Temple of music

Town Hall, Birmingham

Town Hall, Birmingham

Birmingham’s Town Hall is the equivalent of Liverpool’s St George’s Hall, designed solely as an assembly hall, and intended for the fund-raising concerts that supported the General Hospital.

Based on the Roman Temple of Castor and Pollux and designed in 1831-2 by Joseph Aloysius Hansom (whose name is indelibly linked to the cab he invented), this is the building that ruined Hanson, his partner Welch and the contractors Thomas & Kendall:  they were obliged to complete the contract for no more than £17,000, but the eventual final cost was around £25,000.  “Bankruptcy has been fixed as the price of my adventure,” Hansom declared.

The project took until 1861 to complete under the supervision of Charles Edge.

Hanson’s original design had a gallery round three sides of the interior, and was crowded by other buildings on the north and east sides.  As early as 1837 the decision was taken to rebuild northwards to accommodate the organ in its present position;  a further northward extension of 1849-51 brought the Town Hall to its present size, and only then was the north façade completed to match the south and the west podium refaced to match the east.

Subsequent alterations have not been kind to Hanson’s design.   Modifications to the lobby in 1890-1 reduced the size of the auditorium.  In 1926-7 two rear galleries were designed by Owen Williams to replace the original one and a redecoration scheme by White, Allom & Co completely obliterated Hanson’s ceiling.

The William Hill organ (built in 1834 and successively rebuilt in 1843, 1889-90, 1932-3 and 1984) was until 1922 owned by the Governors of the General Hospital, because it was primarily intended for use in their fund-raising Triennial Festivals which date back to the late eighteenth century.  It was the biggest of its time:   it had the first ever 32-foot pipe and the first part-pneumatic action;  it was the first four-manual pipe-organ (enlarged to five manuals in 1984) and it had the first full pedal-keyboard.

The Town Hall has always been the scene of prestigious musical events.  It was the venue for the premières of Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846), Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius (October 3rd 1900 – “one of British music’s more famous disasters”), The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906).

The list of eminent conductors who have performed at the Town Hall runs from Mendelssohn, through Elgar, Sibelius, Dvorak, Bruno Walter, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Thomas Beecham to Sir Simon Rattle.  The inaugural performance of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted here by Sir Edward Elgar on November 10th 1920.

When the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra moved to Symphony Hall in 1991 the Town Hall was little used and it closed in 1996.  After a radical restoration, involving the reinstatement of the 1834 single balcony, it reopened as a partner to Symphony Hall in October 2007.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s Birmingham’s Heritage lecture, please click here.

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