Mar 292016
 

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The official opening ceremony of the Royal Albert Hall took place on this date in 1871. A welcoming speech was given by Edward, the Prince of Wales; Queen Victoria was too overcome to speak. At some point, the Queen remarked that the Hall reminded her of the British constitution. I haven’t the vaguest idea what she meant by this. There is no written British constitution. At best it can be described as a hodge-podge of statutes beginning with Magna Carta. Maybe the Hall is similar? (i.e. a mélange of all things British).

Royal Albert Hall is a concert hall on the northern edge of South Kensington, London, best known for holding the Proms concerts annually each summer since 1941. It has a capacity (depending on configuration of the event) of up to 5,272 seats. The Hall is a registered charity held in trust for the nation and receives no public or government funding.

Since its opening by Queen Victoria in 1871, the world’s leading artists from many performance genres have appeared on its stage and it has become one of the UK’s most treasured and distinctive buildings. Each year it hosts more than 390 shows in the main auditorium, including classical, rock and pop concerts, ballet, opera, film screenings with live orchestra, sports, award ceremonies, school and community events, charity performances and banquets. A further 400 events are held each year in the non-auditorium spaces. I’ve been to concerts there a few times, the first being a sort of hippie-fest featuring the Incredible String Band (look them up!!) in 1968.

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 late husband consort, Prince Albert who had died six years earlier. It forms the practical part of a national memorial to the Prince Consort – the decorative part is the Albert Memorial directly to the north in Kensington Gardens, now separated from the Hall by the road Kensington Gore.

The Hall, a Grade I listed building, is an ellipse in plan, with major and minor axes of 83 m (272 ft) and 72 m (236 ft). The great glass and wrought-iron dome roofing the Hall is 41 m (135 ft) high. It was originally designed with a capacity for 8,000 people and has accommodated as many as 9,000 (although modern safety restrictions mean that the maximum permitted capacity is now 5,544 including standing in the Gallery).

Around the outside of the building is a great mosaic frieze, depicting “The Triumph of Arts and Sciences”, in reference to the Hall’s dedication. Proceeding anti-clockwise from the north side the sixteen subjects of the frieze are: (1) Various Countries of the World bringing in their Offerings to the Exhibition of 1851; (2) Music; (3) Sculpture; (4) Painting; (5) Princes, Art Patrons and Artists; (6) Workers in Stone; (7) Workers in Wood and Brick; (8) Architecture; (9) The Infancy of the Arts and Sciences; (10) Agriculture; (11) Horticulture and Land Surveying; (12) Astronomy and Navigation; (13) A Group of Philosophers, Sages and Students; (14) Engineering; (15) The Mechanical Powers; and (16) Pottery and Glassmaking.

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Above the frieze is an inscription in 12-inch-high (300 mm) terracotta letters that combines historical fact and Biblical quotations: “This hall was erected for the advancement of the arts and sciences and works of industry of all nations in fulfilment of the intention of Albert Prince Consort. The site was purchased with the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of the year MDCCCLI. The first stone of the Hall was laid by Her Majesty Queen Victoria on the twentieth day of May MDCCCLXVII and it was opened by Her Majesty the Twenty Ninth of March in the year MDCCCLXXI. Thine O Lord is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty. For all that is in the heaven and in the earth is Thine. The wise and their works are in the hand of God. Glory be to God on high and on earth peace.”

A concert followed the opening by Victoria, when the Hall’s acoustic problems became immediately apparent. Engineers first attempted to solve the strong echo by suspending a canvas awning below the dome. This helped and also sheltered concertgoers from the sun, but the problem was not solved: it used to be jokingly said that the Hall was “the only place where a British composer could be sure of hearing his work twice.” Nowadays there are hanging baffles to combat the echo.

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The BBC Promenade Concerts, known as “The Proms” are the most famous feature of the Hall.  In 1942, following the destruction of the Queen’s Hall in an air raid, the Hall was chosen as the new venue for the proms. 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.  Jiří Bělohlávek described The Proms as “the world’s largest and most democratic musical festival” of all such events in the world of classical music festivals.

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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. Proms concert-goers, particularly those who stand, are sometimes described as “Promenaders”, but are most commonly referred to as “Prommers.”

“Last Night” has become a national institution televised and celebrated worldwide. They were originally conducted by Proms founder, Sir Henry Wood, and then by Sir Malcolm Sargent (under whose baton I first heard them). Sargent was a wonderful master of ceremonies – hilariously grandiloquent. When Sir Colin Davis took over from Sargent in 1967 he tried to downplay the “Britishness” of the event, in particular by trying to exclude “Rule Britannia” as being overtly symbolic of British colonial tyranny. Well, it is, that is, if you treat it literally. Davis had to lighten up, though, at the outcry. Tradition won. The point is that there is a mocking tone to its rendition – especially these days – and is, at best, patriotic and not jingoistic. Here it is, to make my point:

And here’s “Jerusalem,” another Last Night fixture:

I don’t see any other choice than to give Mrs Beeton’s trifle recipe as a tribute to the Hall – both outrageous Victorian masterpieces. I love her description of adding the sherry and brandy which amounts to “add a bucket load” but using very prim tones. Every trifle I have ever made following this recipe has vanished in minutes, no matter how large I have made it.

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TO MAKE A TRIFLE.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—For the whip, 1 pint of cream, 3 oz. of pounded sugar, the whites of 2 eggs, a small glass of sherry or raisin wine. For the trifle, 1 pint of custard, made with 8 eggs to a pint of milk; 6 small sponge-cakes, or 6 slices of sponge-cake; 12 macaroons, 2 dozen ratafias, 2 oz. of sweet almonds, the grated rind of 1 lemon, a layer of raspberry or strawberry jam, 1/2 pint of sherry or sweet wine, 6 tablespoonfuls of brandy.

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Mode.—The whip to lay over the top of the trifle should be made the day before it is required for table, as the flavour is better, and it is much more solid than when prepared the same day. Put into a large bowl the pounded sugar, the whites of the eggs, which should be beaten to a stiff froth, a glass of sherry or sweet wine, and the cream. Whisk these ingredients well in a cool place, and take off the froth with a skimmer as fast as it rises, and put it on a sieve to drain; continue the whisking till there is sufficient of the whip, which must be put away in a cool place to drain. The next day, place the sponge-cakes, macaroons, and ratafias at the bottom of a trifle-dish; pour over them 1/2 pint of sherry or sweet wine, mixed with 6 tablespoonfuls of brandy, and, should this proportion of wine not be found quite sufficient, add a little more, as the cakes should be well soaked. Over the cakes put the grated lemon-rind, the sweet almonds, blanched and cut into strips, and a layer of raspberry or strawberry jam. Make a good custard by recipe No. 1423, using 8 instead of 5 eggs to the pint of milk, and let this cool a little; then pour it over the cakes, &c. The whip being made the day previously, and the trifle prepared, there remains nothing to do now but heap the whip lightly over the top: this should stand as high as possible, and it may be garnished with strips of bright currant jelly, crystallized sweetmeats, or flowers; the small coloured comfits are sometimes used for the purpose of garnishing a trifle, but they are now considered rather old-fashioned.

Average cost, with cream at 1s. per pint, 5s. 6d.

Sufficient for 1 trifle. Seasonable at any time.

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