One of the more joyful distractions when walking down a British road is to have your attention suddenly caught by a distinctive flash of blue on the side of a building. Instantly, you know that the building must be important. Stopping in your tracks, you wander up intrigued, and take a closer look. Sometimes the writing on the blue circle – usually a circle but not always so – will inform you about an interesting local person of whom you have never heard; at other times, it tells you that the building has a link with someone very famous indeed. In either case, you leave feeling satisfyingly more knowledgeable than you arrived.
When were blue plaques first introduced?
The brainchild of British MP William Ewart, the unveiling of blue plaques to commemorate great people and famous events has been with us since 1867 when, at 24 Holles Street, London, Lord Byron became the first to be honoured. In the 150 years since, musicians aplenty have been recognised, though there are still many more who deserve to join the prestigious list. And that is why, on BBC Music Day on 15 June 2017, 40 new plaques were unveiled across England.
Best blue plaques honouring classical music figures
Some have been awarded by English Heritage, which runs the most famous blue plaque scheme, others by other organisations. All are worth a good, hearty cheer. Here are a few of our favourites…
Felix Mendelssohn composer
4 Hobart Place, London SW1W 0HU
Stayed here in 1829, 1842 and on various other occasions
Little surprise that Mendelssohn, stylishly attired and effortlessly cultured as he was, should choose to stay at the heart of what was, and is still, the affluent London district of Belgravia, with its grand terraces of gleaming white buildings and ornate railings. This three-storeyed building in Hobart Place was home to his friend, the Hanoverian embassy secretary Karl Klingemann. Mendelssohn stayed here on four or five occasions, using it as a base for conducting at the Philharmonic Society and giving organ recitals. Here, he and Klingemann planned the 1829 trip to Scotland that would result in his Hebrides Overture. On one visit in 1842, he went to meet Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at nearby Buckingham Palace, where he improvised on ‘Rule Britannia!’ and played music from his Songs Without Words. ‘Really I have never heard anything so beautiful,’ wrote the delighted Queen in her diary.
Charles Hallé conductor and orchestra founder
102 Addison Terrace, Daisy Bank Road, Manchester M14 5GP
Lived here 1848
On a tree-lined road just south of Manchester city centre – a few buildings along from the Kiddi Days nursery – is where you will find Addison Terrace, the first Manchester residence of Charles Hallé. The smell of fresh paint must have still been in the air when the conductor arrived here from London in 1848, as this row of six Regency-style houses (complete with Gothic arches over the windows and doors) had only recently been completed. Hallé paid £12 a month in rent to live at the property, during which time he set about immersing himself in the musical life of Manchester as the conductor of the Gentlemen’s Concerts. Ten years later, he would go on to found the orchestra that today bears his name (and is one of the best orchestras in the world). Interestingly, he shares his Addison Terrace plaque with another famous name – in the 1880s, the same house was lived in by Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown.
Hubert Parry composer
2 Richmond Terrace, Bournemouth
Born here in 1848
17 Kensington Square, London
Lived here 1870-81
Sea Lane, Rustington, West Sussex
Lived here 1881 – 1918
Three plaques pay homage to Parry’s various houses in the south of England. The first of these is on Richmond Hill, Bournemouth (left) where the composer was born – a typical city high street, Parry’s birthplace is now romantically sandwiched between a Zizzi pizza restaurant and an NCP car park. Blest pair of sirens, indeed. In the capital, meanwhile, Kensington Square (London’s oldest square) is where Parry lived while working as an underwriter for Lloyd’s of London, studying with composer William Sterndale Bennett and getting married. The Georgian four-bedroom terraced house is now estimated to be worth in the region of £28m… And it was between Bognor Regis and Worthing on the Sussex coast that the man who wrote choral favourites such as Jerusalem and I was glad spent his final years, in the little village of Rustington. His final dwelling place is a beautiful early-20th-century detached house tucked away from the main road, the blue plaque fixed to a small plinth at the end of the driveway.
Edvard Grieg composer
47 Clapham Common North Side, London SW4 0AA
Stayed here intermittently between 1888 and 1906
No. 47 Clapham Common North Side occupies the corner of a vast, French-inspired, five-storey terrace. It was here that the Norwegian composer stayed on a number of occasions (a total of five months) as the guest of his music publisher, George Augener. The Norwegian flag was apparently flown from the rooftop whenever he was ‘in residence’ and he is known to have entertained a number of music’s most distinguished figures while there, including George Grove, the founding editor of Grove’s Dictionary of Music. During the earlier years of his London sojourns, Grieg – who was himself of Scottish descent – conducted his own music for the Philharmonic Society in St James’s Hall and, in the 1890s, headed to the universities of Cambridge and Oxford to pick up honorary doctorates. His last performance in London was in 1906, a year before his death, when he accompanied his wife Nina in a song recital at Buckingham Palace for King Edward VII.
Edward Elgar composer
51 Avonmore Road, London W14 8RT
Lived here 1890-1
Whether or not Elgar and his wife Alice filled all of 51 Avonmore Road – four large storeys in all (plus a more recent loft conversion) – is anyone’s guess. That said, soon after they moved into this imposing red-brick terrace house in March 1890, two people became three, with the birth of their daughter Carice. Elgar Jnr’s arrival and the successful premiere of the overture Froissart were about the only plusses of what was an unhappy time in the capital for the composer. Struggling to gain the recognition that he’d hope the move from Malvern would bring, he also found London life trying, not least when its notorious smog descended. ‘I groped my way to church this morning,’ he wrote in February 1891, ‘and returned in an hour’s time a weird and blackened thing with a great and giddy headache.’ Three months later, the Elgars headed back to Worcestershire.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor composer
30 Dagnall Park, Croydon, London SE25 5PH
Lived here 1900-01
On the wall of a fairly typical semi-detached brick house in the London suburb of Croydon – opposite a school sports pitch – is Coleridge-Taylor’s blue plaque. The composer shot to national fame at the turn of the 20th century as a result of his choral trilogy The Song of Hiawatha, inspired by the poetry of Longfellow.
Although he lived in Dagnall Park for only a year, Coleridge-Taylor was very familiar with the area. Born in Holborn, he moved south of the river as a child, taking up violin lessons aged five. He kept life-long links with Croydon, conducting a local orchestra and giving private music tuition. October 1900 was a high point, marked by both the birth of his son (called, yes, Hiawatha) and, with Elgar’s encouragement, the performance of his complete Hiawatha trilogy at the Birmingham Triennial Festival – the work received a standing ovation.
Clara Butt contralto
4 St Aubyns, Kings Esplanade, Hove BN3 2WA
Lived here 1903-6
Dame Clara Butt possessed a contralto voice of such great power that conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once joked she could project it right across the English Channel. If so, then one of the balconies of this vast turn-of-the-century building would have been a fine place from which to treat the residents of northern France to a quick recital. Situated right on the seafront, St Aubyns Mansion had been only relatively recently completed when Butt moved into one of its luxury flats in 1903, though it didn’t serve its original purpose for long – during World War II it was taken over by the Royal Navy. Converted back to ultra-desirable apartments, it today boasts not one but two blue plaques – another former resident was the music hall performer Vesta Tilley. You’ll also find a Clara Butt Blue plaque in Totterdown, Bristol, at the house where she lived as a nipper.
Benjamin Britten composer
21 Kirkley Cliff Road, Lowestoft NR33 ODB
Born here 1913
It’s not difficult to see why Britten had such an enduring love of the sea – he was born with a magnificent view of it. For the first 15 years of his life, the boy who would go on to write the maritime operas Peter Grimes and Billy Budd lived within earshot of the waves crashing on Lowestoft’s South Beach, and would often spend wet afternoons looking at fishing boats heading out to sea. In his earliest years, however, there were also more ominous sounds – as a naval town sitting on Britain’s most easterly point, Lowestoft was the target of bombing raids by German Zeppelins during World War I. Today, this large double-fronted Victorian property thrives as Britten House, a bed and breakfast where, rather fetchingly, guests who book for two or more nights are offered a free bottle of wine or jar of home-made orange and Cointreau marmalade.
Béla Bartók composer
7 Sydney Place, South Kensington, London SW7 3NL
Stayed here 1922, plus other occasions
Before you search out this particular plaque, do take a short while to admire the fine statue of Bartók outside South Kensington tube station – designed by Hungarian artist Imre Varga, it has stood in its present position since 2011. From there, it’s a quick walk through leafy South Ken – home, of course, to the BBC Proms – to 7 Sydney Place, the erstwhile residence of Sir Duncan Wilson, a leading civil servant and a major supporter of the composer. This is where, in 1922, Bartók stayed when he came from Hungary to London to perform his own music with the violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, an occasion that put him firmly on the map in the UK as both a composer and pianist. Though Bartók initially chose to stay with Sir Duncan, rather than in a hotel room, for purely financial reasons, he evidently enjoyed the experience – throwing himself into the social and cultural life of the city, he also stayed at the house on his numerous visits to London thereafter.
Granville Bantock composer
Metchley Abbey, Birmingham B17 OJB
Lived here 1926-33
A splendid pile in the Picturesque Gothic style, with vaulted entrance hall, twisting oak staircase and grand stone fireplaces, Metchley Abbey is now a set of retirement flats, its blue plaque still happily visible from the road in south-west Birmingham. Bantock moved to the city on becoming principal at the Birmingham and Midlands Institute School of Music and Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, and insisted on introducing Elizabethan and contemporary music – particularly Richard Strauss – into both colleges’ curriculums. He completed a good number of his own works while living here, including the Pagan Symphony, a fantasy on Ancient Greece, subtitled ‘Et ego in Arcadia vixit’ (‘I too lived in Arcadia’). A love letter to Metchley Abbey, perhaps?
Myra Hess pianist
48 Wildwood Road, London NW11 6UP
Lived here 1936-52
Skirting leafy Hampstead Heath up in north London, Wildwood Road is collection of charming early 20th-century detached residential houses, of which the five-bedroomed, red-brick No. 48 is one of the most attractive. And it was here that the celebrated British pianist Dame Myra Hess lived for almost 16 years. From Hampstead, she conceived the idea of wartime music concerts at London’s National Gallery (concert halls and theatres were closed for the duration of the war). Hess planned these concerts with the help of composer Howard Ferguson, who lived only a few doors down. They would often meet at Hess’s house, before she drove them both to Trafalgar Square in her Austin Seven. Of the 1,698 concerts that were eventually staged at the museum, Hess played 146 of them herself, and was knighted for her efforts.
Top image credit: Robert Alexander/Getty Images