Manchester Worthies

Sir Charles Halle (1819-1895)


This well-known musician and his wife, Lady Halle (the celebrated  Norman-Neruda), have lately been in a whirl of pleasurable excitement, consequent upon their approaching musical tour in Australia, for which they have just started. A host of friends have had to say and receive "good-bye," with unusual fervour of congratulation and best wishes, for none could be held in higher esteem in musical and social circles than this talented and distinguished pair. Hence we read of presentations by choirs and orchestras, pleasant reunions of musical friends, a farewell banquet at Manchester, a grand reception at Messrs. Broadwood and Sons' rooms in London, and-most noteworthy honour of all-the Princess of Wales and Princesses Victoria and Maud 'of Wales, dining with Sir Charles and Lady Halle, at their London residence, 20, Linden Gardens; and of a subsequent reception by Lady Halle of the elite of the aristocratic world. At such a moment, a review of Sir Charles's history is an agreeable and pleasant duty.

Charles Halle was born at Hagen, near Elberfeld, at which place his father was choirmaster. It is related of him that he was a delicate boy, a special favourite with his mother, and that he early developed that musical taste and perception which have since given him so prominent a position. He studied at sixteen years of age, under Rinck, at Darmstadt, and at seventeen he went to Paris, where he remained for twelve years, during which period he enjoyed the friendship of Cherubini, Chopin, Liszt, Berton, Kalkbrenner, and other distinguished musicians, then settled in the French capital. "The French Revolution," as one writer puts it, "proved Manchester's opportunity," Sir George Grove relates the story in these words: "In 1846, Halle, Alard and Franchomme, started chamber concerts in the small room of the Conservatoire, These, though very successful, were rudely interrupted by the Revolution of February 1848, which burst out after the second concert of the third series. Halle left for England and has ever since been permanently settled here. His first appearance was at the orchestral concerts at Covent Garden, May 12, 1848, in the E flat concerto of Beethoven."

This was played by him last month at a farewell concert in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, amid the hearty plaudits of an immense assembly. His success in London was immediate and marked, and from that day to this he has been one of the most frequent and favourite performers at the principal London concerts. It was there, too, that he began the systematic education of what may be termed the unscientifically musical public in the appreciation of Beethoven's sonatas. The elevating influence which Halle exercised on the standard of metropolitan taste in music was undoubtedly great, but it was in Manchester that his chief work was destined to be accomplished.

His first appearance in Manchester was at a miscellaneous vocal and instrumental concert given in September 1848 at the Gentleman's Concert Hall, Peter Street.

A writer in a Manchester daily contemporary, indulging a few years ago in some reminiscences of this Concert and Halle's early associations with Cottonopolis, said-" The celebrated pianist's nationality was, as I remember, at the first somewhat undefined among even musical men in Manchester, for he was described by some as "Monsieur Charles Halle," by others as "Signor Halle," and by others - of course much nearer the mark - as "Herr Carl Halle." The concert in question was probably one of the most famous I can remember, being held within the walls of that once famous resort of the rank, fashion, and beauty of Manchester. The vocalists were Grisi, Mario, and Tagliafico. After Mario (who was then, both in regard to his fine personal appearance and wonderful voice, seen and heard probably at his best), had sung an aria of Pacini's there was a slight flutter of expectation, during which the young looking German Professor glided (as I have seen him do scores of times since) to the piano, and commenced the first strains of what is even now to some of us one of his most masterly achievements -Beethoven's concerto in E flat. To the majority of the Concert Hall audience in those days the concerto was unmistakably long, but at its conclusion the gifted pianist was greeted with quite an unusual burst of applause. In the second part he played one of Mendelssohn's "Lieder ohne Worte " and Heller's "Caprice Brillante sur un theme de Schubert." He also played with exquisite taste the pianoforte accompaniment to Mario's "Adelaida." A prophetic critic remarked of this first concert-" Halle has now fairly installed himself as the Classical pianist par excellence of this neighbourhood."

Two other "old time" associations of the great pianist with Manchester-now known to comparatively few-are mentioned by the same writer. Very few are left now among the musical people of the city who were present at the first of Halle’s Classical Chamber Music Concerts," given at the Royal Institute during the second week of January, 1849. The instrumentalists at the first of these "Soirees Musicales," if I remember rightly, were Halle, Seymour, and Thorley. Later on, when the concerts were held at the old Town Hall, King Street, the executants, besides the pianist, included all the finest soloists of the day -Molique, Piatti, Beateans, Sainton, Carrodus, Ernst, Steingraber, Paque, Charles Lucas, Vieuxtemps, Waud, Jennings, Grieben, and De Jong, One other incident in his Manchester career, comparatively little known, may be mentioned. This was his admirable direction, in conjunction with Edward Loder, of the grand series of German and Italian operas given by Knowles during a season of some sixty nights in succession at the' Theatre

Royal during the autumn and winter of 1854. With his long connection, going back to 1850, as conductor of the Gentlemen's concerts, a fair number of the present generation are well acquainted; and to his Orchestral Concerts, commenced in 1857, It would be almost idle to allude, seeing that "Halle's Concerts" in Manchester have become as "familiar in our mouths as household words."

The cool-headed but enterprising young musician was not long in discerning that Manchester offered a worthy sphere for his activities. It would be difficult to overestimate the value of the services he has rendered in the elevation of musical taste. For many years he presided over an annual series of Classical chamber concerts for which he enlisted the services of the foremost instrumental soloists of the time. As a choral conductor he has long enjoyed a high reputation throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire, which abound with choral singers who are wont to be severely critical of their director. The estimation in which he is held by his own choir was pleasantly demonstrated a few weeks ago, when, before one of the largest audiences which has ever assembled at the Halle concerts in the Free Trade Hall, at which there was a magnificent performance OI Berlioz's" Faust," he was presented by the oldest member of the choir, on behalf of the whole body, with an elegant silver bowl, and an illuminated address, as a token of respect and affection. Hut Sir Charles Halle's greatest achievement has been, in the consideration of many, the formation of an orchestra which, in point of all-round excellence, and the capability of its individual members, need not fear comparison with any other in Great Britain, or on the Continent. When he was asked to form his band, Sir Charles told some friends the other day, he discovered that there were but 24 players in Manchester who were competent to play the kind of music he required, and, as he wanted 60, he had to induce nearly 40 to settle in Manchester. Here, however, came a difficulty, as no one would do so unless he could guarantee £ 150 a year, so twenty concerts were given, and the money was guaranteed. ,; Now," said Sir Charles, " I have an orchestral band of 101, and ata cost of £7,168 per annum, which sum is. guaranteed at the beginning of each, season." The band, which has been established over 30 years, is the best and cheapest in the kingdom, every known instrument being included in it.

In this way he has done more than any other musician to familiarise the people of the north with the orchestral works of all the great composers, and has accustomed them to a standard of merit in performance which is not likely to be excelled. At the same time he has been in the habit of making frequent tours as a solo pianist, and though of late years his fame as an executant may have been somewhat overshadowed by that of more impetuous virtuosi of the school of Liszt and Rubenstein, it may fearlessly be affirmed that for refinement and intellectuality he still remains unsurpassed.

During the whole of his long career as performer and conductor, Sir Charles has never pandered to false taste, and his aim has always been rather to elevate the public judgment than to pamper it by the rendering of music in any way unworthy of himself or of his art.

Sir Charles is occasionally much criticised for his lack of patronage of native music-a feature which has now and then been emphasised locally with some degree of asperity. A recent Scotch critic is kind enough to account for it in this way:-It is partly because his sympathies are retrospective rather than prospective, partly because he has no great belief in English music. Now it is difficult to over-estimate the stimulus to native composers of the knowledge that there is at least one conductor who will study a new manuscript with no thought of its nationality, and will further rehearse a work by an unknown as patiently as though it were fresh Brahms or unplayed Berlioz. More than one English orchestral writer has gratefully dedicated his work to the Crystal Palace concerts, but one is not aware that this procedure has ever been adopted in regard to the Manchester Band. Sir Charles's answer would probably be: 'My business is to popularise admitted masterpieces. If there is a general demand for any novelty I will produce it, but I can't be expected to speculate in uncertainties.' Forty years' residence in England has left him a foreigner, though he has served his public right well according to his lights, and the Queen has no more loyal subject.

Sir Charles, when he likes, is a very agreeable companion. He is a persona grata in the highest circles, as may be gathered from the first paragraph of this notice. He has an inexhaustible supply of anecdote, and he has the reputation of being a first rate raconteur, though his humour is tinged with cynicism. Whether at his villa at Greenheys, Manchester, or at his house in Linden Gardens, London, he makes a capital host.

At the memorable Manchester Banquet on the 30th of last month, Sir Charles, in a particularly agreeable speech in response to the toast of his health-proposed by the Mayor in graceful and eloquent terms-told some anecdotes of his early career which have the merit of being not only true but new. One of these was an amusing story of how a performance which he once gave in France resolved itself into a sort of duel with Alexander HU11lboldt-a struggle who should be heard between the pianist and the philosopher, whose custom it was on such occasions to gather a little circle about him and "hold forth." "Sometimes," says the narrator of this anecdote, "I overpowered him; but more often he overpowered me." That was before the revolution of 1848 drove Sir Charles Halle to seek a home in this country; but he did not find that music in those days was treated with any more consideration among us. Nothing, indeed, as he tells us, strikes him more than the change in this respect which forty years had brought about, and he declares his conviction that the progress of music in England has been greater during that time than in any other country. In illustration of this, he stated that the first letter of introduction of which he availed himself on his arrival here was addressed to Lord Brougham, who at once confessed that music was entirely out of his way, - a statement which his visitor soon perceived to be perfectly correct. It was said, indeed, that the ex-Lord Chancellor had never been able to distinguish the tune of" God Save the Queen" from any other. "Another gentleman," continued Sir Charles, "who later on became a Minister of State was extremely polite. He invited me to his house. and asked me to play something to his friends. Of course I was anxious to do so, but I was startled when on leaving him he asked me a few questions amongst others, in what style I played. It was difficult to understand what he meant, so he named another eminent pianist, and said ' Do you play in his style' and I honestly said , No'; upon which he said, 'I am so glad, because he plays so loud that he prevents the ladies from talking'" This is, we are assured, an actual fact. One evening Sir Charles had the honour of playing at the German Embassy. This promised well; but as a fact, he simply found himself among ., a whole company of Alexander Humboldts." Everybody was " holding forth." When, later in the evening, the musician was asked to "play again." he simply repeated the piece, and nobody appeared to have heard it before; nor does it seem probable that anybody had. At that period our visitor discovered that if he asked a gentleman in society, "Do you play an instrument?" this appeared to be considered an insult. Did not Lord Chesterfield indeed warn his son not "to fiddle," on pain of forfeiting his claim to rank as a gentleman? But since then how great is the change! A love of music is now becoming the common passion uniting all classes. A few years ago Sir Charles Halle was waiting for the train at Derby, when a railway porter who recognised him said, "Can you tell me, Mr. Halle, when the 'Elijah' will be next performed in Manchester, because I can have leave to take my missus there?" Only the other day a music-seller in Sheffield, who is in a position to know, assured Sir Charles that there are in that town alone between five hundred and six hundred artisans who play the violin.

Besides impressing our Australian cousins with his musical talents, he and Lady Halle are certain to make many friends on the other side of the world, whither they are now sailing. He leaves hosts of well-tried and earnest friends behind him, and we heartily join with them in wishing him and Lady Halle "Bon voyage!"

Reprinted from Manchester Faces & Places Vol. 1 No. 7 10 April 1890