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29 March 2021, 11:27 | Updated: 29 March 2021, 13:41
As the legendary London venue turns 150, we celebrate with a look back at the classical music moments that lit up its domed ceiling the brightest.
The iconic Royal Albert Hall has turned 150 this year (2021).
The Hall has hosted some of the most incredible musicians, from the Rolling Stones to Yo-Yo Ma, the most powerful thinkers, including Emmeline Pankhurst and Albert Einstein, and stunning moments, like 3 December 1974 when Boxing legend and former world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali fought his greatest rival, Joe Bugner.
And, when it comes to classical music, the Hall has created some unparalleled moments. Wagner has conducted there. And Verdi, Elgar, Alsop, Bernstein, Coleridge-Taylor, and numerous other legends.
The performer roster looks equally sparkly – from violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and opera royalty Dame Nellie Melba and Danielle De Niese, to composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninov and the brilliant cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Plus pretty much any other classical great you could think of.
And the Hall, of course, has been home to our annual celebration of the world’s best music and greatest performers in Classic FM Live, which has taken place there since April 2000.
The Royal Albert Hall has in fact hosted classical music since as far back as 1871, which is when it was opened by Queen Victoria. That opening featured music by Handel, Rossini and the Queen’s late husband, Prince Albert, who the Hall is named for.
To mark the Hall’s 150th birthday, we’ve handpicked some of our favourite classical music moments from the venue’s illustrious history.
Find out more about Classic FM Live at the Royal Albert Hall >
Music by Baroque composer Handel, Romantic operatic maestro Rossini and Queen Victoria’s late husband Prince Albert gave this event the adequate flourish of pomp and circumstance it required.
To encourage footfall in its infancy, the Hall brought the ticket cost down on some of its events in these ‘reasonable price’ billings.
And, fun fact: the Hall was only holding 57 events a year then – which is barely one a week, compared to the 390 main auditorium shows that are now staged every year.
Just over a month after the Titanic sank, causing the loss of 1,514 lives, the Albert Hall hosted a solemn memorial concert to mark the tragedy, led by seven conductors including Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Henry Wood and Thomas Beecham. The concert featured musicians from seven orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and the Philharmonia Orchestra.
The LSO was actually booked to perform on that fateful maiden voyage, but a schedule clash meant that it was bandmaster Henry Wallace Hartley and eight heroic musicians who played with him that died that awful day.
Genius composer Coleridge-Taylor was the subject of a similarly sombre event in 1912, when a concert was hosted in his memory for the benefit of his widow and family in November.
Coleridge-Taylor was a British composer, famous for The Song of Hiawatha and his Ballade in A minor, who sadly died from pneumonia at just 37 years old.
The Royal Albert Hall’s first ‘Festival of Remembrance’ event was given the long, dignified title, ‘In Memory 1914-1918 – A Cenotaph In Sound, in aid of The British Legion, Field Marshal Earl Haig’s Appeal for Ex-Service Men of all Ranks’.
Held in memory of all who lost their lives in World War I, the first Festival of Remembrance was attended by HRH Highness The Prince of Wales, and has been a ceremonious, star-studded mainstay of the Hall’s calendar ever since, for remembrance of the sacrifice of war.
Australian pianist Eileen Joyce was incredibly popular with British audiences and she performed 120 concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in her 30-year career. Joyce lived in the UK, but toured extensively, including in her home country down under.
Sir Winston Churchill turned 80 on 30 November 1954 and Royal Albert Hall threw him a birthday bash which featured the the seventy-piece Royal Artillery Band among other suitable providers of pomp and circumstance .
Absolute legends of the violin, David Oistrakh and Yehudi Menuhin, performed under the Hall’s domed ceiling together, and took turns conducting this sell-out concert in the ‘60s.
There was such a demand for tickets to this one, according to the Hall, that the promoters resorted to also selling 5,000 tickets at 10 shillings each – to attend just the rehearsal!
Leonard Bernstein bought classical music to millions through the medium of TV, in his Young People’s Concerts series. But his unique ability to reach and inspire the masses with wonderful music didn’t stop there: he filled the Royal Albert Hall in June 1976, conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and hosting star performers like star US bass-baritone, William Warfield, among others.
Luciano Pavarotti, legend of opera and the tenor voice, was a Royal Albert Hall regular. Here he is in 1982, appearing for the Royal Gala Concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under conductor Kurt Herbert Adler.
The inaugural Classic FM Live brought classical music lovers flocking to the Hall in April 2000. Featuring the world premiere of Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: Mass for Peace among other highlights, the event started a long tradition of the Hall hosting classical music’s biggest night out year-to-year – before the coronavirus pandemic meant that the event could no longer go ahead in 2020.
Violinist Nicola Benedetti made her debut at the world-famous Hall in 2005, performing at the classical Brits. The great violinist has performed there many times since, including in 2012 in front of HM The Queen and Prince Philip at the Royal Variety Show’s Centenary concert, and in 2013 when she performed her first solo show (pictured).
Bryn Terfel received the Queen’s Medal for Music from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in July 2006. The Welsh bass-baritone has appeared at the Hall over 40 times, including in a headline concert celebrating his 50th birthday on 20 October 2015. He was presented with a glorious Royal Albert Hall-shaped cake on stage for the occasion!
“It was amazing to be playing at the Hall and playing those pieces, but it was definitely sad and strange not have an audience,” pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason recently told Classic FM, reflecting on her and brother Sheku’s performance in an empty auditorium of the Royal Albert Hall during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
The venue closed to audiences in March 2020 due to the efforts taken by the UK to curb the spread of COVID-19.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues and the doors remain shut, the Royal Albert Hall celebrates turning 150 with an incredible film promising ‘your room will be ready’.
Showcasing footage from huge moments and big starts in its illustrious history, the Hall promises to be ready to make unforgettable moments for audiences once it can open again. We can’t wait to be back.
In the meantime, all that’s left to say is – Happy Birthday, Royal Albert Hall! 🥳
The Royal Albert Hall turned 150 on 29 March 2021. Visit www.royalalberthall.com to find out more.