SIXTY years ago, it looked as though Bournemouth’s days as the home of a world-class orchestra might be over.
But as it turned out, this gloomy period for the town’s music lovers resulted in the birth of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as we know it today.
On March 31, 1954, the Daily Echo revealed that Bournemouth council was to pull the plug on the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra founded by Sir Dan Godfrey in 1893 – “Corporation decide to dismiss the orchestra,” ran the headline.
The report began: “By 44 votes to five, Bournemouth Town Council today decided to give the members of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra four weeks’ notice to terminate their engagements.
“They also decided to give Mr Charles Groves, the conductor and director of music, three months’ notice terminating his contract.”
The three members of the public and five press reporters at the council chamber had been ejected so the council could debate the issue in private.
Alderman AH Little, chairman of the council’s beach and Pavilion committee, then told how a Musicians’ Union demand for higher wages had been the last straw. It was the latest of several crises which had hit the orchestra since it was reformed under Rudolf Schwarz after the war.
The council had already come close to disbanding it in 1951.
At that time, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – where Schwarz was by then conductor – had suggested a merger.
Summer concerts would have taken place in Bournemouth and winter performances in the West Midlands.
But a whirlwind fundraising appeal by the Winter Gardens Society had helped persuade Bournemouth council to keep the Municipal Orchestra going, as long as its deficit could be reduced by £10,000.
In 1953, the orchestra had celebrated its Diamond Jubilee, with two past conductors – Richard Austin and Rudolf Schwarz – returning, and the commissioning of a new work by Malcolm Arnold, his Symphony Number 2.
Concerts had been held for the first time in the Lower Gardens bandstand.
But by 1954, the deficit had only been cut by £7,000 – and the Musicians’ Union was seeking the orchestra’s first pay rise since the war. It wanted Municipal Orchestra members to receive the minimum rates paid by other symphony orchestras – £16 per week for principals against Bournemouth’s £12 12 shillings, £13 10s for second principals and £11 11s for others.
The council said it would mean a £7,500 bill for the rate-payer.
Alderman Little said: “My committee’s attitude quite simply is that any increase in the cost of the orchestra is more than the town can be asked to bear.”
As soon as the disbandment was announced, an Echo reporter dashed to the Pavilion, where the orchestra had been performing a morning concert.
Charles Groves, twisting a broken baton in his hands, told the Echo: “I think it is a very great pity that there wasn’t at least some chance of consultation.”
Groves had arrived at the orchestra in 1951 on a salary of £2,000. He had introduced the orchestra on TV, presided over those first open-air concerts, introduced morning performances and conducted the orchestra as it accompanied the Welsh National Opera.
“Isn’t it a pity that an orchestra of 61 years’ existence should be snuffed out in one blow for the sake of £7,500?” he asked.
The Echo leader column said that day: “The Echo believes that, come what may, Bournemouth must retain its orchestra and not part from the tradition which Sir Dan Godfrey began, Rudolf Schwarz carried on through the post-war years and Charles Groves with so much energy and enterprise has developed.”
Among the thousands of documents and photos stored at Bournemouth’s Music Library is the programme for the last concert by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra on April 18, 1954.
The orchestra had intended to play Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, but it was felt that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would be more fitting. Attendance was high and the audience clapped for five minutes afterwards.
Pictures in the library show a stony-faced Groves.
After the concert, Sir Dan Godfrey’s son visited Groves.
He revealed that Sir Dan had predicted the orchestra would only last another 20 years at the time of his retirement exactly two decades previously.
Efforts were already under way to save the orchestra.
The Winter Gardens Society stepped in to keep it going and before long, the Western Orchestral Society was formed, with orchestral manager Kenneth Matchett in charge.
Bournemouth council would still contribute the lion’s share of the orchestra’s cash, but other funders would include the Arts Council, other local authorities and charitable sources.
The name Bournemouth and Western Symphony Orchestra was suggested, but the name used in programmes that summer was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The inaugural concert of the BSO was on October 7, 1954, with Groves sharing conducting duties with Sir Thomas Beecham. Beecham declared that the orchestra was the best he had ever conducted in his 41 years of visits to Bournemouth. He is said to have shouted: “For God’s sake don’t have any more crises. If you don’t support this orchestra you ought to be shot!”
Along with new sources of funding came a responsibility to tour across the south west.
Musicians had been used to playing three concerts a week in Bournemouth as well as an increasing number of tours, but now they were busy across the region, with concerts on successive days in cities such as Exeter, Bristol and Plymouth.
The number of musicians, once at 35, had increased to 60. It grew to 64 the next season and to 75 later in the 1950s, giving the orchestra the ability to perform larger scale works as well as to divide into ensembles for smaller venues. Many of the towns on its tours would come to see the BSO as their orchestra, while Groves and his successors would lead it to increasing critical acclaim.
Dougie Scarfe, chief executive of the BSO, said: “The events of 1954 when Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra became Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra were crucial in the orchestra’s history. The development of the BSO’s unique remit to engage and inspire audiences and communities right across the south and south west is now a fundamental part of the company’s DNA.
“As an arts charity our work continues in 2014 thanks to the support of our audiences, statutory funders such as Bournemouth, Poole, Dorset and the Arts Council, alongside support from corporate and individual donors and charitable trusts, making our achievements and the continued outstanding playing of our orchestra possible.”