The history of the Royal Albert Hall

He may not be a common name in books of musical history, but Henry Darracott Scott created the Royal Albert Hall's iconic dome. Here, we present a decade-by-decade guide to some of the major musical events to have filled his magnificent masterpiece…

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 08: General view outside ahead of the Last Night Of The Proms at Royal Albert Hall on September 8, 2012 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Christie Goodwin/Redferns via Getty Images)
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Who built and designed the Royal Albert Hall?

Henry Darracott Scott was the man responsible for designing and building London’s Royal Albert Hall, despite the fact that his name is quite difficult to find in the history books. You will look in vain in most histories of British music to find even a mention of the man who designed the Royal Albert Hall.

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One name often forgotten in the history of the Hall is the architect Colonel Henry Darracott Scott. An officer in the Royal Engineers, Darracott Scott designed the rotunda as part of a day’s work in the 1860s, his only concern being to build big, to represent the Empire as the Colosseum did for Rome. He might have felt the criticism that the building’s acoustics constantly receive was a bit harsh – after all, boxing matches, political rallies, trade fairs, commemorations and the Chelsea Arts Club Ball were hardly dependent on the sound, were they?

But even so, the Hall had a choir to enjoy the echo from the start, and music became the obvious function of the building. Performances that engaged with the architecture, that matched its incredible scale, fared best. Unexpectedly, the electronically amplified entertainments of the 20th century proved the best fit. Perhaps Darracott Scott was simply way ahead of his time?

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Henry Darracott Scott, designer and builder of the Royal Albert Hall

Who was Henry Darracott Scott and why did he design and build the Royal Albert Hall?

Born in Plymouth, Henry Young Darracott Scott received a military education, and in 1840 was commissioned as second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. Promoted and eventually appointed in 1855 instructor at the Royal Engineer establishment at Brompton, Chatham, he was in charge of the chemical laboratory there and invented a new form of cement from grey chalk – now known as Scott’s cement. He also perfected a method of representing ground in military maps through the use of hachures.

His resourcefulness led to his employment in 1865 with the commission of the Great Exhibition at South Kensington. By the following year, he had been entrusted with the design and building of the Royal Albert Hall. Such was his confidence in his ambitious design of its famous dome, that when it was time to remove the scaffolding Scott himself knocked away its final support. He is also said to be responsible for founding the Wine Society in 1874, as a means to sell excess wine stocks unsold during the Great Exhibition.

Find out more about the Royal Albert Hall’s organ here.

The history of the Royal Albert Hall

For many people, the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) is synonymous with the Last Night of the Proms. Just as the nation’s collective attention turns towards Wembley for the FA Cup final each May, the vast Victorian venue in South Kensington becomes the focus for one Saturday evening in September. The Hall, though, has served a far wider purpose than that since it opened on 29 March 1871, hosting a whole range of musical and non-musical events throughout the year. Some fondly refer to it as ‘the nation’s village hall,’ others the ‘Kensington O’. And thanks to the Beatles, a generation of music fans know how many holes it takes to fill it.

It’s time to take a decade-by-decade look at some of the major musical events to have filled his magnificent masterpiece…

1870s A Wagnerian visit: Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival visits the Royal Albert Hall

In 1877, the entire Bayreuth Festival, which was itself only a year old, came to the Royal Albert Hall for a week of shows. The concerts were to be conducted by the master himself, Richard Wagner, but in the event he beat only the first item, before handing the baton to his colleague Hans Richter while he sat in an armchair at the side of the stage and stared out at the vast crowd. Bayreuth was intimate; this place was like the open air. The promoter hadn’t mentioned Richter and there were complaints. The programme consisted of excerpts from all of Wagner’s operas except Parsifal which was still germinating.

1880s Introducing Antonín: Dvořák conducts Stabat Mater at the Royal Albert Hall

Word had it that the young Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák was a rising star and so London’s Philharmonic Society extended an invitation. When he conducted his Stabat Mater on Monday 10 March 1884, it was the first time he’d appeared outside his country and the rapturous reception of this work was the beginning of his international reputation. The Latin text – a mother mourns her child – was not widely known, but the composer had experienced such tragedy. The enormous choir which had been formed to fill the vast space at the opening in 1871, and which became the Royal Choral Society (RCS), consisted of almost a thousand singers. Composer John Stainer, of Crucifixion fame, played the organ. 

1890s A golden voice: Clara Butt’s debut at the Royal Albert Hall

The statuesque contralto Clara Butt was 20 years old when she made her debut at the Hall on 7 December 1892 with the RCS in Sullivan’s cantata The Golden Legend, his greatest work outside the operettas. Mature in voice and character and standing 6’2″ in her stockinged feet, Butt proved a sensation as the distraught mother of a suicidal daughter. She had been a student at the Royal College of Music opposite the Hall for two years and Bernard Shaw predicted a long and distinguished career. He was right on both counts – within a few years, Elgar wrote Sea Pictures for her, and she went on to notch up 110 performances at the Hall.

1900s On the march: John Philip Sousa and the American Band come to the Royal Albert Hall

The American military composer John Philip Sousa marched across the arena with his ‘marvellous’ American Band of wind and drums for three performances in October 1901 and was a big hit. The players, a little under-strength at 51, were graduates of a US Marines musical training. They used the space creatively and concerts were choreographed. The tour continued through Europe. What fun Yankee culture was! Is that a sousaphone? What catchy tunes! They played ragtime for an encore. They sailed over again in uniform during the war. Big Band and Swing came out of it.

1910s A Titanic occasion: a Royal Albert Hall concert pays tribute to those who died in the Titanic

RMS Titanic sank on 15 April 1912 and within a month a memorial concert had been arranged. The 1,500 dead included the entire band and the ship’s captain. Members of all the London orchestras took part under a succession of conductors including Elgar, Thomas Beecham and Henry Wood. The LSO, in fact, was originally to have been aboard the ship for a US tour. Chopin’s funeral march was the opener and Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ became associated with mourning for the first time. The concert ended with ‘Nearer My God’, the Methodist hymn which the band is said to have played as they drowned. No choir: the audience sang.

1920s Worldly sorrow: John Fould’s World Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall

More grief was felt from 1923-26 at the annual Armistice Day performances of A World Requiem by John Foulds to commemorate the dead in the war. The new-born BBC broadcast it with the Wireless Orchestra (the future BBC Symphony Orchestra), fanfare bands and a thousand-strong choir conducted by the composer. With a biblical text, the work featured a tenor as Jesus and a baritone as narrator, in plainsong monotones. But the public mood was more for joyful relief than sombre reflection, and from 1926 the event became more popular with renditions of Tipperary and poppies everywhere. A fifth performance took place in 2007 and made more sense of the religious minimalism.

1930s American adventure: a performance of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s The Song of Hiawatha

Every June for 15 years until 1939, the RCS staged Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s The Song of Hiawatha, composed in 1900 not as an opera but as a trilogy of cantatas. The RCS’s amateur singers nonetheless thought it a hoot, costume-changing in Hyde Park and doing war dances in the arena every night. They’d been introduced to it by conductor Malcolm Sargent – ‘Sir’ after WWII – who championed the work and conducted almost every show. The 12,000 square foot backcloth was claimed to be the largest canvas ever painted. The chorus did the bulk of the singing but many came just to hear baritone Os-ke-non-ton, a Mohawk Indian chief, as the Medicine Man.

1940s The Proms arrive at the Royal Albert Hall

The BBC Proms came to the Hall on 12 July 1941. Sir Henry Wood conducted the LSO as he had done the previous season because the BBC Symphony Orchestra had evacuated – in the interim, the old venue, Queen’s Hall, had been destroyed by German bombs. Sir Henry Wood still thought in terms of his Proms and went ahead without the broadcaster. The opening night included Beethoven’s Fifth and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman Overture (in the previous war, German works were avoided) after opening with ‘God Save the King’ and Elgar’s Cockaigne with its cheerful cockney swagger. The echo, The Times said, was most obvious in the cymbal clashes of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations with Cyril Smith at the piano keys. The Beeb returned in 1942 when the coast was clear.

Here, we name the best recordings of Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini.

1950s The Last shall be first: Kirsten Flagstad sings Four Last Songs at the end of her career

There have been many world premieres, but of nothing with greater stature now than Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs on Monday 22 May 1950. Before he died the previous year, the composer gave these mighty orchestral Lieder to the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad to premiere and record under conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Though her career was over, she still had the power to fill the Hall and rise above the full-scale Philharmonia, which had been formed as a recording orchestra by EMI producer Walter Legge.

1960s Rocking with Bob: a sell-out Royal Albert Hall concert with Bob Dylan

The folk singer Bob Dylan graced the Royal Albert Hall on two nights during his world tour in May 1966. These were sell-outs – literally in the first half when he played his acoustic guitar, metaphorical in the second when he took up his electric instrument, ‘rocked’ and upset the purists, many of whom left. Mr Tambourine Man closed the first half, Like a Rolling Stone the second. The concerts became legendary, and Dylan at the Albert Hall was a million seller disc – although the performances featured were actually recorded in Manchester. ‘Live at the Royal Albert Hall’ sounded too good a concept, though, to waste. 

1970s Hall together now: The Really Big Chorus is created

The Really Big Chorus, a loose collective of amateur choirs and individuals who simply wanted to sing, first performed at the Albert Hall in 1974 with ‘Messiah from Scratch’. When conductor David Willcocks took over the annual Music from Scratch concert in 1979, the wacky idea from five years earlier – just turn up; voice or instrument?; no rehearsal –  reached a new level. Now a great musician was in charge, bringing decent soloists. Handel’s Messiah remained the staple, but other works were tried. And it continues today: Brian Kay, the former King’s Singer, directs Messiah on St Cecilia’s Day (22 November) this year. 

Here, we name the best recordings of Handel’s Messiah.

1980s Show of strength: the launch of Raymond Gubbay’s Classical Spectaculars

Many impresarios are daunted by the Albert Hall’s capacity, but not Raymond Gubbay who has filled it many times over the past five decades. The first of his Classical Spectaculars was on Sunday 8 October 1989 and included, as it always does, Elgar’s First Pomp and Circumstance March and, as finale, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with real cannon fire. Others scoff, but Gubbay, who the following decade filled the arena with water for Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, has the measure of the Kensington O. Many have enjoyed their greatest classical experiences at his hands.

Here, we name the best recordings of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

1990s Youthful swan song: a Proms performance from the National Youth Orchestra

‘Hands up who’s wearing Right Guard!’ a Prommer heckled at the National Youth Orchestra’s Prom in 1999. But one of the most moving moments in the entire season came when the glistening teenagers downed their instruments at the end of concert, stood and sang unaccompanied Gibbons’s part song The Silver Swan as an encore. It was as beautiful as it was unexpected. The harmony floated into the dome.

2000s Taking Stockhausen: BBC Proms celebrate the great electronic master

At the 2009 BBC Proms, an audience was treated to Stockhausen Day, a celebration of the first master of electronic sound. Most impressive was the scale – the sheer size of the burbles, blips and hum easily a match for the Hall. Rock bands are in some ways more comfortable here than orchestras, whose fortissimo in the lofty cavern often underwhelms the first-timer, and the electric guitarist among the orchestras in Gruppen sliced through with nonchalant ease. Somewhere up above, Col Darracott Scott probably had a broad grin.

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2010s Ringing out: Wagner’s complete Ring cycle at the BBC Proms

Full circle after 150 years! In 2013, the Hall became the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and staged at the BBC Proms the entire Ring cycle on almost consecutive nights, as Richard Wagner had intended. That’s 15 hours total. Many stood throughout. Daniel Barenboim conducted the Berlin Staatskapelle in a concert performance with on-stage orchestra and no costumes or scores, but some acting required. There was a carousel of soloists, though Nina Stemme sang Brünnhilde for three evenings, waking up in the organ loft at the start of Götterdämmerung with a different Siegfried to the previous night.