The Story of a Concert Hall
Download the pdf The History of a Concert Hall (2.30 MB), written by Julia MacRae and produced by Paula Best.
Beginnings as Bechstein Hall
Wigmore Hall was built in 1901 by the German piano firm Bechstein next to its showrooms on Wigmore Street. The Hall was intended to be grandly impressive while remaining intimate enough for recitals.
Originally called Bechstein Hall, it opened with two gala concerts on 31 May and 1 June 1901, featuring the Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni, the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, the Ukrainian pianist Vladimir de Pachmann and several others.
The Hall was designed by the English architect Thomas Collcutt, FRIBA (1840-1924) in Renaissance style, using alabaster and marble for the walls, flooring and stairway. Collcutt was one of the most distinguished architects of his day and his diverse body of work embraced the design of the public rooms in more than a dozen P&O liners.
The outbreak of war in 1914 brought hostility to German firms in London. Even Nellie Melba was criticised when she sang Land of Hope and Glory to an accompaniment on a German-made Bechstein.
In 1916, the entire business — including studios, offices, warehouses, 137 pianos and the Hall itself — was sold to Debenhams for £56, 500. The Hall alone had cost £100, 000 to build.
Past and Present Performers
In its early years Wigmore Hall featured many remarkable performers. Artur Schnabel, at the age of 22, played a recital so successful that a second was hastily arranged; composers Ravel, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Skryabin, Hahn and Grainger appeared; Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso sang; 27-year-old Thomas Beecham gave his first concert; Artur Rubinstein played, and at his farewell recital at the Hall many years later urged his audience to 'keep coming back to this wonderful Hall'
Prokofiev, Poulenc and Hindemith appeared, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears gave recitals, and many of Britten's most significant chamber and vocal works were given their first performances at the Hall; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sang, Jacqueline du Pré played the cello; the Amadeus Quartet gave many memorable concerts.
With its celebrated acoustic, continuity of staff and famously knowledgeable audience, the Hall continues to attract the world’s leading musicians. They especially appreciate the degree of intimacy built up between artist and audience, which contributes so much to Wigmore Hall's very special atmosphere.
Artists appearing in recent times have included Sir András Schiff, Dame Felicity Lott, Cecilia Bartoli, Sir Thomas Allen, Steven Isserlis, Ann Murray DBE, Matthias Goerne, Joshua Bell, Andreas Scholl, Angelika Kirchschlager, Thomas Quasthoff, Simon Keenlyside, Florestan Trio, Bernarda Fink, The Borodin Quartet, The Nash Ensemble, Ian Bostridge, Gerald Finley, The Emerson Quartet, The Academy of Ancient Music, a quartet of leading accompanists – Graham Johnson, Julius Drake, Malcolm Martineau, Roger Vignoles – and a host of others too numerous to mention.
Wigmore Hall also showcases a new generation of young artists, many of whom made their first London recital appearance on its platform. These include Alice Coote, Paul Lewis, Kate Royal, Alison Balsom, Christopher Maltman, Joyce DiDonato, Mark Padmore, Belcea Quartet, Alina Ibragimova, Elias String Quartet and Iestyn Davies.
William Lyne and the Introduction of Themed Seasons
William Lyne became Wigmore Hall's Director in 1966 and is credited with further building its reputation as one of the world’s leading recital halls.
He introduced themed seasons with the Fauré Series in 1979/80; subsequent series have been devoted to, among others, Schumann, Purcell, Bach, Ligeti, Haydn, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams and others.
William Lyne retired, after a remarkable 37-year tenure, in 2003.
John Gilhooly - The Present and Future of Wigmore Hall
John Gilhooly joined Wigmore Hall as Executive Director in December 2000 and was appointed overall Director in 2005. While sustaining the Hall’s tradition of musical excellence, his tenure has seen the complete transformation of the Hall’s artistic, financial and administrative affairs. An astonishing £38 million has already been raised towards artistic and capital projects throughout Gilhooly's time as overall Director.
In 2004, he led the successful £4 million Capital Appeal and the £3m refurbishment project, which was widely praised for its completion on time and on budget. He has overseen the purchase of a long-term lease for the Hall, completed in 2008 for £3.1m; this not only secured the Hall’s future but also allowed further development of the artistic programme through redirection of funds previously devoted to rent.
Whilst maintaining and expanding the Hall's core repertoire of classical song, chamber and early music, John Gilhooly has introduced many vibrant new initiatives, attracting a wide and diverse audience. New directions include the appointment of influential jazz musician Brad Mehldau to curate an ongoing jazz series, the presentation of distinguished artists from the world music scene, and the launch of a programme of late-night concerts, the first of which, featuring the tango-inspired music of the South American composer Astor Piazzolla, attracted a capacity crowd of enthusiastic young listeners.
In another new initiative, in 2008 Luke Bedford became the Hall's first Composer in Residence, thus reaffirming the Hall's great tradition of commissioning and supporting new works. Julian Anderson succeeded him in 2013.
It is Wigmore Hall's stated intention to be a place of musical excitement and innovation as well as tradition, and John Gilhooly's imaginative, challenging programming is attracting record-breaking ticket sales and capacity houses.
Wigmore Hall Live
To take its programming to a wider international audience, in October 2005, the Hall launched its own CD label, Wigmore Hall Live.
Offering recent and archive recitals, recorded live in the Hall’s peerless acoustic by a distinguished array of artists, Wigmore Hall Live continues to expand its much-admired catalogue.
Over the coming years the CD label will be complemented by a number of new initiatives in digital media.
The Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition
This Competition celebrates the art of the song recital and honours the Lied’s place at the heart of the genre.
Since its foundation in 1997, the Competition has grown in status and prestige, and continues to attract singers and pianists from around the world, aged 33 or under, who are keen to embark on significant recital careers.
The event, which gives young artists an important platform for public performance and the expansion of repertoire, also promotes the exchange of ideas between musicians from all over the world.
In addition, competitors enjoy an invaluable opportunity to obtain feedback and guidance from a jury of international artists of the highest calibre, and from directors of major concert halls and music festivals.
The Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition
The triennial Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition (formerly The London International String Quartet Competition) has been held under the auspices of Wigmore Hall since July 2010. Embracing the entire string quartet tradition, it requires contestants to perform Classical, Romantic and contemporary repertoire.
Now even more widely recognised as one of the world’s most prestigious quartet competitions, the event has benefited from its direct association with a leading venue for chamber music, and offers the winning ensembles outstanding opportunities for career development.
The next competition will be held in 2018, and with the final taking place at Wigmore Hall on Sunday 15 April.
The History of Wigmore Hall Podcast
You can find out more about the history of Wigmore Hall by listening the podcast hosted by musician and broadcaster Sandy Burnett: