Royal Albert Hall: Eightieth anniversary celebrates legacy of ‘music to lift souls’

Niall Horan announces performance at the Royal Albert Hall

Six years after the death of her beloved Albert, the widowed queen described the day’s events in her diary as most distressing. Ten thousand people had gathered in an enormous tent erected just south of Kensington gardens. “The national Anthem was sung,” Victoria recorded, “and then came that most trying moment, from which i suffered severely”. She had to read an address, “full of allusions to my beloved one, which agitated me dreadfully, and i was nearly overcome”. Dressed in black, near to tears, she nevertheless managed to get the construction of the Royal Albert hall of Arts and Sciences under way.

And if you’re lucky enough to be sitting in Seat 87, Row 11, in Stalls K of the hall, you’ll find the foundation stone still hidden beneath your seat.

The stone-laying ceremony also saw a piece of music played which had been written by Prince Albert.

“How i thought of dearest Albert feeling so shy about ever having this composition performed,” his widow wrote, “which i had helped in writing down for him, and singing the solos for him.” So Victoria was a collaborator in the piece!

in describing how they had worked on it together – Albert coming up with the ideas and Victoria writing them down – she puts her finger on something central to this most famous of royal romances: a shared love of music.

But it also shows which one of the two – behind closed doors at least – was really the boss in the relationship. The queen was merely the secretary.

While her own taste in music was for tunes and melodrama, Albert’s was more upmarket. And he made it his mission in life to use noble and worthy music as a means to elevate the souls of british citizens.

Victoria had been born just across the road from the Royal Albert hall, in Kensington Palace.

The Royal Albert Hall will celebrate its eightieth anniversary this summer (Image: Getty)

She was a lonely child, living in what was then a minor and rather ramshackle palace.

Her father had died when she was a baby, bequeathing her little but debts. But her great consolation was music. She could lose herself in singing, passionate piano playing and dressing her tiny dolls in tiny outfits fashioned to represent the opera stars she longed to be taken to see.

When she was 16 her first cousin Albert was shipped over from germany in the expectation they would fall in love and marry. And after some hesitation they did.

Albert could sense this would not be the perfect match. Cerebral Albert liked going to bed early with a good book, whereas Victoria preferred staying up late, waltzing at balls. This new dance, described by lord byron as “the wicked waltz”, was scandalising europe and Albert did not approve of his wife’s sense of fun.

One night at dinner, his medical adviser tapped Victoria on the shoulder and quietly informed her “a queen does not drink a bottle of wine a day”.

Victoria found handel boring and preferred the catchy dance tunes of Johann Strauss ii: “i am a very modern person,” she claimed. Albert’s preference, though, was for the staider pleasures of german lieder – poetic songs enjoyed by the middle classes of europe, performed not in the opera house but in the respectable context of the family drawing room.

As he and Victoria had more and more children, Albert embarked upon a project to bring his wife’s subjects up to his own higher standards.


The hall has noble origins and links to royalty (Image: Getty)

He began to conceive of a great exhibition, known in full as “The great exhibition of the Works of industry of All nations”. Situated in Hyde Park and housed in the famous Crystal Palace, an enormous greenhouse designed by gardener and architect Joseph Paxton, it was to feature scientific, industrial and artistic products of all kinds. The exhibits included a large selection of musical instruments, such as the new range of horns fashioned from brass by one Adolphe Sax, who gave his name to the saxophone.

When Albert’s wife opened his great exhibition on May 1, 1851 a choir of 800 sang handel’s “hallelujah” Chorus.

And, despite doubts over such an ambitious and righteous project, the exhibition was a commercial success. Sources of profit included some of London’s first paying toilets: the cost to visitors of using them would give rise to the expression “spending a penny”. Albert’s exhibition was organised with the help of the energetic administrator Henry Cole. When work got mired down in detail, Albert is said to have demanded: “We must have steam: get Cole!”

Their great exhibition created a great legacy – a huge sum of money (£186,000) that was more than enough to buy 96 acres of prime land in South Kensington upon which to build further improving projects: the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, Imperial College and the Royal College of Art, as well as the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music.

This new cultural quarter of london, with exhibition road as its thoroughfare, became known as “Albertopolis”. Albert was clearly a brilliant man, a polymath and an important force for social change and education. But he pursued his interests and workaholic tendencies at the expense of the confidence and joie de vivre of his wife.

royal albert hall

Union flags in abundance at the BBC Last Night of the Proms (Image: Getty)

Slowly, under his disapproving gaze, she abandoned the enjoyments of her youth.

Whenever they had one of their not-infrequent quarrels, Albert’s practice was to walk out, go to his own room and write her a letter telling her why she was wrong.

Yet she undoubtedly loved him and, after Albert’s unexpected death in 1861 at the age of just 42, she described herself as “all alone, desolate and broken-hearted”. His influence even persisted from beyond the grave. She made one of the very few public appearances of her early widowhood to lay the Hall’s foundation stone in his honour.

Designed by Lt Col Scott of the Royal Engineers, the Hall was an incredible feat of engineering, inspired by the ancient Roman amphitheatres of Arles and Nîmes.

An architectural model was made – still kept in the Hall’s archives – which has a gap where the floor of the Arena should be.

You could poke your head up through the hole to get a panoramic, if miniature, view of what the auditorium would be like.

The finished Hall’s roof of iron and glass weighed more than 600 tonnes. The building was intended for gatherings of all kinds – conferences, speeches and exhibitions.

But when it came to concerts, it turned out the acoustic was terrible. That glass roof had to have a huge piece of canvas slung beneath it in order to improve the sound.

The Hall had an enormous organ, nicknamed the “Voice of Jupiter”, which was powered by two steam engines. Its pipes laid end to end would extend for nine miles.

When Queen Victoria returned to South Kensington to open the finished Hall on March 29, 1871, her diary recorded how “Good Mr Cole was quite crying with emotion & delight”.

In many ways, what goes on in the Royal Albert Hall today reflects Victoria’s more exuberant and catholic enjoyment of music than Albert’s. For some years after his death, Victoria found that listening to music aroused unbearably painful emotions.

But as she regained her confidence in ruling by herself she began once again to indulge her own eclectic tastes.

These included not only Wagner, but also Gilbert and Sullivan, and the music of the Indian composer Rabindranath Tagore.

And she would have approved of the way her husband’s Hall has grown as famous for its pop concerts as of classical music, with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd among artists who have performed.

Victoria would also have enjoyed the ballet, Cirque du Soleil, opera, indeed every imaginable kind of performance – both professional and amateur – that now fills the building up to 400 times a year.

The extrovert, extravagant spirit of Queen Victoria fills the Hall alongside the emphasis on quality and education supported by her nerdy husband.

Perhaps the best-known association with the Royal Albert Hall is that of the Proms, a series of concerts set up very much in line with Prince Albert’s ambitions.

Robert Newman was the manager of the Queen’s Hall off Regent Street, the original home of the Proms. When he devised the first series of concerts in 1895 he had a clear manifesto: they were to be “nightly concerts to train the public in easy stages, popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music”.

The series was taken over by the BBC in 1927, and in 1941, after the Queen’s Hall was destroyed in an air raid, the Proms settled into its new and lasting home at the Royal Albert Hall. For its 150th birthday, the building inspired by the aspirations of the Great Exhibition has acquired a Great Excavation: an underground café, archive and meeting space.

Should they visit the Hall now, the ghosts of both lowbrow Queen Victoria and highbrow Prince Albert would find lots to enjoy.

This article was written for the BBC Proms 2021 Festival Guide, containing features, interviews and listings, £8, out now

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