Everyone knows Henry Wood set up the Proms. But who remembers the man who hired him to do it? By Peter Mullen
Friday 21 July 1995
Robert Newman was born in London in 1858 and grew up to work as a stockjobber and to sing bass in his spare time. His singing was rather better than that of the usual amateur, a result perhaps of his having taken lessons in Italy as a young man. He was good enough, at any rate, to take the title role in the premiere of Hubert Parry's oratorio Job.
Newman was a hyperactive man with electric blue eyes and a mission: "I am going to run nightly concerts," he promised himself and the world, "and train the public by easy stages - popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music." His determination was rewarded by a happy chance: it so happened that, at one and the same time, both the perfect setting and the ideal conductor for these ambitions became available.
The old site of the Queen's Hall was by the Nash church of All Souls, Langham Place - adjacent to the modern Broadcasting House. The land was Crown Property and many suggestions were put forward at the time of Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887 as to what might most appropriately be built upon it. A skating-rink was considered and rejected. At last it was decided to build a concert hall, designed chiefly by the architect T E Knightley, a dour man with a wretchedly dull sense of what goes into a colour scheme but with a wonderful talent for constructing a building that turned out to be acoustically almost perfect: resonant, but without the Royal Albert Hall's perplexing echo, and with no "dead spots". It was a popular venue from the very first.
Newman became the first lessee and manager of the Queen's Hall. He had heard Henry Wood, then a young man of 24, play the organ accompaniment at the first concert ever given there, on 2 December 1893. Wood described him thus: "He was always brisk and busy, but the moment he discussed music his blue eyes - they were very blue - lighted up as with fire, and the soft inner kindness of the man showed him to be a deep lover of music. He must have misled many by his abrupt manner, but once he spoke of art all that disappeared. He had plenty of experience of running promenade concerts at His Majesty's, so that he knew what he was about."
Newman had also organised concerts on Sunday afternoons and dealt diplomatically with the objections of the 19th-century precursors of the "Keep Sunday Special" movement. His first moves to arrange promenade concerts in the Queen's Hall are best described by Henry Wood himself: "I did not meet him again until he called on me in February 1895. With hardly a word of greeting, he tackled the question of what was obviously uppermost in his mind: 'I have decided to run those Promenade Concerts I told you about last year. I want you to be the conductor of a permanent Queen's Hall Orchestra. We'll run a 10 weeks' season,' he said. I can still feel the thrill of that moment. An orchestra... in the Queen's Hall... My orchestra...
"I said, 'But you have never seen me conduct!' 'Oh yes I have! As often as I could - wherever you were. Given the right orchestra, you will become a great conductor. Anyhow, I mean to run you and make you. The public will support us. The time is ripe for an English conductor... and now... Can you put up a little capital... say two or three thousand pounds?' 'I'm afraid not. I haven't such a sum to risk, and don't know anyone who has.' 'Never mind! I'll see what can be done. For I mean to run those concerts!' "
Wood then ran off - we must imagine with wings on his heels - to give a singing lesson to a Scotsman called Peterkin, who was accompanied by a friend who had come to listen. During a break in the lesson, Wood told Peterkin of Newman's plans, whereupon the friend said, "Please tell me more about this project, Mr Wood."
This man was Dr George Cathcart, an ear-and-throat specialist. "I want you to introduce me to Newman," he told Wood. "I might put up the money if he will do two things: one is to establish the low pitch and the other is to engage you as his only conductor."
Cathcart, as a throat specialist, knew what damage the English vogue for high pitch - as opposed to the lower pitch then fashionable on the Continent - was having on the voices of native singers. Unfortunately for them, most English organs and wind instruments were pitched high, so they had no choice but to strain their voices or be out of work.
Wood introduced Cathcart to Newman: "Newman liked the high pitch," Wood recalled, "but he succumbed to the Dr's better judgement. Of what the financial arrangements were, I knew practically nothing. But I do know that Dr Cathcart - the throat specialist - was personally and directly responsible for the inception of the Promenade Concerts in August 1895."
Newman had a genius for administration: one of his brightest ideas was the provision of the one guinea transferable season ticket, which was, as its name implies, valid for all the concerts. This represented amazing value for money in an age when a single ticket for a symphony concert might cost anything between five shillings (25p) and pounds 1.
As a public benefactor, Newman succeeded brilliantly in his desire to provide the best music at affordable prices in the days when financial distinctions in society were much greater than they are today.
The first Proms season was a success and Newman was given a benefit concert at the end which raised pounds 400. The success was the result of imaginative programming, good orchestral playing and a realistic pricing policy. As Wood said of Newman, "He always had an eye for the main chance. He would take advantage not only of any centenary but also of the demise of any public personage!"
Newman's various non-musical business interests ran into difficulties and he found it impossible to carry financial responsibility for the orchestra after 1901, but by then the Promenade Concerts were well-established and others appeared on the scene to share the burden.
There is a note of sadness in all this inspired activity, for Robert Newman remains the forgotten man in the history of the Proms. He does not receive many column inches in the musical histories of our time or even in the standard biographical dictionaries of the age. Yet without him, there would have been no Proms.
He died in 1926 and a memorial was placed in the Queen's Hall - a small plate behind his usual seat in the second circle. This was destroyed in the bombing of 1941.
Wood wrote movingly of his impresario and friend: "I always knew the state of the barometer with Newman from the habit he had of looking out of the corner of his eye while his moustache bristled fiercely. We never fell out. Dear Robert Newman, whom I can still visualise with that bristling moustache and his blue eyes afire with enthusiasm that day in 1895 when he suggested I should direct Promenade Concerts in the newly- built Queen's Hall."
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