immediate response to the tragedy was defiant. ‘We must build another Queen’s Hall,’ he declaimed.
‘48 Well-Tempered Years’ was how the venue’s obit in The Times was headlined. Queen’s Hall opened in 1893 (brainchild of entrepreneur Francis Ravenscroft) at a golden period when theatre after theatre was going up in the West End. The Portland stone frontage featuring busts, balconies and columns was impressive rather than inspired. The interior was a bit fussy, not least the pantaloon-clad cupids who cavorted on the ceiling. But Queen’s Hall managed to combine a healthy capacity (3,000 before complaints about leg room) with a certain cosiness. When Sir David Willcocks made his first visit, in the late 1930s, he was taken aback. ‘Having experienced the Royal Albert Hall I was surprised Queen’s Hall was so intimate,’ he remembers. ‘I was slightly disappointed! But I wasn’t disappointed by the wonderful sound.’
Every Queen’s Hall enthusiast who ever lived has extolled the virtues of that golden acoustic. There was no lack of science involved, with reverberation controlled and focused. Resonance was enhanced by lining the walls with wood in such a way as to create a cavity behind, putting architect TE Knightley in mind of ‘the body of the violin’.
Baritone Roy Henderson, who knew Queen’s Hall from long experience, described the acoustic to me in a 1991 interview, recalling the occasion when Royal Academy of Music principal Sir Alexander Mackenzie made a retirement speech from the platform. ‘From the top of the gallery I could hear every word as clearly as anything. The acoustics were simply marvellous. You could sing pianissimo and be perfectly happy that your voice would get to the back of the hall.’ One key element determining the unique sound, said Henderson, was that the seating area directly in front of the performers was on the flat. He had no time for raked seats which, he said ‘simply kill an acoustic – you’re singing straight into people.’
However fine the acoustic, though, the early years of Queen’s Hall were all about the fight to develop a public for classical music. Hall manager Robert Newman’s genius lay in enlisting the young Henry Wood to direct the Queen’s Hall Orchestra (QHO), someone prepared to give his life blood to the cause. Through sensitive, targeted programming, the Proms and the regular Saturday and Sunday series of QHO concerts were soon building an audience, starting at base level. The first Promenade Concert in 1895 was a hotchpotch of no fewer than 27 lighter classical items, yet in no time Wood and Newman were programming more adventurous stuff.
Violinist Joseph Szigeti was humble enough to admit the influence of Wood on his musical knowledge. ‘Queen’s Hall means to me a great part of my musical education. In those days the education of a boy violinist, a so-called prodigy, was narrow. Henry Wood concerts were really a classroom for me.’
A classroom – and a place of friendship. Roy Douglas loved being a member of the audience. ‘You felt you were part of a family, everyone knowing everyone else. I somehow never felt that about the Albert Hall.’
One-time BBC TV newsreader and Proms presenter Richard Baker made his first visit to Queen’s Hall in 1936 as an 11-year-old Prommer at the last night. ‘It was enormously exciting. The behaviour of the Promenaders was more genteel in those days… there wasn’t the same degree of shouting as now. During the famous hornpipe in Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs people tapped with their umbrellas and sticks, rather than stamping. As the applause went on at the end of the concert, I remember Wood doing his thing of coming on carrying his overcoat and waving his walking stick to show he was going home.’
Lifelong Prom-goer Harold Beck went to the last nights in 1937 and 1938. ‘My school was close to Queen’s Hall and when the box office for the season opened my father sent me along to buy 30 tickets for the balcony! I think they cost three shillings each. Outside, Queen’s Hall blended in with the old London. Inside it was a smaller, more intimate version of the Albert Hall. The balcony seating had fewer rows than the Albert Hall and there was a more close-up view of the platform. Losing Queen’s Hall was terrible. The Albert Hall’s ideal for large-scale Proms, but for smaller forces Queen’s Hall was more appropriate.’
The Proms gave Queen’s Hall its identity with hundreds of thousands of music lovers, but they represent a tiny part of the venue’s history. Let’s not even begin to list the myriad great artists who appeared there, drawn by its reputation. Equally, it was a home for amateur music-makers, choirs and orchestras.
As orchestral touring developed after World War I, Queen’s Hall welcomed the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwängler, the Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Toscanini. Major events included the celebrated Delius Festival of 1929 (headed up by Beecham) and the much-lauded London Music Festivals. That famed Queen’s Hall acoustic enfolded a host of world premieres and first UK performances, among them Elgar aplenty (including the Enigma Variations and the Cello Concerto), the Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony, Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto.
On the extra-musical front, Queen’s Hall housed everything from table tennis tournaments to ballroom contests. In its last month there were meetings of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Church Army and the Church Missionary Society, while the Queen attended the Annual Conference of the British Legion (Women’s Section).
And then… oblivion. What is there still to see? Well, decorative busts from the Queen’s Hall facade are housed at the Royal Academy of Music, but on the site itself there’s just an innocuous short stretch of wall. At least the Proms retain two Queen’s Hall elements, the ‘water feature’ in the arena and the looming presence of Donald Gilbert’s bust of Henry Wood parked below the organ console.
Many fine words were spoken during and after the war about rebuilding Queen’s Hall. A fund-raising campaign was begun but the amount raised was never remotely enough and found its way instead into the conversion of Holy Trinity Church, Southwark, as a rehearsal/recording venue: Henry Wood Hall.
It’s hard to argue with the idea that London has failed to produce a hall with a comparable acoustic to Queen’s Hall. John Boyden, re-founder of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, has long argued for a comparable treasure. ‘In 1951, I attended one of the proving concerts for the Festival Hall, because my father played in the LPO. All the players were shattered by the unforgiving nature of the sound. The greatest city in Europe still lacks a concert hall of any acoustical quality in which orchestras and choruses can produce sounds which are enhanced, not smothered.’
Years ago in a far-flung part of Cornwall I made a note of a chance conversation about Queen’s Hall with one Albert Sinfield, whose recollections went back to the 1920s. ‘Everybody loved Queen’s Hall,’ he said. ‘You could see everything and hear everything. You entered it and felt at home.’