Howard Jacobson on the Hallé: How an orchestra changed my life

Marvellous Mahler, blistering Berlioz...As the Hallé Orchestra celebrates its 150th birthday, Howard Jacobson pays tribute to the musical magic it has brought to Manchester

Published: 11 January 2008

Howard Jacobson on the Hallé: How an orchestra changed my life Howard Jacobson on the Hallé: How an orchestra changed my life

Take a walk down Peter Street in Manchester any night that grabs your fancy and you'll think the peeled, plump girls with purple thighs and frozen faces falling in and out of the bars and clubs must be auditioning for next year's Manchester United Christmas party. Nothing's sacred. Peter Street was formerly St Peter's Fields, site of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when the militia charged a crowd of 60,000 Lancastrians calling for universal suffrage, annual parliaments and a repeal of the Corn Laws. Later, in the same radical tradition, the Free Trade Hall was built in Peter Street – the only hall in England, in AJP Taylor's words, "dedicated to a proposition". Today the street is dedicated to an entirely different sort of propositioning. Thus do the rights to liberty and equality we fight for in one age find their realisation in the free-for-all bingeing of the next.

There are statues of those great Free Traders, Cobden and Bright, all over Manchester. Free Trade, whether or not you knew what the phrase denoted, was part of the municipal poetry of Manchester. And the Free Trade Hall – built originally to house meetings for the Anti-Corn Law League – was to become no less part of the city's music: the place where the Hallé Orchestra first performed, and home to it, thereafter, for over a century. Now it's a Radisson Hotel and the Hallé has moved into the Bridgewater Hall which, although geographically only around the corner, spiritually speaking might just as well be in Salford.

One must move, they say, with the times. So yes, the Hallé undoubtedly flourishes today under Mark Elder's leadership, and yes, the Bridgewater Hall has all you can ask of a state-of-the-art auditorium, not least finer acoustics than the Free Trade Hall ever had in the days I used to be dragged to the Hallé on school trips. But the new location has no soul. You don't hear the city pulsing through the music in the Bridgewater Hall as you did in the Hallé's previous home. You are not sitting where great orators and agitators once sat. And there isn't the grand sense of civic occasion. How can there be? The Free Trade Hall was a Victorian renaissance palace, built with the sweat of the city's brow to weld art and commerce in a spirit of reform, and, frankly, nothing less becomes the Hallé.

Read accounts of the fashionable traffic outside the Free Trade Hall during the Hallé Orchestra's greatest years, say under the conductorship of Hans Richter from 1899 to 1911, and there's no escaping the impression that Manchester was once rival to Berlin and Vienna, and Peter Street its great cultural thoroughfare, where poor and privileged music lovers alike jostled to hear some of the most famous musicians of the day, most of them German, play music, also most of it German, in the great European symphonic tradition. When asked why he didn't play French music, Richter is said to have replied: "What French music?" Right or wrong, Debussy or no Debussy, it makes a Mancunian's heart swell to think there was a time when, orchestrally speaking, Manchester could afford to be so dismissively sure of itself.

I don't think I knew, when I attended Hallé concerts in the 1950s, that it had been a German, Charles Hallé, who'd founded the orchestra a hundred years before. Mancunians have a genius for appropriating what isn't natively their own, so long as they admire it. Depending on which part of Manchester you came from, you pronounced Hallé in your local dialect. "Ally" if you were from Radcliffe or Middleton. Something that sounded more like a Sloane's "hello" – "Hellai" – if you hailed from the Cheshire borders. Nor did it occur to us that John Barbirolli, the principal conductor in our time, was of Italian stock. "Barber Oily" we pronounced him if we came from Wilmslow; "Barb Brolly" if we were from further north. There was no malice in our ignorance, even though we had no reason to be lovers of Germans or Italians so soon after the war. It simply never occurred to us that we owed the excellence of our world-renowned orchestra to foreigners.

In fact, it says a great deal for Manchester and its Free Trade credentials that it could provide a congenial home – in Moss Side, of all places, near where the guns go off today – for a man as musically V C sophisticated as Charles Hallé. While not exactly another Mozart, Hallé had been something of a prodigy in his native Westphalia, studying piano under some of the great music teachers of the day and giving successful public concerts before he was into double figures in years.

He was only 17 when he moved to Paris, seeking more musical glory than Westphalia could offer him. Here, he mingled with the likes of Cherubini, Chopin and Liszt, and made the acquaintance of Berlioz and Wagner. Here, Alfred de Musset and George Sand became his friends. And here, presumably, he would have stayed, had the Revolution of 1848 not forced him to find a life elsewhere.

Surprising that, after a brief sojourn in London, he should have chosen Manchester – until one remembers that the city already had a small but distinct and thriving population of German expatriates. Of those, some were Jewish, some were not, some were fleeing repression, others had simply settled in the city in order to pursue business opportunities. Tightly knit, but also convivial and public-spirited, their influence extended from commerce to philosophy and politics, but it was as a nucleus of musical civilisation that they contributed most to Manchester's cultural life. In 1853, Hallé became director of the Gentlemen's Concerts in Manchester. Four years later, when Manchester decided to flex its aesthetic muscle with the Manchester Arts Treasures Exhibition, they picked Hallé to conduct two accompanying concerts a day. And in the following year, employing the musicians and chorus he had assembled for that exhibition, he inaugurated the Hallé – the country's first entirely professional orchestra. In 1891, he helped to establish the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he served as head and chief professor of pianoforte until his death in 1895. It might have been the case, as the music critic Neville Cardus once squiffily noted, that as a consequence of Hallé's energies, the city "paid tribute to Saint Cecilia in language possessing the Teuton accent", but better the Teutonic accent in music than no accent at all.

Little of this, as I have said, was known to those of us who were bussed into Hallé concerts from our grammar schools every Wednesday (or was it every Thursday?) evening. I would like to pretend that we arrived at the Free Trade Hall desperate to hear another Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture ("Fingal's Cave") or Holst's The Planets – I don't know why, but the school never seemed to take us to the Hallé except when they were playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture ("Fingal's Cave") or Holst's The Planets – but the truth is, however much we liked the buzz of being out and about without having to wear our schoolcaps, and however it excited us to mingle with Manchester's crème de la crème on the steps of the Free Trade Hall, we also considered it an imposition on time we could have better spent in the city's coffee bars. Like all adolescent schoolboys, we resented having culture rammed down our throats, especially in the company of teachers we neither feared nor admired. Had they let us go to the Hallé unsupervised, or found a way of making it feel less like homework in another guise, it is possible we'd have enjoyed the experience more.

We weren't, however, forced to go. So there must have been a willingness mixed with our reluctance. And a sense, instilled by our parents as much as by the school, that the Hallé was ours, that we were fortunate to have it, and that we would kick ourselves in years to come if we did not take advantage of its being on our doorstep. So we trooped in, making eyes at the girls from the girls' schools (Withington girls were the prettiest, Manchester High the more flirtatious) and choosing a harpist or viola player to fall in love with when the music failed to transport us out of our earthly selves.

This was not always easy given that we mainly sat in the gods and could barely see the faces of the viola players. But that too was part of the fun – particularly when the waters roared into Fingal's Cave for the 10th time that year, or Saturn again brought in old age – making up appearances and personalities and even life histories for the ant-musicians far below us.

All the male violinists were miserable and lonely, we decided. (One of them lived a few doors down from me, and he was definitely miserable and lonely, leaving home in the early evening with his violin case, in which I imagined he kept a thermos flask and a couple of cheese sandwiches.) The men on drums appeared redundant, in their lives as well as on the stage. The clarinettists with the wet lips raffish. And the women cellists – but we must have had the same fantasies as all boys our age when it came to what women cellists liked to put between their knees.

On our first visits we looked down through the opera glasses that you could release from the backs of the seats in front of you for small change, but then a pair went missing and we were banned at school assembly from ever using them again. We all knew who'd stolen the glasses but didn't grass on him. His name began with K and though it was assumed he would come to no good he later became a professional percussionist himself – though not, as far as I know, with the Hallé.

I remember it being uncomfortable sitting up there in the gods. Vertiginous, demeaning, and dangerous too, as was proved by what happened to my best friend Gabriel Jacobs, who famously fell asleep during Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. (By our time, French music had been allowed back into the Hallé's repertoire.) There is "a long pianissimo passage in the Berlioz which ends with a mighty crash of cymbals and timpani, and a great sounding of trumpets". It was the trumpets that startled Gabriel Jacobs from his sleep and sent him crashing into the lap of the woman in the seat in front. We argue to this day about what the woman said, and whether it excited her to have Gabriel in her lap, and which of us eventually retrieved him, but it's interesting that he still vividly recalls not only the piece of music, but (the quotation above is his) the exact passage that woke him. This very Christmas, he sang in Messiah in Knoxville, Tennessee, and was prompted to recall that long ago evening in the Free Trade Hall by the line: "The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised." Thus, for all our complaints and transgressions, for all the times our minds wandered in concerts, has our musical education at the hands of the Hallé stayed with us.

I heard Mahler for the first time, played by the Hallé; his second symphony, the "Resurrection". More raising of the dead. Barbirolli was to conduct this symphony in excess of 30 times before he died, his final performance in Germany at the very end of his life. Aged 15 or whatever, I had no idea how good Barbirolli's Mahler was. Precisely because he was, in our minds, a Manchester man (the strange flopping haircut we ascribed to genius) conducting a Manchester orchestra, we found it hard to believe that Barbirolli was of the class, say, of a Klemperer or a Bruno Walter. It isn't easy to accept that the best of anything might be happening where you are if you're a Mancunian with a Mancunian's habit of dry self-deprecation. But I had a feeling, the night of the "Resurrection", that I'd heard something exceptional.

For days after that performance I walked around as though transported out of myself, not speaking to anyone because of not wanting to lose the sound in my head of that grand tolling of the bells in the final movement, when the soul seems to soar upwards out of pain. When people who considered themselves religious tried to describe what faith felt like, my only point of reference was Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony as played by the Hallé. And I would nerve myself to suggest to them that they give up all the trivial palaver of religious observance and simply listen to the Mahler. In this way, after time, the Free Trade Hall when the Hallé was playing served as synagogue and cathedral to me.

I have in my possession still a record I bought years ago of Janet Baker singing Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, with Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra. It is, I believe, considered to be one of the great recordings of all time, poignant beyond bearing. Baker, too, I heard first at the Free Trade Hall, singing Mahler with the Hallé, though I can't put a date to that. It's possible I had left Manchester by then and returned especially for the concert. I hung upon Baker's voice as a later generation hung upon Pavarotti's and wouldn't have thought twice about travelling to hear her.

Those, anyway, are the sounds I associate with the Hallé, confused chronologically though they now are to me – Barbirolli's Mahler, a "Resurrection" that seemed to swell the hall to 10 times its normal size, the unimaginably moving voice of Janet Baker; and I'd say the clatter of my friend Gabriel falling into the lap of the woman in front if it didn't detract from the lyricism. Though that, too, is poignant beyond bearing after all these years.

It's the poignancy that's stayed with me. Those hours when the music did what music exists to do and transported me out of Manchester into an ethereal seriousness. Wonderful that there was something in Manchester, something of Manchester, that could make such a journey possible. We were luckier than we knew. We were loaded on to buses and dropped off in Peter Street – humanly ugly now, but then a boulevard of self-improvement and idealism – and given access to the sublime. If ever there was a birthday worth celebrating, it is the Hallé's.

The Hallé's 150th Anniversary Concert is at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (0161-907 9000) on 30 January. The Hallé 150 season continues throughout the year (www.halle.co.uk)

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