200 Years Of The Royal Philharmonic Society


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How the Royal Philharmonic Society came to commission Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Marking the 200th birthday of one of the nation's most influential musical organisations, this week Composer Of The Week celebrates the story of the Royal Philharmonic Society - and the remarkable roll-call of commissions and world premieres given by the Society during its two centuries of existence.

From 1813 to the present day, the one-time "Philharmonic Society of London" (it acquired its "Royal" title in 1912) has been responsible for some of the greatest musical masterpieces of each successive generation. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was commissioned by the Society, as was Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, Vaughan Williams' Ninth, Elgar's Violin Concerto, Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony, and many others.

But more than this, the story of the RPS is one of our nation's relationship with some of Europe's greatest composers. Richard Wagner came to London to conduct the Society for one, tumultuous, season in 1855, following in the footsteps of his compatriot Felix Mendelssohn - a great supporter and friend of the organisation. Later, Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov all enjoyed a fruitful relationship with the Society, delighting audiences with their performances. Complementing an almost unparalleled playlist of commissions from the 19th century, each day we'll also hear a key RPS commission from the 20th and 21st centuries - showcasing works by Thea Musgrave, Alan Rawthorne and Mark-Anthony Turnage.

This week, Donald Macleod is joined by the cultural historian Leanne Langley to take us through all these stories and many more, exploring musical highlights both familiar and unfamiliar from the first 100 years of the organisation and the watershed the RPS faced in the late 20th century as it faced financial crisis and potential extinction.

He speaks to the Society's current Executive Director, Rosemary Johnson, about how the RPS dramatically reinvented itself in the 21st century as a commissioner and promoter of new music - and the remarkable litany of new commissions (more than 50 and counting since the turn of the millennium) that have seen the RPS reclaim their position at the heart of British musical life.


Donald Macleod begins his exploration of the RPS's bicentenary with the story of how the Philharmonic Society came to be founded in 1813, as part of the great architectural and artistic projects of Regency London. He juxtaposes one of the Society's very first commissions, by the little-known Ferdinand Ries, with arguably their greatest-ever: Beethoven's monumental Ninth Symphony. The programme ends with another valedictory Ninth Symphony, commissioned by the RPS in the 20th century, by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

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Donald Macleod on 'Mendelssohn mania', plus RPS commissions by JB Cramer and Bartok.

In the 1830s, "Mendelssohn mania" was thrilling these shores as the music of Felix Mendelssohn made a huge impact on London audiences. Donald Macleod is joined by cultural historian, Leanne Langley to explore two key works commissioned by the Philharmonic Society - Mendelssohn's Symphony no.4, the "Italian", and the much less well-known concert aria "Infelice". He also presents a complete performance of a Piano Quintet by one of the Society's most ardent supporters, the now long-forgotten Johann Baptist Cramer. We end with an RPS commission from the mid-20th century: Bartok's Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, an adaptation of the composer's earlier Sonata for the same combination.

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Focusing on the RPS and a young Wagner. Plus works by Spohr, Tchaikovsky and Thea Musgrave

By the middle of the 19th century, the Society was looking for a new musical direction. Enter stage left the young, supremely confident Richard Wagner, who was appointed chief conductor of the Society's orchestra for one truly tumultuous concert season in 1855. Donald Macleod explores the highs and lows, the drama and mutual antipathy with the help of cultural historianb Leanne Langley, before presenting works by Spohr and the "great white hope" of Victorian British music, William Sterndale Bennett. He also introduces the Society's relationship with European composers of the late 19th century and the reception of Tchaikovsky's dramatic "Pathetique" symphony.

The programme ends with a masterpiece of 20th century British orchestral music - Thea Musgrave's Clarinet Concerto, commissioned by the RPS in 1969.

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The RPS's relationship with composers from Europe: Grieg, Saint-Saens and Dvorak.

By the late 1800s, under the steady stewardship of Francesco Berger, the Philharmonic Society of London was thriving after a few years in the musical and financial doldrums. Yet, as competition increased from other concert societies, they turned their focus abroad, forging strong relationships with Dvorak, Grieg and Saint-Saëns.

Donald Macleod is joined once more by the cultural historian, Leanne Langley to explore the musical scene of late 19th century London, before a rare opportunity to hear Alan Rawsthorne's First Symphony - commissioned by the RPS in 1950.

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Donald Macleod explores the RPS's activities in the 21st century.

Donald Macleod rounds off this week's exploration of the pieces commissioned and premiered by the RPS during its 200-year history by taking us right up to the 21st century, with recent works by Richard Rodney Bennett and Huw Watkins. Donald is also joined by cultural historian, Leanne Langley to tell the story of perhaps the most significant RPS commission of the early 20th century - Elgar's Violin Concerto - and presents a final masterwork from the middle of the last century: Walton's orchestral showpiece "Variations on a Theme of Hindemith".