Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (21 March 1685 – 28 July 1750) was a German composer and musician of the late Baroque period. He is known for his orchestral music, instrumental compositions, keyboard works, organ works and vocal music. The Bach family already counted several composers when Johann Sebastian was born as the last child of a city musician in Eisenach. After being orphaned at the age of ten, he lived for five years with his eldest brother Johann Christoph, after which he continued his musical education in Lüneburg. From 1703 he was back in Thuringia, working as a musician for Protestant churches in Arnstadt and Mühlhausen and, for longer stretches of time, at courts in Weimar, where he expanded his organ repertory, and Köthen, where he was mostly engaged with chamber music. From 1723 he was employed as cantor at St Thomas’s in Leipzig. There he composed music for the principal Lutheran churches of the city, and for its university’s student ensemble, Collegium Musicum. From 1726 he published some of his keyboard and organ music. In Leipzig, as had happened during some of his earlier positions, he had difficult relations with his employer, a situation that was little remedied when he was granted the title of court composer by his sovereign, Augustus III of Poland in 1736. In the last decades of his life he reworked and extended many of his earlier compositions. He died of complications after eye surgery in 1750 at the age of 65. Bach enriched established German styles through his mastery of counterpoint, harmonic and motivic organisation, and his adaptation of rhythms, forms, and textures from abroad, particularly from Italy and France. Bach’s compositions include literally hundreds of cantatas, both sacred and secular. He composed Latin church music, passions, oratorios and motets. He often adopted Lutheran hymns, not only in his larger vocal works, but for instance also in his four-part chorales and his sacred songs. He wrote extensively for organ and for other keyboard instruments, also composing works for instruments such as the violin and the harpsichord, along with suites and chamber music for orchestra. Many of his works employ the genres of both canon and fugue. Throughout the 18th century, Bach was primarily valued as an organist, whilst his keyboard music, such as “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, was appreciated for its didactic qualities. The 19th century saw the publication of some major Bach biographies and by the end of that century all of his known music had been printed. Dissemination of scholarship on the composer continued through periodicals (and later also websites) exclusively devoted to him, and other publications such as the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV, a numbered catalogue of his works) and new critical editions of his compositions. His music was further popularised through a multitude of arrangements as well as of recordings, such as three different box sets with complete performances of the composer’s body of work marking the 250th anniversary of his death.

Johann Ambrosius Bach, 1685, Bach’s father. Painting attributed to Johann David Herlicius.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, the capital of the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, in present-day Germany, on 21 March 1685 and was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach, the director of the town musicians, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt. His father likely taught him violin and basic music theory. His uncles were all professional musicians, whose posts included church organists, court chamber musicians, and composers. One uncle, Johann Christoph Bach, introduced him to the organ and an older second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach, was a well-known composer and violinist. Bach’s mother died in 1694, and his father died eight months later. The 10-year-old Bach moved in with his eldest brother Johann Christoph Bach, the organist at St.Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf, Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. There he studied, performed, and copied music, including his own brother’s, despite being forbidden to do so because scores were so valuable and private, and blank ledger paper of that type was costly. He received valuable teaching from his brother, who instructed him on the clavichord. Johann Christoph exposed him to the works of great composers of the day, including South Germans such as Johann Caspar Kerll, Johann Jakob Froberger and Johann Pachelbel, under whom Johann Christoph had studied). Bach also learned of Frenchmen such as Jean-Baptiste Lully, Louis Marchand and Marin Marais, even the Italian Girolamo Frescobaldi. During this time, he was also taught theology, Latin and Greek at the local gymnasium. By 3 April 1700, Bach and his schoolfriend Georg Erdmann, who was two years Bach’s elder, were enrolled in the prestigious St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, some two weeks’ travel north of Ohrdruf. Their journey was probably undertaken mostly on foot. His two years there were critical in exposing Bach to a wider range of European culture. In addition to singing in the choir, he played the school’s three-manual organ and harpsichords. He also came into contact with sons of aristocrats from northern Germany who had been sent to the nearby ‘Ritter-Academie’ to prepare for careers in other disciplines.

The Wender organ Bach played in Arnstadt.

In January 1703, shortly after graduating from St. Michael’s and being turned down for the post of organist at Sangerhausen, Bach was appointed court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst III in Weimar. His role there is unclear, but it probably included menial, non-musical duties. During his seven-month tenure at Weimar, his reputation as a keyboardist spread so much that he was invited to inspect the new organ and give the inaugural recital at the New Church (now Bach Church) in Arnstadt, located about 19 miles (30 kilometres) southwest of Weimar. On 14 August 1703, he became the organist at the New Church, with light duties, a relatively generous salary, and a new organ tuned in a temperament that allowed music written in a wider range of keys to be played. Despite strong family connections and a musically enthusiastic employer, tension built up between Bach and the authorities after several years in the post. Bach was dissatisfied with the standard of singers in the choir. He called one of them a “Zippel Fagottist” (weenie) bassoon player. Late one evening this student, named Geyersbach, went after Bach with a stick. Bach filed a complaint against Geyersbach with the authorities. They acquitted Geyersbach with a minor reprimand and ordered Bach to be more moderate regarding the musical qualities he expected from his students. Some months later Bach upset his employer by a prolonged absence from Arnstadt as after obtaining leave for four weeks, he was absent for around four months in 1705–1706 to visit the organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude in the northern city of Lübeck. The visit to Buxtehude involved a 280-mile (450-kilometre) journey each way, reportedly on foot. In 1706, Bach applied for a post as organist at the Blasius Church in Mühlhausen and as part of his application he had an Easter cantata performed at 24 April 1707. A month later Bach’s application was accepted and he took up the post in July. The position included significantly higher remuneration, improved conditions, and a better choir. Four months after arriving at Mühlhausen, Bach married Maria Barbara Bach, his second cousin. Bach was able to convince the church and town government at Mühlhausen to fund an expensive renovation of the organ at the Blasius Church and in 1708 Bach wrote a festive cantata for the inauguration of the new council which was published at the council’s expense.

Organ of the St. Paul’s Church in Leipzig, tested by Bach in 1717.

Bach left Mühlhausen in 1708, returning to Weimar this time as organist and from 1714 ‘Konzertmeister’ (director of music) at the ducal court, where he had an opportunity to work with a large, well-funded contingent of professional musicians. Bach and his wife moved into a house close to the ducal palace. Later the same year, their first child, Catharina Dorothea, was born, and Maria Barbara’s elder, unmarried sister joined them. She remained to help run the household until her death in 1729. Three sons were also born in Weimar. Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara had three more children, who however did not live to their first birthday, including twins born in 1713. Bach’s time in Weimar was the start of a sustained period of composing keyboard and orchestral works. He attained the proficiency and confidence to extend the prevailing structures and include influences from abroad. He learned to write dramatic openings and employ the dynamic rhythms and harmonic schemes found in the music of Italians such as Vivaldi, Corelli and Torelli. Bach absorbed these stylistic aspects in part by transcribing Vivaldi’s string and wind concertos for harpsichord and organ, happily many of these transcribed works are still regularly performed. Bach was particularly attracted to the Italian style, in which one or more solo instruments alternate section-by-section with the full orchestra throughout a movement. In Weimar, Bach continued to play and compose for the organ and perform concert music with the duke’s ensemble. He also began to write the preludes and fugues which were later assembled into his monumental work The Well-Tempered Clavier, “clavier” meaning clavichord or harpsichord) consisting of two books, each containing 24 preludes and fugues in every major and minor key. Bach also started work on the Little Organ Book in Weimar, containing traditional Lutheran chorale tunes set in complex textures. In 1713, Bach was offered a post in Halle when he advised the authorities during a renovation of the main organ in the west gallery of the Market Church of Our Dear Lady. In the spring of 1714, Bach was promoted to ‘Konzertmeister’, an honour that entailed performing a church cantata monthly in the castle church. Bach’s first Christmas cantata was premiered in either 1714 or 1715, then in 1717 Bach eventually fell out of favour in Weimar and, according to a translation of the court secretary’s report, was jailed for almost a month before being unfavourably dismissed. The official notice was “On November 6, 1717, the quondam (former) concertmaster and organist Bach was confined to the County Judge’s place of detention for too stubbornly forcing the issue of his dismissal and finally on December 2 was freed from arrest with notice of his unfavourable discharge.”

Bach’s autograph of the first movement of the first sonata for solo violin, BWV 1001.

Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, hired Bach to serve as his Kapellmeister (director of music) in 1717. Prince Leopold, himself a musician, appreciated Bach’s talents, paid him well and gave him considerable latitude in composing and performing. The prince was a Calvinist and did not use elaborate music in his worship, so most of Bach’s work from this period was secular, including the orchestral suites, cello suites, sonatas and partitas for solo violin and his Brandenburg Concertos. Bach also composed secular cantatas for the court. Despite being born in the same year and only about 80 miles (130 kilometres) apart, Bach and Handel never met. In 1719, Bach made the 22 mile (35 kilometre) journey from Köthen to Halle with the intention of meeting Handel, however, Handel had left the town. In 1730, Bach’s oldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, travelled to Halle to invite Handel to visit the Bach family in Leipzig, but the visit did not take place. On 7 July 1720, whilst Bach was away in Carlsbad with Prince Leopold, Bach’s wife suddenly died. The following year, he met Anna Magdalena Wilcke, a young, highly gifted soprano 16 years his junior, who performed at the court in Köthen and they married on 3 December 1721. Together they had 13 children, six of whom survived into adulthood, these being Gottfried Heinrich, Elisabeth Juliane Friederica, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian who both, especially Johann Christian, became significant musicians, also Johanna Carolina and Regina Susanna. In 1723, Bach was appointed Thomaskantor (Cantor) of the St. Thomas School at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, which provided music for four churches in the city, the St. Thomas Church and St. Nicholas Church and to a lesser extent the New Church and St. Peter’s Church. This meant he was “the leading cantorate in Protestant Germany”, located in the mercantile city in the Electorate of Saxony, a post which he held for 27 years until his death. During that time he gained further prestige through honorary appointments at the courts of Köthen and Weissenfels, as well as that of the Elector Frederick Augustus (who was also King of Poland) in Dresden. Bach frequently disagreed with his employer, Leipzig’s city council, which he regarded as “penny-pinching”.

Statue of Bach in front of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

Johann Kuhnau had been Thomaskantor in Leipzig from 1701 until his death on 5 June 1722. Bach had visited Leipzig during Kuhnau’s tenure and in 1714 he attended the service at the St. Thomas Church on the first Sunday of Advent. In 1717 he had tested the organ of the St. Paul’s Church. In 1716 Bach and Kuhnau had met on the occasion of the testing and inauguration of an organ in Halle. After being offered the position, Bach was invited to Leipzig only after Georg Philipp Telemann indicated that he would not be interested in relocating to Leipzig. Telemann went to Hamburg, where apparently he had his own struggles with the city’s senate.
Bach was required to instruct the students of the ‘Thomasschule’ in singing and provide church music for the main churches in Leipzig. He was also assigned to teach Latin but was allowed to employ four ‘prefects’ (deputies) to do this instead. The prefects also aided with musical instruction. It seems too that a cantata was required for the church services on Sundays and additional church holidays during the liturgical year. Bach usually led performances of his cantatas, most of which were composed within three years of his relocation to Leipzig. Bach collected his cantatas in annual cycles. Five are mentioned in obituaries, three are extant. Sadly, of the more than 300 cantatas which Bach composed in Leipzig, over 100 have been lost to posterity. Most of these works expound on the Gospel readings prescribed for every Sunday and feast day in the Lutheran year. Bach started a second annual cycle the first Sunday after Trinity of 1724 and composed only chorale cantatas, each based on a single church hymn. Bach drew the soprano and alto choristers from the school and the tenors and basses both from the school and elsewhere in Leipzig. Performing at weddings and funerals provided extra income for these groups and it was probably for this purpose, and for in-school training, that he wrote at least six motets. As part of his regular church work, he performed other composers’ motets, which served as formal models for his own. Bach’s predecessor as cantor, Johann Kuhnau, had also been music director for the St. Paul’s Church, the church of Leipzig University but when Bach was installed as cantor in 1723, he was put in charge only of music for festal (church holiday) services at the St. Paul’s Church. His petition to also provide music for regular Sunday services there (for a corresponding salary increase) went all the way to the Elector but was denied. After this, in 1725, Bach ‘lost interest’ in working even for festal services at the St. Paul’s Church and appeared there only on special occasions. The St. Paul’s Church had a much better and newer organ than did the St. Thomas Church or the St. Nicholas Church. Bach was not required to play any organ in his official duties, but it is believed he liked to play on the St. Paul’s Church organ “for his own pleasure”. Bach broadened his composing and performing beyond the liturgy by taking over, in March 1729, the directorship of the Collegium Musicum, a secular performance ensemble started by Telemann. This was one of the dozens of private societies in the major German-speaking cities that were established by musically active university students; these societies had become increasingly important in public musical life and were typically led by the most prominent professionals in a city. In the words of Christoph Wolff, assuming the directorship was a shrewd move that consolidated Bach’s firm grip on Leipzig’s principal musical institutions. Every week the Collegium Musicum would give two-hour performances in winter at the Café Zimmermann, a coffee house on Catherine Street off the main market square and during the summer months in the proprietor’s outdoor coffee garden just outside the town walls, near the East Gate. The concerts, all free of charge, ended with Gottfried Zimmermann’s death in 1741. Apart from showcasing his earlier orchestral repertoire such as the Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites, many of Bach’s newly composed or reworked pieces were performed for these venues, including parts of his Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice), his violin and keyboard concertos and of course the eponymous Coffee Cantata.

Bach’s seal (centre), used throughout his Leipzig years. It contains the superimposed letters J S B in mirror image topped with a crown. The flanking letters illustrate the arrangement on the seal.

In 1733, Bach composed a Kyrie–Gloria Mass in B minor which he later incorporated in his Mass in B minor and he presented the manuscript to the Elector in an eventually successful bid to persuade the prince to give him the title of Court Composer. He later extended this work into a full mass by adding a Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, the music for which was partly based on his own cantatas and partly original. Bach’s appointment as Court Composer was an element of his long-term struggle to achieve greater bargaining power with the Leipzig council. Then in 1735 Bach started to prepare his first publication of organ music, which was printed as the third Clavier-Übung in 1739. From around that year he started to compile and compose the set of preludes and fugues for harpsichord that would become his second book of ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’. He received the title of ‘Royal Court Composer’ from Augustus III in 1736. It was during his final years from 1740 to 1748 Bach copied, transcribed, expanded or programmed music in an older polyphonic style, showing an increased integration of polyphonic structures and canons and other elements. His fourth and last ‘Clavier-Übung’ volume, the Goldberg Variations for two-manual harpsichord, contained nine canons and was published in 1741. Throughout this period, Bach also continued to adopt music of contemporaries such as Handel and Stölzel, giving many of his own earlier compositions such as the St Matthew and St John Passions and the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes their final revisions. He also programmed and adapted music by composers of a younger generation, including Pergolesi and his own students such as Goldberg. Two large-scale compositions occupied a central place in Bach’s last years. From around 1742 he wrote and revised the various canons and fugues of The Art of Fugue, which he continued to prepare for publication until shortly before his death. After extracting a cantata from his 1733 Kyrie-Gloria Mass for the Dresden court in the mid-1740s, Bach expanded that setting into his Mass in B minor in the last years of his life. Although the complete mass was never performed during the composer’s lifetime, it is considered to be among the greatest choral works in history. Becoming blind, Bach underwent eye surgery in March 1750 and again in April by the British eye surgeon John Taylor, a man widely understood today as a charlatan and believed to have blinded hundreds of people. Bach died on 28 July 1750 from complications due to the unsuccessful treatment. The composer’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel saw to it that ‘The Art of Fugue’, although still unfinished, was published in 1751. Together with one of the composer’s former students, Johann Friedrich Agricola, the son also wrote an obituary which was published in Mizler’s Musikalische Bibliothek, a periodical journal produced by the Society of Musical Sciences, in 1754. There is so much more that can be written about Bach, like his musical style, along with detail of his many and varied works, but that may be for another time.

This week… Alternative responses.

Statement: “I’m looking for a lift.”
Response 1: “Walk around that corner and there’s a taxi ahead of you.”
Response 2: “Where is it you want to get to?”
Response 3: “You’re a beautiful person with a wonderful personality!”

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The Royal Albert Hall

This is a concert hall on the northern edge of South Kensington, London. One of the UK’s most treasured and distinctive buildings, it is held in trust for the nation and managed by a registered charity which receives no government funding. It can seat 5,27 and since its opening by Queen Victoria in 1871, the world’s leading artists from many performance genres have appeared on its stage. The hall was originally supposed to have been called the ‘Central Hall of Arts and Sciences’, but the name was changed to the ‘Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences’ by Queen Victoria upon laying the Hall’s foundation stone in 1867, in memory of her husband Prince Albert, who had died six years earlier. It forms the practical part of a memorial to the Prince Consort, as the decorative part is the Albert Memorial which situated directly to the north in Kensington Gardens, now separated from the Hall by Kensington Gore, the name of a U-shaped thoroughfare on the south side of Hyde Park. The streets connect the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal College of Art, the Royal Geographical Society, and in Kensington Gardens the Albert Memorial. The area is named after the Gore estate which occupied the site until it was developed by Victorian planners in the mid nineteenth century. A ‘gore’ is a narrow, triangular piece of land, in this case the wedge-shaped piece of land which divides them, and which has been known by this name from Anglo-Saxon times. In 1851 the Great Exhibition, organised by Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, was held in Hyde Park. The Exhibition was a success and led Prince Albert to propose the creation of a group of permanent facilities for the public benefit, which came to be known as ‘Albertopolis’. The Exhibition’s Royal Commission bought Gore House but it was slow to act and in 1861 Prince Albert died without having seen his ideas come to fruition. However, a memorial was proposed for Hyde Park, with a Great Hall opposite. The proposal was approved, and the site was purchased with some of the profits from the Exhibition. The Hall was scheduled to be completed by Christmas Day 1870, and the Queen visited a few weeks beforehand to inspect it.

The first performance at the Hall. The decorated canvas awning is seen beneath the dome.

The official opening ceremony of the Hall was on 29 March 1871, and a welcoming speech was given by Edward, the Prince of Wales because the Queen was too overcome to speak. Her only recorded comment on the Hall was that it reminded her of the British constitution. In the concert that followed, the Hall’s acoustic problems immediately became apparent. Engineers first tried to remove the strong echo by suspending a canvas awning below the dome. This helped and also sheltered concert-goers from the sun, but the problem was not solved, in fact it may have even been jokingly said the Hall was “the only place where a British composer could be sure of hearing his work twice”. Initially lit by gas, the Hall contained a special system by which thousands of gas jets were lit within ten seconds. Though it was demonstrated as early as 1873 in the Hall, full electric lighting was not installed until 1888. In May 1877, Richard Wagner himself conducted the first half of each of the eight concerts which made up the Grand Wagner Festival. After his turn with the baton, he handed it over to conductor Hans Richter and sat in a large armchair on the corner of the stage for the rest of each concert. Wagner’s wife Cosima, the daughter of Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer Franz Liszt, was among the audience. I have also learned that The Wine Society was founded at the Hall on 4 August 1874, after large quantities of cask wine were found in the cellars. A series of lunches were held to publicise the wines and General Henry Scott proposed a co-operative company to buy and sell wines.

Acoustic diffusing discs (lit in purple/blue) hanging from the roof of the Hall. The fluted aluminium panels are seen behind.

In 1906 the Central School of Speech and Drama was founded at the Hall, using its West Theatre, now the Elgar Room, as the school’s theatre. The school moved to Swiss Cottage in north London in 1957. Whilst the school was based at the Royal Albert Hall, several famous people graduated from its classes. From the start, the Hall was used for different concerts, meetings and rallies. In October 1942, the Hall suffered minor damage during World War II bombing, but in general it was left mostly untouched as German pilots used the distinctive structure as a landmark. Then in 1949 the canvas awning was removed and replaced with fluted aluminium panels below the glass roof, in an attempt to cure the echo, however the acoustics were not properly tackled until 1969 when large fibreglass acoustic diffusing discs were installed below the ceiling. Later the Hall became the venue for the Eurovision Song Contest and from 1969 to 1988 the Miss World contest was staged in the venue. From 1996 until 2004, the Hall underwent a programme of renovation and development supported by a £20 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £20 million from Arts Council England to enable it to meet the demands of the next century of events and performances. Thirty ‘discreet projects’ were designed and supervised, including improved ventilation to the auditorium, more bars and restaurants, improved seating, better technical facilities and improved backstage areas. Internally the Circle seating was rebuilt during June 1996 to provide more leg-room, better access, and improved sight-lines. The largest project of the ongoing renovation and development was the building of a new south porch from door twelve, accommodating a first-floor restaurant, new ground floor box office and subterranean loading bay. Although the exterior of the building was largely unchanged, the south steps leading down to Prince Consort Road were demolished to allow construction of underground vehicle access and a loading bay with accommodation for three HGVs carrying all the equipment brought by shows. The steps were then reconstructed around a new south porch and was built on a similar scale and style to the three pre-existing porches at Doors three, six and nine. On 4 June 2004, the project received the Europa Nostra Award for remarkable achievement. The East (Door three) and West (Door nine) porches were glazed and new bars opened along with ramps to improve disabled access. The Stalls were rebuilt in a four-week period in 2000 using steel supports allowing more space underneath for two new bars. 1,534 unique pivoting seats were laid, with an addition of 180 prime seats. The Choirs were rebuilt at the same time. The whole building was redecorated in a style that reinforces its Victorian identity. 43,000 square feet of new carpets were laid in the rooms, stairs, and corridors and these were specially woven with a border which followed the oval curve of the building. Between 2002 and 2004 there was a major rebuilding of the great organ, known as the Voice of Jupiter, built by “Father’ Henry Willis in 1871 and rebuilt by Harrison & Harrison in 1924 and 1933. The rebuilding was performed by Mander Organs and it is now the second-largest pipe organ in the British Isles with 9,999 pipes in 147 stops. The largest is the Grand Organ in Liverpool Cathedral, which has 10,268 pipes. During the first half of 2011, changes were made to the backstage areas to relocate and increase the size of crew catering areas under the South Steps away from the stage and create additional dressing rooms nearer to the stage.

The Royal Albert Hall as seen from Prince Consort Road.

From January to May 2013, the Box Office area at Door twelve underwent further modernisation to include a new Café Bar on the ground floor, a new Box Office with shop counters and additional toilets. In Autumn 2013, work began on replacing the Victorian steam heating system over three years and improving and cooling across the building. This work followed the summer Proms season during which temperatures were unusually high. In 2017 work began on a two-storey 11,000-square-foot basement extension for use as backstage and archival space to the south-west quadrant of the building. The project was nicknamed the ‘Great Excavation’, in reference to the Great Exhibition of 1851, and was planned to be complete for the Halls 150th anniversary in 2021. In 2018 a Walk of Fame was unveiled at the Hall, with the first eleven recipients of a star including the Suffragettes, who held meetings at the Hall, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein,Muhammad Ali (who had held exhibition events at the venue which he dubbed a ‘helluva hall’), and Eric Clapton, who has played at the venue over 200 times. There are also others, all of whom are viewed as ‘key players’ in the building’s history. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions meant the Hall was closed for the first time since the Second World War. During winter 2020 it reopened for three socially distanced performances but was later closed for a second period.

‘A Triumph of Arts and Sciences’

The Hall, a Grade I listed building, was originally designed with a capacity for 8,000 people and has accommodated as many as 12,000, although present-day safety restrictions mean the maximum permitted capacity is now 5,272, including standing in the Gallery. Around the outside of the building is 800-foot–long terracotta mosaic frieze, depicting ‘The Triumph of Arts and Sciences’, in reference to the Hall’s dedication. Interestingly, below the Arena floor there is room for two 4000 gallon water tanks, which are used for shows which can flood the arena.

The Hall at the opening ceremony, seen from Kensington Gardens.

The Hall has been affectionately titled ‘The Nation’s Village Hall’. The first concert was Arthur Sullivan’s cantata ‘On Shore and Sea’, performed on 1 May 1871. Indeed, a great many events have been held at the Hall which include boxing, the Eurovision Song Contest which was broadcast in colour for the first time and the first Miss World contest broadcast in colour was also staged there in 1969 and remained at the Hall every year until 1989. Between 1996 and 2008 the Hall hosted the annual National Television Awards, all of which were hosted by Sir Trevor McDonald. Benefit concerts include the 1997 Music for Montserrat concert, an event which featured a range of various artists. On 2 October 2011, the Hall staged the 25th-anniversary performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ which was broadcast live to cinemas across the world and filmed for DVD. Then on 22 September 2011, Adele performed a one-night-only concert as part of her tour. And this concert was filmed for DVD and screened at cinemas in 26 cities around the world. On 24 September 2012, Classic FM celebrated the 20th anniversary of their launch with a concert at the Hall. On 19 November 2012, the Hall hosted the 100th-anniversary performance of the Royal Variety Performance, attended by the HM Queen Elizabeth II and HRH Duke of Edinburgh. Then at a press conference held at the Hall in October 2016, Phil Collins announced his return to live performing with a tour which began in June 2017. This tour included five nights at the Hall which sold out in fifteen seconds. Also in 2017, the Hall hosted the 70th British Academy Film Awards for the first time in 20 years, replacing the Royal Opera House at which the event had been held since 2008. Many performances were held at the Hall in subsequent years, right up until November 2020, when One Direction member Niall Horan performed a one off live-streamed show in an empty Hall during the COVID-19 pandemic to raise money for charity. In 2022, Venezuelan comedian José Rafael Guzmán became the first Spanish-speaking comedian to perform at the concert hall. But there are regular events held there too. The Royal Choral Society is the longest-running regular performer at the Hall, having given its first performance as the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society on 8 May 1872 and from 1876 it established an annual Good Friday performance of Handel’s Messiah.

A promenade concert as seen from the Circle.

The BBC Sir Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, known as ‘The Proms’, is a popular annual eight-week summer season of daily classical music concerts and other events at the Hall. In 1942, following the destruction of the Queen’s Hall during an air raid, the Hall was chosen as the new venue for the proms but in 1944, with increased danger to the Hall, part of the proms were held in the Bedford Corn Exchange. Following the end of World War II the proms continued in the Hall and have done so annually every summer since. The event was founded in 1895, and now each season consists of over 70 concerts, in addition to a series of events at other venues across the United Kingdom on the last night. In 2009, the total number of concerts reached 100 for the first time. Interestingly ‘Proms’, short for [promenade concerts, is a term which arose from the original practice of the audience promenading, or strolling, in some areas during the concert. As such, the Proms concert-goers, particularly those who stand, are sometimes described as ‘Promenaders’, but are most commonly referred to as ‘Prommers’. Other events are held here regularly, such as ‘Cirque du Soleil’, the Classic Brit Awards, the Institute of Directors Annual Convention, the Teenage Cancer Trust, the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain and the The Salvation Army Christmas Concert. Since 1998 the English National Ballet has had several specially staged arena summer seasons there and The Royal British LegionFestival of Remembrance is held annually the day before Remembrance Sunday. The Hall is used annually by the neighbouring Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art for graduation ceremonies. The venue has screened several films since the early silent days, in fact it was the only London venue to show William Fox’s ‘The Queen of Sheba’ in the 1920s. The Hall has also hosted a great many premières too numerous to mention here. In addition, the Hall hosts hundreds of events and activities beyond its main auditorium. There are regular free art exhibitions in the ground floor Amphi corridor, which can be viewed when attending events or on dedicated viewing dates. Visitors can take a guided tour of the Hall on most days. The most common is the one-hour Grand Tour which includes most front-of-house areas, the auditorium, the Gallery and the Royal Retiring Room. Other tours include Story of the Proms, Behind the Scenes, Inside Out and School tours. Children’s events include Storytelling and Music Sessions for ages four and under. These take place in the Door 9 Porch and Albert’s Band sessions in the Elgar Room during school holidays. ‘Live Music in Verdi’ takes place in the Italian restaurant on a Friday night featuring different artists each week. ‘Late Night Jazz’ events in the Elgar Room, generally on a Thursday night, feature cabaret-style seating and a relaxed atmosphere with drinks available. Classical Coffee Mornings are held on Sundays in the Elgar Room with musicians from the Royal College of Music, accompanied with drinks and pastries. Sunday brunch events take place in Verdi Italian restaurant and feature different genres of music. Consequently the Hall has won many awards across several different categories. It truly is a remarkable place.

This week…

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Friday The Thirteenth

This date combination is considered an unlucky day by many in Western superstition and it occurs when the 13th day of the month in the Gregorian calendar falls on a Friday. This happens at least once every year, but can occur up to three times in the same year. For example, 2015 had a Friday the thirteenth in February, March, and November; each year from 2017 to 2020 had two Friday the thirteenth’s each; 2016, 2021 and 2022 had just one occurrence of Friday the thirteenth each whilst 2023 and 2024 will have two Friday the thirteenth’s each. In each year they are easy to identify, as Friday the thirteenth occurs in any month that begins on a Sunday. The unluckiness of the number thirteen, also known as ‘Triskaidekaphobia’ originated, according to folklore historian Donald Dossey, with a Norse myth about twelve gods having a dinner party in Valhalla. The trickster god Loki, who was not invited, arrived as the thirteenth guest, and arranged for Höðr to shoot Balder with a mistletoe-tipped arrow. According to Dossey, Balder died and the whole Earth got dark. The whole Earth mourned. It was a bad, unlucky day. This major event in Norse mythology thus caused the number thirteen to be considered unlucky.

‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci.

There are Christian associations to the number, for example the story of Jesus and the last supper in which there were thirteen individuals present in the Upper Room on the thirteenth of Nisan (Maundy Thursday), the night before Jesus’ death on Good Friday. However, whilst there is evidence of both Friday and the number thirteen being considered unlucky, there is no record of the two items being referred to together as especially unlucky before the nineteenth century. It was in France that Friday the thirteenth might have been associated with misfortune as early as the first half of the nineteenth century. A character in the 1834 play ‘Les Finesses des Gribouilles’ states, “I was born on a Friday, December thirteenth, 1813 from which come all of my misfortunes”. An early documented reference in English occurs in a biography of Gioachino Rossini, who died on a Friday thirteenth which states: “Rossini was surrounded to the last by admiring friends; and if it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday thirteenth of November he passed away.” It is also possible that the publication in 1907 of businessman T. W. Lawson’s popular novel ‘Friday, the Thirteenth’ contributed to popularising the superstition. In the novel, an unscrupulous broker takes advantage of the superstition to create a Wall Street panic on a Friday the thirteenth. In fact, similar dates are prevalent in many cultures, although it is unclear whether these similarities are in any way historically connected or only coincidental. For example, in countries where Spanish is the main language, then Tuesday the thirteenth (martes trece) is considered a day of bad luck rather than Friday. The Greeks also consider Tuesday (and especially the thirteenth) an unlucky day. Tuesday is considered dominated by the influence of Ares the god of war, or Mars, the Roman equivalent. The fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade occurred on Tuesday 13 April 1204, and the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans happened on Tuesday 29 May 1453, events that strengthen the superstition about Tuesday. In addition, in Greek the name of the day is ‘Triti’, meaning the third day of the week, adds weight to the superstition since bad luck is said by many to ‘come in threes’.. Tuesday the thirteenth occurs in a month that begins on a Thursday. Some also attribute the origins of fearing Friday the thirteenth to the Code of Hammurabi, one of the world’s oldest legal documents, which may or may not have superstitiously omitted a thirteenth rule from its list. Others claim that the ancient Sumerians, who believed the number twelve to be a ‘perfect’ number, considered the one that followed it decidedly non-perfect.
One of the most popular theories, however, links Friday the thirteenth with the fall of a fearsome group of legendary warriors, the Knights Templar which was founded around 1118 as a monastic military order devoted to the protection of pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land following the Christian capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade. The Knights Templar quickly became one of the richest and most influential groups of the Middle Ages, thanks to lavish donations from the crowned heads of Europe, eager to curry favour with the fierce Knights. By the turn of the fourteenth century, the Templars had established a system of castles, churches and banks throughout Western Europe. And it was this astonishing wealth that would lead to their downfall. For the Templars, that end began in the early morning hours of Friday, October 13, 1307 when a month earlier, secret documents had been sent by couriers throughout France. The papers included lurid details and whispers of black magic and scandalous sexual rituals. They were sent by King Philip IV of France, an avaricious monarch who in the preceding years had launched attacks on the Lombards (a powerful banking group) and France’s Jews (who he had expelled so he could confiscate their property for his depleted coffers).

A ‘Knight Templar’.

In the days and weeks that followed that fateful Friday, more than six hundred Templars were arrested, including Grand Master Jacques de Molay, and the Order’s treasurer. But while some of the highest-ranking members were caught up in Philip’s net, so too were hundreds of non-warriors. These were middle-aged men who managed the day-to-day banking and farming activities that kept the organisation humming. The men were charged with a wide array of offences including heresy, devil worship and spitting on the cross, homosexuality, fraud and financial corruption. The Templars were kept in isolation and fed meagre rations that often amounted to just bread and water. Nearly all were brutally tortured in ways I do not wish to detail here. Given the extreme conditions, it is not surprising that within weeks, hundreds of Templars confessed to false charges, including Jacques de Molay. Pope Clement V was horrified. Despite the fact that he had been elected almost solely because of Philip’s influence, he feared crossing the extremely popular Templars. The Knight’s coerced ‘confessions’ however, forced his hands. Philip, who had anticipated Clement’s reaction, made sure the allegations against the Templars included detailed descriptions of their supposed heresy, counting on the gossipy, salacious accounts to carry much weight with the Church. Clement issued a papal bull ordering the Western kings to arrest Templars living in their lands. Few followed the papal request, but the fate of the French Templars had already been sealed. Their lands and money were confiscated and officially dispersed to another religious order, the Hospitallers, although greedy Philip did get his hands on some of the cash he’d coveted. Within weeks of their confessions, many of Templars recanted, and Clement shut down the inquisition trials in early 1308. The Templars lingered in their cells for two years before Philip had more than 50 of the them burned at the stake in 1310. Two years later, Clement formally dissolved the Order, though he did so without saying they had been guilty as charged. In the wake of that dissolution, some Templars again confessed to gain their freedom, whilst others died in captivity. In the spring of 1314, Grand Master Molay and several other Templars were burned at the stake in Paris, bringing an end to their remarkable era, and launching an even longer-lasting theory about the evil possibilities of Friday the thirteenth.

An Alitalia aircraft without the row 17.

However, in Italian popular culture Friday the seventeenth, rather than the thirteenth, is considered a bad luck day. The origin of this belief could be traced in the writing of the number seventeen in Roman numerals, it being XVII. By shuffling the digits of the number one can easily get the word ‘VIXI’, meaning ‘I have lived’, implying death at present, an omen of bad luck. In fact in Italy, thirteen is generally considered a lucky number. Due to the effects of superstition from other countries, some younger Italian people consider Friday the thirteenth unlucky as well, but when the 2000 parody film “Shriek if You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth’ was released in Italy it had the title “Shriek – Hai impegni per venerdì 17?”, translating to “Shriek – Do You Have Something to Do on Friday the 17th?”). Friday the seventeenth occurs on a month starting on Wednesday. It seems that Friday the thirteenth has a social impact, as according to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, an estimated 17 to 21 million people in the United States are affected by a fear of this day, making it the most feared day and date in history. Some people are so paralysed by fear that they avoid their normal routines in doing business, taking flights or even getting out of bed. It has been estimated that between eight hundred and nine hundred million dollars is lost in business on this day, but despite this representatives for both Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines (the latter now merged into United Airlines) have stated that their airlines do not suffer from any noticeable drop in travel on those Fridays. In Finland, a consortium of both governmental and non-governmental organisations led by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health promote their National Accident Day (‘kansallinen tapaturmapäivä’) to raise awareness about automotive safety, which always falls on a Friday the thirteenth. The event is coordinated by the Finnish Red Cross and has been held since 1995. Back in 1993, a study was made in the South-West Thames region of the UK where its objective was “To examine the relation between health, behaviour, and superstition surrounding Friday the thirteenth in the United Kingdom”. Its design was a retrospective study of paired data comparing driving and shopping patterns and accidents, its subjects were drivers, shoppers, and residents in the region and its main outcome measures were the numbers of vehicles on motorways, the numbers of shoppers in supermarkets and hospital admissions due to accidents. The results they had were that there were consistently and significantly fewer vehicles on the southern section of the M25 on Friday the thirteenth compared with Friday the sixth. The numbers of shoppers were not significantly different on the two days. Admissions due to transport accidents were significantly increased on Friday thirteenth (total 65 v 45). Their conclusions were that Friday the thirteenth is unlucky for some. The risk of hospital admission as a result of a transport accident may be increased by as much as 52% and that staying at home is recommended. However, subsequent studies have disproved any correlation between Friday the thirteenth and the rate of accidents. On 12th June 2008 the Dutch Centre for Insurance Statistics stated to the contrary, that “fewer accidents and reports of fire and theft occur when the thirteenth of the month falls on a Friday than on other Fridays, because people are preventatively more careful or just stay home. Statistically speaking, driving is slightly safer on Friday the thirteenth, at least in the Netherlands in the last two years, as Dutch insurers received reports of an average 7,800 traffic accidents each Friday but the average figure when the thirteenth fell on a Friday was just 7,500.” Each four-hundred year Gregorian solar cycle contains 146,097 days, with 97 leap days or exactly 20,871 weeks. Each cycle contains the same pattern of days of the week and therefore the same pattern of Fridays that are on the thirteenth. Any month that starts on a Sunday contains a Friday the thirteenth and on average, there is a Friday the thirteenth once every 212.35 days. Equally, there can be no more than three Friday the thirteenths in a single calendar year; either in February, March, and November in a common year starting on Thursday (such as 2009, 2015, or 2026), or January, April, and July in a leap year starting on Sunday (such as 1984, 2012, or 2040). We shall see what the day brings, won’t we!

This week…a request please.
The other day I saw a picture on Facebook of a person I had never seen before with the word GOAT above the image. I considered it to be a disparaging comment against that person, but I was corrected as in fact the one sharing the image meant G.O.A.T., or Greatest Of All Time. So please, with all respect, kindly remember that not everyone watches the same sport to the degree that I know many do.

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It is said that those who prefer to be alone have particularly unique personality traits. There may be more, but here are some. For a start, not everyone can be outgoing. Some of us prefer to be alone, and that’s fine too. Research does show there are so many reasons why being alone (and liking it!) isn’t such a bad thing.

Every individual has a variety of ideas, characteristics, perspectives and preferences unique to them. Some, a bit like me, can have a difficult time finding common ground with certain ‘outgoing’ individuals who come across as the life of the party, natural-born leaders, always wanting the spotlight types. It might be because you can’t relate to them, as not every person enjoys having the attention solely on them or feels the most comfortable in a group setting. There are some who prefer to have more intimate conversations or deeper relationships and aren’t able to find that with many people. If you’re someone who finds yourself avoiding large crowds or group settings and feel most comfortable when you’re alone with your own thoughts, you might be something of an introvert. The problem with being an introvert is we are presently living in a society that promotes opening our lives to others, no matter how it may be through outlets such as social media. Introverts are often thought of as having stereotypical ways and are therefore misunderstood by others, making it hard for them to see their nature as something positive. However research shows that these stereotypes aren’t accurate. People who prefer to be alone may be introverted, but the negative connotations associated with being introverted are far from the truth. People who can appreciate and enjoy being alone actually possess a strength, confidence, and understanding of themselves that extroverts might not possess. Often this ability to enjoy being alone is actually because they have a better sense of self. There are times when we are made to feel like being alone is weird or wrong. Society projects the idea that the ‘average’ or ‘normal’ person should want to socialise, be around people and make as many friends as possible and this is a common perception reinforced by society. For those who do enjoy simply being alone, maybe even more so than being around people, this lack of desire to socialise or build multiple relationships can become confusing for not only them but the people around them. So although socialising can be important, and relationships can be healthy and beneficial, there are a number of benefits and personality traits people who enjoy being alone also gain by taking that extra time for themselves. So here are some reasons why wanting to be alone can actually be good for you.


For a start, it can provide increased emotional strength. People who like to be alone are better able to accept, understand and identify their emotions because they spend more time observing and evaluating their own thoughts and feelings. Because they have taken this extra time to understand their emotions, they have a better sense of how to deal and manage them. Having this ability to better understand, handle and channel their emotions in a positive way is not only empowering, but it is also a sense of strength that many don’t take the time to create and build upon. They are naturally empathetic and studies suggest that people who prefer to be alone are more in touch with the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of others around them, making them more empathetic. This awareness of the emotions of others as well as their own allows them to not only empathise but show more compassion for those around them. Empathetic people are able to identify, acknowledge and experience the feelings of others, which can increase their sensitivity towards other human beings and allow them to care about people on more than just a surface level. One aspect I have noticed is having a strong moral compass, as those who prefer to spend time alone often have a better understanding of what they consider right and wrong. This is because they have taken the time to analyse and determine their perspectives and moral beliefs, so their moral compass is more developed than those affected and shaped by the opinions of others. This definitive moral compass also makes it easier for them to make decisions and be satisfied with the decisions they make. There is also an element of open-mindedness. Even though some people would assume introverts are more likely to be close-minded because they’re not as affected or exposed to the opinions of others, many people who prefer solitude are actually very open to new experiences and different perspectives. People who enjoy spending time alone don’t automatically have a mind closed off to the ways of the world around them, they just choose to gather a better understanding of the world in different ways that suit their personality. Then there isn’t the need for acceptance of our peers to the degree that other characters seem to have. Considering how our modern society is so influenced by the internet and social media, feeling like we have gained the respect of our peers can become an overwhelming need and some will do almost anything to satisfy that need. Popularity and acceptance have become one of the most pressing concepts we associate with success, and this can be a harmful measure of success to live by, particularly for our mental health. However, those who prefer to be alone feel this need less than those who get satisfaction out of attention and socialising because they have taken the time to get to know and understand their own sense of self. Because they have a better understanding of who they are, they are better able to separate their self-worth from the views of others. Associated with that is an admittance of their flaws. People who prefer to be alone are more likely to be comfortable with this and are more in-tune and comfortable with the fact that they are imperfect beings. This goes back to the sense of self they gain from being comfortable with themselves and with being alone. Being able to own up to our flaws and faults is an important step towards positive personal growth. Some do say that they prefer the company of other intellectual people. I’m not too sure on that point, but I will admit that I do not bother with what I consider to be ‘idle gossip’. Whilst working in an office some years ago I heard two people talking animatedly about someone who was apparently very ill, so unusually for me I politely enquired whether the person who was ill also worked at the same firm. I learned that these two were in fact talking about a character in the tv series ‘Coronation Street’ – but they were behaving as if the character was a real person! It takes all sorts to make a world. So being comfortable with being alone allows many introverts to be more selective about who they choose to spend their time with. Because they don’t feel a constant or incessant need to be around many people, they value their time and can be more selective of how they choose to spend it. This is because they know that with or without the company of others, they’d be fine either way. As a result, many people who prefer to be alone are more likely to be uninterested in small talk or meaningless conversation and prefer people who match them intellectually and have more challenging conversations. Such people who prefer to spend time on their own also understand the true value of time, an asset in our lives that many overlook or overshadow when among others. Not only do they value their own time, but they usually have more respect for the value and time of others.

Another aspect I have found to be true is that people who prefer to be alone are more in-tune with their gut feelings and they trust them. Since they spend more time getting to know themselves, they are better able to understand, recognise and tap into their intuition and ultimately trust it. In addition, they are highly loyal, because they are more selective about who they spend their time with. They still understand the value of friendship, they’re just more selective about who those friends are. But fewer friends usually means that it is easier to value and stay loyal to those friends. That said, they are independent souls. They have made a more defined line of when to reach out to others for help and when to depend on themselves. This line distinguishes between connecting with others and their actual dependence. Learning to face the world on their own, people who enjoy their own company don’t need people as much as they choose to have them around. They also, generally at least, have well thought-out opinions on the world. A misconception often associated with those that prefer to be alone is that they are more likely to come off as being indifferent to outside or worldly matters, but that is not the case. Actually, they’ve probably spent more time sitting back and assessing the world and have developed incredibly strong and well-thought-out opinions, but they just don’t always choose to share them. Which means that they can spend a great deal of time with their own thoughts, creating and developing a level of self-awareness incomparable to others. With this self-awareness, by stepping back and looking at the world around them and becoming more empathetic individuals, people that like to be alone are able to see the world from a kinder perspective, one that is more in-tune to the needs of those around them. This allows them to act on their compassion. They respect healthy boundaries and understand the importance of these clear, healthy boundaries to the benefit of both themselves and those around them. Interestingly they are courageous too, because they are comfortable with themselves so are not afraid to stand up alone in the world, a form of courage not many possess. Their confidence can be confusing or off-putting to others, but is ultimately admirable. They’re less likely to feel defeated, give up or back down. Added to this, their awareness and ability to focus allows independent individuals to analyse a situation with a calm, rational, level-headed mindset and efficiently find a solution. Another aspect of such people is that those who prefer to be alone place a higher value on the importance of finding the right person, because they’re not afraid of being single. They don’t waste time dating for the sake of company. If they are dating someone it is because they see the potential. They also have a strong idea of what they’re looking for in a partner and will hold out until they find that person that fits their criteria. Leading on from that, they are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, as people who have a better understanding of themselves are less likely to be ignorant to their weaknesses, and less likely to feel the need to compensate for them by exaggerating their strengths. It has been said by many that being honest with yourself as to what your strengths and weaknesses are is crucial to your personal development. You should also find that they are highly reliable. If they give their word that they are going to do something for you, they will follow it through. They don’t volunteer their time for just anything so if they commit to something they will place value on that commitment. So perhaps being alone isn’t so bad after all…

This week… memories
Many years ago, when I was but a lad, we would go on holiday as a family to North Devon. My mother’s family came from Truro and I knew that we had elderly relatives in Plymouth. We would visit them whilst on holiday and one year my parents and I were invited to a celebration arranged by some friends for my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. I would have been about thirteen. We first visited our elderly relatives and whilst there I was told to put on a clean shirt and tie for the occasion. So there I was, putting on my tie and one of our relatives, an elderly ‘maiden aunt’ I suppose would be the correct term, saw me doing this and commented “Ooh, I’ve never seen a man get dressed before!” That aunt always seemed the quiet one, but she taught me much about gentle, good-natured humour!

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