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The sound of music is best

heard … in Watford

Daniel Defoe apparently described Watford as a “genteel market town” back in 1778. But relatively few visitors have sung its praises in recent years.

The town does, however, have something very special – Watford Colosseum, a concert hall with truly exceptional acoustics.

The Colosseum has been used for countless classical recording sessions over the years. Maria Callas (1954), Luciano Pavarotti (1995) Renee Fleming (1999) are among the major stars who have recorded there. Some of the most successful film music of recent decades - The Sound of Music, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings - has also been recorded at the venue, which was known as the Town Hall Assembly Rooms until 1994.

Why are the acoustics of the 1938 building so good? Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber answered that question in a combative article he wrote for The Telegraph in 2006, when the hall seemed in danger of closure. “The ‘shoebox’ shape enjoyed by Watford will never be bettered,” he argued, “which is why an auditorium such as the Royal Festival Hall, with its massively wide platform and sky-high ceiling, will always struggle acoustically, no matter how many teams of ‘sound engineers’ are brought in to tinker with it.”

Acoustics experts who inspected the Colosseum in 2009 came to much the same conclusion and added that the flat – rather than raked - floor also helped.

Lloyd Webber had every reason to speak so fondly of the venue, which he said – unintentionally echoing the Carlsberg slogan -- was “probably the finest recording venue in the world”. Though he was too modest to say so in his Telegraph piece, the recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto that he made there in 1985, under the baton of Yehudi Menuhin, is sometimes described as the best-ever.

As we are offering praise we should, of course, save some for the building’s architect, Charles Cowles-Voysey (son of the more famous architect Charles Voysey) and the highly regarded acoustician who was hired to assist him, Hope Bagenal. A one-time editor of the Architectural Association Journal, Bagenal helped to pioneer a scientific approach to the acoustic design of buildings. He went on to work on the Sydney Opera House as well as the Lincoln Centre in New York.

Watford Borough Council said it was wary of doing anything that would damage the acoustics when the Colosseum was refurbished in 2010-11 (the council owns the theatre but it is managed by HQ Theatres, the country’s second largest theatre operator).

It will point to the recent award of a ‘Blue Plaque’, as part of the 2017 BBC Music Day celebrations, as evidence that it achieved that aim. The BBC  
Concert Orchestra continues to be based at the Colosseum, of course, and Friday Night is Music Night, BBC Radio 2’s long-running live music programme, is often broadcast from the venue.

Its glory days as a recording venue may be over now that the Colosseum is used for an ever-widening range of purposes. But one would like to think that Hope Bagenal would still be happy with his legacy to Watford and to the world of music.

Main sources:
Flury, R., Giacomo Puccini: A Discography, Rowman and Littlefield.
Lloyd Webber, Julian “The finest acoustic in the country – and it's under threat”, The Telegraph, 2 November, 2006.
Scott, M., Maria Meneghini Callas, Northeastern University Press.

Contribution by - David Budge

to start


Rosa Newmarch:

a truly unforgettable woman

When Janacek visited Henry Wood at his Chorleywood farm in 1926 (see previous By the By article) the Czech composer was accompanied by a most remarkable woman – Rosa Newmarch - who acted as his ‘chief minder’ on his only trip to England.

Today Rosa is known to a few classical music scholars as the Proms programme writer from 1908 to 1927, when the BBC took over. Some are also aware that she was one of the first in Britain to champion not only Janacek and Sibelius but several Russian composers.

But Rosa, who lived in Chorleywood Road, Rickmansworth, in the 1930s, deserves to be more than a footnote in music histories. Sibelius called her “une femme inoubliable” (an unforgettable woman) and indeed she was.

The daughter of a leading doctor, Rosa was a prolific writer and author who wrote more than 20 books, including the first biography of Henry Wood in 1904, and two volumes of poetry. She was president of the Society of Women Musicians from 1927 to 1930 and knew many of the leading composers and performers of her day, such as Grieg, Busoni, Elgar and the great Russian opera singer, Chaliapin.

She was also a polyglot and translator who could speak French, German, Russian and Czech. But, in a way, what really sets Rosa apart is her chutzpah. In 1897, for example, she set off for Russia with a woman friend and two bottles of Scotch – and returned with music scores by Glinka, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, who were then little known in Britain.

Equally remarkably, in 1915, she travelled to Russia again, even though the First World War was raging, and stopped off in Finland to visit Sibelius.

After the Russian Revolution she turned her attention to Eastern Europe and Janacek and was still visiting Czechoslovakia (as it was then known) in the 1930s, when she was in her 70s.

In fact, her Chorleywood Road home, St Hostyns, was named after a Czech pilgrimage site. And it was while living in Rickmansworth that she worked on her translation of the comic opera, The Bartered Bride, by that other great Czech composer, Smetana.

Sadly, Rosa’s house appears to have been demolished but we will do what we can to ensure that its owner is not forgotten in this corner of Hertfordshire. There will be more snapshots from her fascinating life in a future By the By column.

Main sources:

Bullock, P. R., Rosa Newmarch and Russian music in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century England, (Farnham, 2009) (Royal Musical Association Monographs no. 18)

Stevens, L., An unforgettable woman: the life and times of Rosa Newmarch (Leicester, 2011)

Contribution by - David Budge

to start


Why W.S. Gilbert

loved Harefield

A recent ‘By the By’ article brought you the unlikely but true story of Frederick Delius composing beside the River Gade in Watford. Now we can relate the even less well-known tale of how W.S.Gilbert came to work on the libretto of The Gondoliers while staying near the Grand Union Canal in Harefield – rather than the Grand Canal in Venice.

But, you may ask, didn’t Gilbert live at Grim’s Dyke in Harrow Weald? Yes, he did, but only from 1890 to 1911. In the 1880s, when he and Sullivan were in their pomp (and still on speaking terms), Gilbert divided his time between his large home in South Kensington, which he had commissioned after the success of Patience, and his equally impressive summer retreat in Harefield.

He and his wife, Kitty, used to rent Breakspear House, which is just off Breakspear Road North, for up to five months of the year and they would sometimes play the part of lord and lady of the manor (in the summer of 1889, while working on The Gondoliers, Gilbert presided over the village’s annual school treat, when children received book prizes and gifts of toys).

Breakspears provided Gilbert with a welcome antidote to the stresses of London. He loved to play tennis there and reputedly even extended the length of the court so that fewer of his smashes would overshoot the baseline.

He found it congenial to write in his sunny dressing room at Breakspears and would occasionally invite Sullivan out to his country estate to discuss their latest work.

Years later, Gilbert acknowledged that he had some of his best ideas while travelling to and fro between London and Breakspears, which was once owned by the family that produced the only English pope, Nicholas Breakspear.

It was on an Uxbridge station platform one day in 1887 that he spotted an advertisement for the Tower Furnishing and Finance Company, which was illustrated by a picture of a Beefeater. This was the catalyst for Yeomen of the Guard (Gilbert was so fond of this Savoy opera that he subsequently installed the execution block and axe used in the original London production in the billiard room at Grim’s Dyke).

After the Gilberts left Breakspears, the estate’s heir reclaimed it as a family home. Later it became an old people’s home and a few years ago, the building was converted into nine luxury flats. It is, however, still recognisable today as the house that enabled Gilbert to create some of his finest work.

Main sources:
Ainger, Michael. Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002
Harefield History Society, Newsletter No 20, Spring 1989.
Pearson, Hesketh. Gilbert and Sullivan. Harmondsworth:Penguin, 1950
Stedman, Jane W. W. S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and his Theatre (Oxford University Press, New York, 1996

Contribution by - David Budge

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Janacek’s ‘fairy tale’ visit to

Chorleywood

Of all the composers and musicians who visited Sir Henry Wood at his home in Chorleywood perhaps the greatest was Leos Janacek.

The composer of The Cunning Little Vixen was invited to Apple Tree Farm in Dog Kennel Lane on Sunday, May 2, 1926 during his only visit to England.

Janacek was delighted by the house and was particularly taken with the rural views from the first-floor windows. “Living there is a fairy tale,” he later wrote in his notebook.

The 71-year-old Czech composer also liked his host. “Nice man …at first reserved, then it grew better between us.”

But the timing of Janacek’s London visit – from April 29 to May 8 – could hardly have been worse, for it coincided with the start of the General Strike, which Janacek believed had been provoked by “Russian Bolsheviks and Germans”.

The strike did not prevent him sightseeing. He took in London Zoo and that other great bear pit, the House of Commons. However, the crisis had major consequences for the only concert of his music that was staged during his stay (Wigmore Hall: May 6).

As there was no public transport, concertgoers had to walk to the hall. The musicians did too. Leon Goossens, then the oboist of the London Wind Quintet, was obliged to hike for three hours.

The consolation for Goossens was that Janacek was impressed by his playing. Fanny Davies, the veteran pianist who had been lined up to perform at the concert, was less fortunate.

Janacek, who wasn’t always generous to lesser mortals, called her “an old scarecrow – beneath all criticism”. And the piece she had been rehearsing, the Concertino for piano and sextet, was abruptly dropped from the programme.

Two years later, the music world mourned when Janacek died of pneumonia – but it’s unlikely that poor old Fanny Davies shed many tears.

Sources:
Foreman, L. and Foreman S. (2005) London: A Musical Gazetteer, Yale University Press.
Intimate Letters: Leos Janacek to Kamila Stosslova (2005) Edited and translated by John Tyrrell, London: Faber & Faber.
Tyrrell, J. (2007) Leos Janacek: Years of a Life, Vol. 2. (1914-1928) Tsar of the Forests. London: Faber & Faber.

Contribution by - David Budge

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