The Cheltenham Philharmonic Society was founded in 1895 “…for the purpose of bringing to the notice of the Cheltenham musical public, works which had not been performed in the town, or were but little known.” Cheltenham Philharmonic Orchestra concert programmes aim to stay true to this aim in combination with popular repertoire well known to our loyal audience.
The driving force in this enterprise was Charles Phillips, an experienced musician, who had been an organist in Dublin, conducted musical societies in Australia and studied singing in Italy before moving to Cheltenham. He was ably assisted by Lewis Hann, the professor of violin at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, who assumed the role of leader of the orchestra.
In the early days, about half of the orchestra players were professionals, some travelling from as far as Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, to play in concerts. By the turn of the century, the Society had become an established part of the life of Cheltenham, being affectionately known as “The Phil” and giving at least two concerts a year. It celebrated civic and national events in appropriate style. Queen Victoria’s death was marked by a special performance of Mozart’s Requiem and the coronation of Edward VII by a Grand Concert.
The concerts of the new Society were social as well as musical events. The railway companies offered cheap fares to holders of concert tickets from all local stations between Hereford and Swindon. With a chorus of over a hundred and an orchestra of more than fifty players, the Society introduced the large-scale works of contemporary composers such as Verdi, Dvorak, Elgar and Sullivan to the Cheltenham public.
In 1906, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford agreed to become the Society’s first President and he remained so until his death in 1924. He conducted his own works with “The Phil” in Cheltenham, as did composer Coleridge-Taylor, who had friends in the town. In 1909, Jean Sibelius came and conducted “The Phil” in a performance of his recently composed “Finlandia”. Many distinguished soloists performed with the orchestra, including the soprano Agnes Nicholls, tenor John McCormack and violinist Marie Hall. In these concerts, before the First World War, some light was cast on concert etiquette by the rubrics in the printed programmes.
At one concert we find:
“Members of the audience are kindly requested to remain seated until the close of the concert.”
At another concert:
“Owing to the length of the programme, the audience are requested not to insist on encores.”
The coming of war in 1914, saw “The Phil” organising concerts to raise money for the Red Cross. For the first of these concerts, Stanford wrote a choral piece, “There’s a sound of voices rising”, with words written by one of the Society’s members. Unfortunately, this music now appears to be lost. Although a lot of money was raised for the Red Cross and other charities, by 1916, so many men were away on active service that musical activities had to be suspended.
The end of the hostilities in 1918, was marked by a triumphant Victory Concert, but the economic recession which followed in the 1920s, together with the arrival of radio and improved gramophones, reduced the audiences for live music and “The Phil” survived only by joining forces with other musical societies in the town to form the Musical Guild, which organised celebrity recitals and occassional concerts by members.
However, the onset of the Second World War in 1939, saw the re-emergence of the Philharmonic Orchestra as an independent society once again, under the guidance of Eric Woodward. Throughout the war years, he conducted it in concerts with well-known soloists, such as, Clifford Curzon, Cyril Smith, Isobel Baillie and Margaret Ritchie.
When peace returned in 1945, “The Phil” continued to go from strength to strength, playing under guest conductors, Reginald Jacques and Sir Adrian Boult. Eric Woodward left to make a new life in Canada in 1955 and was succeeded by William Pritchard. Duncan Westerman conducted the orchestra for over forty years from 1973 until 2016.
The present conductor of the Cheltenham Philharmonic is Stephen Belinfante. The orchestra tries to maintain the tradition of performing music which would otherwise not be heard in Cheltenham. Rarities have included Julius Tausch’s concerto for six timpani and orchestra, Spivakovsky’s concerto for harmonica and Paul Creston’s Marimba Concerto. New works by local composers; Tony Hewitt-Jones, Philip Lane and Graham Whettam have also been featured. Audiences have been delighted by a succession of outstanding young soloists playing with the orchestra, including the cellist Susan Monks, violinist Jagdish Mistry and pianists Anya Alexeyev and Joanna MacGregor.
As the orchestra starts its second century of music making in Cheltenham, the aims of the founding members seem to have been well fulfilled.