History of Music in Birmingham

Birmingham has a long and proud musical history. In 1768 the first Musical Festival was held to raise money for the General Hospital and these festivals continued somewhat irregularly until 1784, after which they were held every three years. The Town Hall was built in 1834 and the Birmingham Triennial Festivals continued there with ever-greater success.

Many famous musicians became involved over the years, including Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, Grieg, Sibelius, Dvorák and Elgar. Mendelssohn’s great association culminated in the première ofElijah, commissioned for the 1846 Birmingham Triennial Festival. Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius was premièred in 1900, followed by The Apostles and The Kingdom in 1903 and 1906 respectively and The Music Makers in 1912. The 1912 Festival was the last as they did not resume after the outbreak of war in 1914.

An Orchestra for Birmingham
Attention then turned to the foundation of an orchestra for the city, encouraged by the famous conductor Thomas Beecham, who also pleaded for a purpose-built concert hall for the new orchestra to play in. The City of Birmingham Orchestra was founded, and Elgar directed their first Town Hall performance in 1920.

As early as 1918, the City Council began buying up land in the Broad Street area, with the idea of building a grand Civic Centre, which was to include a large concert hall. However, the great Depression of the 1920s put paid to this scheme. Meanwhile, the Town Hall was beginning to feel its age, and in 1926 part of the ceiling collapsed. During the repairs, the conductor of the Orchestra, Adrian Boult, began to agitate for a new concert hall. “Don’t worry, Mr Boult” he was assured, “you’ll get your new concert hall before you leave Birmingham.”

As well as a venue for classical music, Town Hall was always very much a focus of cultural and community life in Birmingham. Since its earliest days it was used for political speechmaking and debate, in the 1950s it embraced the emerging jazz scene, and most famous pops bands from the 1950s onwards performed there. Civic and community events such as the annual Festival of Remembrance, public lectures and graduation ceremonies were always an integral part of its life. Its fabric deteriorating, it became clear that if the Town Hall were to close it would leave the city centre without a venue to host concerts, cultural and public events.

The CBSO Connection
In 1980 the rising star of the classical music world, Simon Rattle, was appointed Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Under his leadership, the Orchestra gained a reputation as one of the finest in the world. The City Council greatly valued the enhanced profile for Birmingham and a mutually supportive relationship between the City, Simon Rattle and the CBSOunderpinned the years of musical success which continued through the 1980s and 1990s. As the Orchestra’s reputation grew, the limitations of its home venue, the Town Hall, became ever more apparent. Simon Rattle received a letter from Sir Adrian Boult, telling him that he had been promised a new concert hall in the 1920s.

By the early 1980s, a combination of recession and high unemployment in Birmingham led the City Council to consider a convention centre which would promote the City at an international level, create a service industry and jobs, and attract business from the UK and abroad. This coincided with the urgent need to provide a new home for the CBSO. In 1983, the City commissioned a feasibility study to consider building on disused land on Broad Street, on a site formerly occupied by the Prince of Wales Theatre (1856-1942) and the Bingley Exhibition Hall. It was suggested by Tom Caulcott, then Chief Executive of the City Council, that the centre might include a concert hall, and so the new residence of the CBSO became inextricably linked. The name ‘Symphony Hall’ was adopted at the suggestion of Ed Smith, then Chief Executive of the CBSO.

Funding of the Building
It was evident that such an ambitious project could not be financed solely by Birmingham City Council and there was little chance of central government funding. However, Birmingham had been designated an area for development which opened the door to European funding. The International Convention Centre was developed at a cost of £180 million including a grant of £50 million from the European Community.

Acousticians and Architects
In March 1984, the Percy Thomas Partnership and Renton Howard Wood Levin were appointed as architects and together they formed the Convention Centre Partnership. The following month, Artec Consultants Inc, New York were selected as Theatre and Acoustic Consultant. Russell Johnson, Chairman of Artec, a man of unrivalled acoustic expertise, became the critical figure in the development of Symphony Hall: every aspect of the interior design, from the shaping and dimensions of the Hall to the type of materials used for surfaces and seat coverings, was his choice. Russell Johnson produced an acoustic model which CCP then ‘architected’. The unique relationship between acousticians and architects cannot be underestimated – departing from the standard practice of having acousticians work on a completed architectural design is the fundamental reason why Symphony Hall is such an acoustic triumph.

Symphony Hall was always intended to look as good as it sounded and the brief was to create a rich, warm, luxuriant space that would enhance the acoustic experience. The Hall uses classical curves, rounded, polished surfaces, columns and tiers, all of which fitted well with this vision and the Hall displays a geometric, classical purity of line that has been much admired.

An Acoustic Marvel
Symphony Hall is built to a traditional ‘shoebox’ shape, a design which dates back to the great halls of the late 19th century (acoustically-acclaimed halls such as Vienna’s Musikverein, and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam are constructed to this shape). Russell Johnson had used this shape before with great success and for Symphony Hall he refined this still further.

One design innovation is the reverberation chamber – a 12,700 cubic metre void which is equivalent to about 50% of the volume of the Hall itself. It envelops the platform end of Hall in a U shape and links with additional chambers that run along the sides of the Hall at high level. A series of huge, concrete doors each weighing one tonne, opens from the Hall and can be adjusted to create the required degree of ‘echo’.

The visually striking acoustic canopy suspended above the stage can be lowered to about 10 metres above the platform effectively creating a smaller space to focus the sound of a small number of players. Conversely, for a symphony orchestra, an expansive sound is achieved by raising the canopy to the roof, often used with the reverberation chamber.

For events using amplification, a series of acoustic panels situated around the Hall are utilised in conjunction with a huge curtain of tightly woven fabric which is hung from ceiling to floor at the rear of the platform. These absorb much of the sound energy, reducing the reverberation so that amplified music and speech can be heard more clearly.

Further performance flexibility can be achieved by removing the front three rows of seats in the Stalls and either replacing them with further staging to form a larger platform area, or sinking them below ground and forming an orchestra pit. The wooden bank of staging on the platform (the ‘risers’) can also be moved off stage to create a large flat stage suitable for dance, pop concerts or conference presentations.

Fascinating Facts
Symphony Hall alone weighs around 32,000 tonnes and is founded on 120 concrete pillars. These pillars are interspersed with 800 rubber cushions to reduce vibration from the railway line which runs directly below the ICC site. Although not of arena size, the great height of the Hall means that its total volume is 25,000 cubic metres.

Before the Hall opened, tests were carried out on the air conditioning in which the heat of an audience was simulated by two thousand 200-watt light bulbs placed on the seats.

An acoustic test demonstrated that if a pin was dropped on stage, the sound could be heard from anywhere in the Hall.

Backstage at Symphony Hall
Backstage facilities for performers at Symphony Hall were an integral part of the design and briefly comprise:

A climate-controlled Piano Store housing a selection of grand pianos from which pianists may choose their preferred instrument.
An Artists’ Bar at stage level where performers can relax before a performance.
A fully-accessible individual dressing room at stage level with an adapted en suite bathroom suitable for disabled peformers.
Six individual dressing rooms on the level above the stage, all with en suite facilities, sofas and armchairs. One of these rooms is the personal dressing room of the Principal Conductor of theCBSO, the others are used by performers as required.
Two offices for the use of orchestra managers or tour managers, situated on the level above the stage.
Four large communal dressing rooms on the level below the stage accommodating 120 people in total.

Opening Night
On 15 April 1991, over 4000 people amassed in Birmingham to witness Simon Rattle conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the inaugural concerts at Symphony Hall. Two separate concerts took place on the day – the first, Stravinsky’s Firebird, the second, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. It was universally agreed that the development was an exceptional achievement that provided Birmingham with a world-class venue to rival any found elsewhere.

The Sunday Telegraph wrote “It is not only easily this country’s finest concert hall, but also assuredly among the world’s best”. The Times, agreed: “Symphony Hall looks on this showing to be a virtuoso among concert rooms… the place is obviously going to be an inspiration to the orchestra playing there regularly, and to the visiting orchestras that will be drawn to it. It will be an inspiration also to its audiences.” Simon Rattle spoke for everyone when he said, “At last we have a concert hall which any city in the world would be proud to own”.

In 1996 Symphony Hall achieved charitable status, which facilitated fund-raising and meant that the education programme could be significantly developed. This also paved the way for the launch of the Organ Appeal. In 1998 Sir Simon Rattle stepped down as Principal Conductor of the CBSO, passing the baton to the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo, under whose leadership the Orchestra has continued to develop and maintain its position as one of the finest in the world.

© Symphony Hall 2006. The material contained in this article may not be reproduced without the written permission of Performances Birmingham Limited. This article is abridged from ‘Hearing is Believing; the story of Symphony Hall’ which is available for sale.