Among the various musical bicentenaries this year, one of the most widely celebrated has been the Royal Philharmonic Society's. The manuscript of their most famous commission, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, will be on display at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York until 1 December 2013, reunited for the first time since 1824 with the other copyists' manuscript overseen by Beethoven, which is now part of the Juilliard Manuscript Collection. The British Library, which acquired the RPS archive in 2002, is proud to continue its association with the RPS. The entire archive has now been digitised, and is available (via subscription or in our reading rooms) as part of Nineteenth Century Collections Online.
The story of the foundation of the Philharmonic Society in 1813 to 'rekindle excellence in instrumental music' has been told many times - most usefully in Cyril Ehrlich's book First Philharmonic (Oxford, 1995). What has not been known until now is just how dedicated the founding directors were to the project, and how grand their original plans were. In an article just published in the Electronic British Library Journal, Leanne Langley tells a fascinating tale of the complex negotiations that led to the building of the New Argyll Rooms, where the Choral Symphony and many other great works were given their first London performances.
The building was devised as an integral part of John Nash's development of Regent Street under the name of the Regent's Harmonic Institution, renamed as Royal Harmonic Institution when it finally opened in 1820, following the Prince Regent's accession as King George IV). The rooms were to be used for a wide variety of concerts and other events, and the complex included a shop selling music published in-house. The plans were to create a Royal Academy of Music, by analogy with the Royal Academy of Arts. The considerable costs were largely underwritten by the directors of the Philharmonic Society, in a personal capacity and in the hope of recouping a profit in the longer term.
Sadly, most of their plans were thwarted. The building burnt down after only ten years, and although it was insured, the costs of replacing it were too great. Meanwhile, the Royal Academy of Music had been founded by other means elsewhere. The Philharmonic Society continued, as a promoter of concerts, commissioner of new works, and supporter of all aspects of the musical world - and continues to flourish in this role to this day. But, as Leanne Langley points out, one important legacy of the sad story of the rise and fall of the New Argyll Rooms is that the area around Oxford Circus quickly became a Mecca of the musical world, and has remained so ever since: first music publishers and instrument sellers placed their shops nearby, to be followed in the twentieth century by record shops. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the BBC built Broadcasting House at the top of the same development, to sit alongside the mass of cultural organisations which began with the Philharmonic Society.
Read Leanne Langley's article, 'A Place for Music: John Nash, Regent Street and the Philharmonic Society of London' by following this link.