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.

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