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Forward. 100 Years of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
by Richard Bratby
276 pages, including index, with colour and black & white illustrations
ISBN: 978 1 78396-453-6 Elliott and Thompson
On Sunday 5 September 1920 a conductor by the name of Appleby Matthews brought down his baton to begin a performance of the symphonic overture Saul by Sir Granville Bantock. The 75 musicians in front of him, who had only come together for their first rehearsal the previous day, were the founding members of the City of Birmingham Orchestra. Bantock’s overture was the first work that the fledgling orchestra played in public and thus was inaugurated an orchestra that, one hundred years later, is not only still going strong but now, under the name of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, has a truly international reputation. That first concert began the CBO’s series of popular concerts. A few weeks later, on 10 November 1920, the orchestra gave the first of its Symphony Concerts. On that occasion a much more distinguished person was on the rostrum: Sir Edward Elgar, who conducted a programme of his own music.
So, the autumn of 2020 will see the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Indeed, the orchestra has already embarked on a two-season-long celebration. The music critic and writer Richard Bratby has produced this history of the orchestra. He’s well equipped for that task. Not only has he been a critic for, inter alia, the Birmingham Post newspaper but also, from 1998 to 2015 he worked for the CBSO in an administrative capacity. As a result, he knows the orchestra and its organisation both from the inside and also from an external critical perspective.
It was fitting that a Bantock piece was the one with which the CBO made its public debut because Bantock, the Professor of Music at Birmingham University, was one of a number of distinguished local figures who, in the aftermath of World War I, lobbied for the city to have its own permanent orchestra. (Other prominent advocates were Ernest Newman and the future Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain.) One thread that runs strongly through Richard Bratby’s narrative is the civic connection between Birmingham and its orchestra. The CBO was the first British orchestra to receive a subsidy from local authority funds. Birmingham City Council has supported the orchestra financially from the outset and, despite ever-increasing pressure on its finances, which has occasioned a substantial reduction in that support in recent years, the Council deserves great credit for standing by its orchestra for a century. It’s significant that ‘Forward’, the word used by Bratby as the title for this history, is the motto which Birmingham chose when city status was conferred upon it in 1889.
Richard Bratby’s opening chapter begins not with the foundation of the orchestra but with the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival of 1912. This is a good place to start because since its foundation in the late eighteenth century, the Festival had put Birmingham firmly on the musical map of Britain. Despite the prestige of the Festival, however, and Birmingham’s status as the country’s second city it had no full-time symphony orchestra of its own. Though no one knew it at the time, the 1912 Triennial Festival was the last: the World War put paid to the 1915 Festival and the event was not revived thereafter. The foundation of the CBO helped to fill the great gap left by the Festival and it’s clear from Mr Bratby’s book that there was a very strong public thirst for music at the time that the orchestra was formed; that thirst proved to be one that has lasted to the present day.
Richard Bratby tells the orchestra’s story very well. Inevitably, there’s much prominence given to the succession of Chief Conductors. The lineage began with Appleby Matthews, already a prominent local musician and conductor. Matthews’ achievement in getting the orchestra off the ground was a huge one but his tenure was not without friction and the Board dismissed him in 1923. His successor was Adrian Boult, the first of a series of Chief Conductors who had at the very least a national profile. Boult served from 1924-29 and such was his success that he was then “poached” to conduct the new BBC Symphony Orchestra. He was followed by Leslie Heward (1929-1943) and then George Weldon. It was on the latter’s insistence that the orchestra was renamed as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in February 1948. But an even more far-reaching change took place in the Weldon years. From its foundation the orchestra was not constituted on a full-time basis: the players dispersed over the summer to find such work as they could. At the start of 1944/45 season Weldon and the Board persuaded the City Council to fund the orchestra on a permanent (i.e. 12 month) basis. Weldon was followed by Rudolf Schwarz, Andrzej Panufnik, Sir Adrian Boult, as a self-confessed stopgap for one season, and then by the debonair Hugo Rignold who served from 1960 to 1969. Bratby discusses all of these conductors very well, highlighting their not-inconsiderable achievements but also identifying any shortcomings. Along the way it’s pleasing that he also pays due regard to the contributions of some figures whose names may be less illustrious but who also left their marks on the orchestra. Chief among these are Harold Gray (1903-91), who served as the orchestra’s assistant conductor for an astonishingly long time (1924-1979), and the composer and conductor, Victor Hely-Hutchinson, who Bratby very fairly names as one of the “quiet heroes of the CBSO story”.
Rignold’ s successor was the Frenchman, Louis Frémaux who took over the reins for the 50th anniversary season. At first things went well, not least through a series of successful recordings, which boosted the CBSO’s prestige. However, Bratby chronicles carefully the gradual fragmentation of the relationship between conductor and orchestra which led to Frémaux walking out amid considerable acrimony in 1978. The years that followed Frémaux’s tenure have overshadowed his achievements in Birmingham, which were substantial. At his initiative the now world-renowned CBSO Chorus was formed in 1973. Under Frémaux an impressive series of recordings came about, which show that under him the orchestra was in very good order. In 2017 – ironically, just weeks after the conductor’s death – EMI reissued all the recordings in a boxed set. They amply justify Richard Bratby’s assertion that this discography “still sparkles with energy and charisma” (review).
It was Louis Frémaux’s misfortune not only that he left the orchestra in acrimonious circumstances but also that he was succeeded by the man who, arguably, is the brightest star to date in the CBSO firmament. As part of the upheaval that led to Frémaux’s departure, the CBSO also parted company with their general manager, Arthur Baker. A new, young General Manager, Edward Smith arrived in late 1978 with the need to find a new Chief Conductor a priority item on his agenda. One name in Smith’s book of contacts was a young conductor by the name of Simon Rattle. The CBSO Board took a leap of faith and appointed a man in his early twenties who had never run an orchestra before and who inherited an ensemble in turmoil but, as they say, the rest is history.
The Rattle era did not describe a smooth upward trajectory. By his own admission, the conductor was learning as he went on. But the burst of energy and the vision that he brought as well as the thoroughness with which he developed further the very good orchestra that Frémaux had bequeathed him brought amazing results. Rattle is not without his detractors but among many qualities that demand respect is his determination to build lasting relationships. It would have been easy for him to leave Birmingham after a few years for a more prestigious podium – by all accounts he was not short of offers – but he stayed for 18 years (and then followed that with a sixteen-year stint in Berlin.) Under his leadership the orchestra played all over the world and they were heard by an even wider audience through the recordings they made together – over 70 between 1981 and 2006. Very rightly, Richard Bratby pays proper attention to the Rattle era but I think it’s a strength of his book that he does not do so to an extent that unbalances the narrative. Rattle’s years were hugely important in the orchestra’s history but here they are properly viewed in the context of a 100-year story.
Bratby intersperses some subsidiary charters into his narrative in which he discusses specific topics. These include the orchestra’s outreach into the city community – something which goes back as far as February 1921 when Appleby Mathews instituted Schools Concerts. There’s also a chapter about the CBSO’s overseas touring activities. From modest beginnings in 1955 the tours began to expand in the 1970s and, especially, in the Rattle era. The pace hasn’t slowed since then. George Weldon initiated the CBSO Proms in the summer. These ran from 1945 to the mid-1980s. Even now the orchestra does a lot of popular programmes, including occasional forays into the music of ‘Bollywood’ Indeed, the CBSO does an awful lot in and for its local community and can probably claim to have led the way among UK orchestras in that respect.
There’s an important section on the orchestra’s recording history. In the eighty years since 1940 the CBSO has released some 225 recordings. Their first commercial recording was with Leslie Heward in December 1940. A few more recordings followed but then there was a period of silence after June 1946 until, under Hugo Rignold, they made an LP of music by Sir Arthur Bliss for Lyrita in 1966. That’s now available on CD and it still impresses, more than fifty years later (review). I’ve already mentioned the Frémaux recordings, made for EMI between June 1970 and December 1977. Every Chief conductor since then has made notable recordings with the orchestra. However, Bratby offers a tantalising glimpse of “might have been” recordings: those which were made but still lie unissued. These include a live Beethoven symphony cycle made towards the end of Andris Nelsons’ tenure; the conductor declined to sanction release and presumably they will never see the light of day, especially now that he has recorded the symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic for DG.
Fittingly, Richard Bratby allots the CBSO Chorus their own chapter. Initially, they were directed by Gordon Clinton but the CBSO
Chorus’s Director since 1983 has been Simon Halsey who very fairly describes his singers as “unpaid professionals”. The CBSO Chorus was founded to complement the CBSO but, as Bratby observes,” the two ensembles are now, unarguably, on an equal footing”. He rightly reminds us that the CBSO Chorus regularly fulfils prestigious engagements quite independently of the CBSO and with a good number of leading orchestras. It’s a telling statistic that although it was formed “only” 46 years ago, the CBSO Chorus already has over 900 performances under its belt and it enjoys a global reputation.
The 18-year term of Simon Rattle was a defining era in the orchestra’s history. I like the way in which Richard Bratby deals with the Rattle years in a chapter entitled “Ten pieces from a Revolution”. He uses ten pieces of music as pegs on which to base a discussion of the Rattle period. Unsurprisingly, works by composers such as Boulez and Messiaen feature among the ten but so do Haydn’s Symphony No 70 and Patrick Doyle’s 1989 score for the Kenneth Branagh film of Henry V. After 71 years, in 1991 the CBSO relocated its concert base from Birmingham Town Hall, its home since 1920, to the wonderful acoustic space that is Symphony Hall. At a time when the UK is in ferment over its intended departure from the European Union it’s salutary to be reminded that a large dollop of EU funding contributed to the building of ths magnificent concert hall. Richard Bratby includes a delicious quotation from Simon Rattle, who remembers “the foundation stone [of Symphony Hall] being laid by Sir Keith Joseph and Jacques Delors together – probably the people in their two countries who loathed each other the most”.
Simon Rattle departed in 1998 and the CBSO continued the trend, established with Rattle’s own appointment, of making perceptive appointments of young conductors who, at the time they were hired to lead the orchestra, were little known. The Finn, Sakari Oramo had the demanding task of following Rattle but Mr Bratby males it plain that he made a great success of doing so and was very much his own man. In his decade at the helm he achieved much. Andris Nelsons similarly came from nowhere and, indeed, was engaged on the basis of a private trial concert before he’d ever appeared publicly with the CBSO. Bratby describes his tenure as “like a seven-year honeymoon”. Very early on in Nelsons’ tenure it became obvious that it was only a matter of time before one of the world’s leading orchestras snapped him up. It was the Boston Symphony who won the race for his services, in 2013. Bratby confirms the rumours I heard at the time that initially Nelsons hoped to stay with the CBSO also, but the length of the CBSO season was one of a number of reasons why that proved impossible. He left Birmingham after an appearance at the Proms in 2015. Three days after that Proms farewell the orchestra turned up for rehearsals of a programme including excerpts from Sleeping Beauty. On the rostrum was another young conductor who, like Nelsons in 2007, was completely unknown to them: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. It wasn’t all that long before, with the players’ enthusiastic endorsement - as had previously happened with Oramo and Nelsons - she was installed as Nelsons’ successor. Already, in a short space of time Ms Gražinytė-Tyla’s work with the CBSO has generated considerable excitement.
There has been a considerable amount of success in the orchestra’s first century but Richard Bratby’s narrative is a balanced one and he addresses also the anxious moments that there have been along the way. The rupture with Louis Frémaux was probably the most serious but the very first conductor, Appleby Matthews was shown the door in 1923, despite all that he’d achieved. George Weldon, though widely liked, was also eased out. Finances have frequently been strained, too. Rudolf Schwarz’s arrival in 1951 coincided with a very serious financial crisis, so much so that a proposal was seriously mooted to merge the CBSO and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, with the merged orchestra wintering in Birmingham and spending the summer months in Bournemouth. Happily, this ludicrous proposal was dismissed out of hand by the Bournemouth orchestra and the threat galvanised Birmingham City Council to offer additional financial help which saved the CBSO. It’s also noteworthy that despite the triumphs of the Rattle era the Arts Council of Great Britain was, to put it mildly, inconsistent in its financial backing during that period and this meant that the CBSO ended the 1990s with a significant deficit.
But Richard Bratby has far more successes than problems to chronicle. Rightly, he records that from the very start the orchestra performed music by living composers, even if not all of it has stood the test of time. He makes a very important point when he says that “A city orchestra doesn’t exist merely to sustain itself, or provide commercial entertainment. It is a civic amenity; it has a duty….to give its city access to a cross-section of what is new, good and important, both at home and abroad.” To this end, the CBSO has commissioned a large number of works down the years; since the mid-1950s many of them have been generously funded by the John Feeney Charitable Trust. This drive to enrich the repertoire will continue during the centenary celebrations for which no less than 20 composers have been invited to write works. What was surely the CBSO’s most celebrated premiere
to date, though, concerned a work not commissioned by them. This was the world premiere of Britten’s War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral in May 1962. The performance was given under famously challenging circumstances; the recording of the event can now be heard on CD (review). Fifty years later to the day, the CBSO, now under the direction of Andris Nelsons and in collaboration with the CBSO Chorus, returned to the cathedral to perform the work again. A comparison of the two performances shows the immense qualitative strides that the CBSO had made over those five decades (review).
The history of the CBSO is as compelling as it is important. Richard Bratby has told the story uncommonly well. His style is eminently readable and clear. It’s obvious that the book has been scrupulously researched. I detected only one very small error: the 2014 performance of James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion, which I attended, was not the world premiere of the work, but it was the first time it had been given in the UK The book is handsomely produced. Somewhat unusually, the text is laid out in two vertical columns on each page but the font is admirably clear. The text is copiously illustrated with photographs in colour and in black-and-white; these discerningly chosen images add substantially to the reader’s pleasure.
The CBSO has become a world-class ensemble and it’s fitting that its centenary should be marked with such an excellent and comprehensive survey, which will be of great value way beyond the boundaries of Birmingham itself. Those who are interested in learning even more about the history of the orchestra should investigate also a second book in addition to Richard Bratby’s volume. I’m referring to the lively memoir, Wrong Sex, Wrong Instrument by Maggie Cotton who was a member of the CBSO percussion section from 1959 to 1999. Maggie Cotton, who is cited several times by Richard Bratby, gives a perceptive and keen-eyed insider’s view of the CBSO and her book is an ideal complement to Bratby’s very fine history of the orchestra.
The CBSO embarks on its second century in great shape. In that context, it seems appropriate to end with some words of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, quoted by Mr Bratby. “[T]his orchestra has a youthful spirit, in the sense of being open to things: being curious, wanting to discover new repertoire, new ways of playing known repertoire, and new ways of carrying out our role in society.” Long may that continue.