In January 1895, an announcement was made of the formation of “Mr C. J. Phillips’ Choral Society” with 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”. Charles Phillips, an experienced musician appointed as teacher of singing at the Ladies’ College, had been educated as an organist in Ireland, conducted philharmonic societies in Australia, and studied singing in Italy; now, with the enthusiastic support of his employer Dorothea Beale, he wanted to bring high-quality music to Cheltenham.

The society held its inaugural concert in May, with the gifted Lewis Hann, professor of violin at the Ladies’ College, leading the orchestra. Reviewed as “excellent” and a “decided success”, it inspired an ambitious performance of Verdi’s Requiem before the year was out.

The society quickly established itself as a part of Cheltenham’s cultural scene, attracting professional musicians from around the country and expanding its orchestral repertoire. By the turn of the century, under the new name of Cheltenham Philharmonic Society, it gave at least two concerts a year and marked major civic and national events. The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 saw a Grand Memorial Concert, where Mozart’s Requiem was sung. That same year, Dorothea Beale was granted the freedom of the Borough of Cheltenham for her services to the town, the first woman to receive the honour.

The Phil, as it became affectionately known, maintained its vision of introducing the Cheltenham public to new music, performing large-scale works of contemporary composers such as Dvorak, Elgar and Sullivan. Coleridge Taylor conducted his own work, and in 1909 Sibelius came to Cheltenham to conduct a performance of his recently finished Finlandia. The Phil’s popularity grew to the point that railway companies offered cheap fares to concert ticket-holders from all local stations between Hereford and Swindon.

International composers and visiting soloists

In 1906, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, a professor teaching music at Cambridge and composition at the Royal College of Music, agreed to become the President of the Cheltenham Philharmonic Society, a position he maintained until his death in 1924. Internationally renowned composers like Tchaikovsky and Wagner were celebrated; local musicians championed, such as Ernest Alfred Dicks, organist and choirmaster at the nearby St Luke’s Church; and distinguished soloists invited to perform. Among them were the soprano Agnes Nicholls, tenor John McCormack and violinist Marie Hall.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the Phil committed itself to continuing its concerts to keep up morale in Cheltenham. Launching with a Grand Patriotic Concert in October, the programme was filled with uplifting songs and ballads, including a choral piece written by Stanford. It proved so popular that a second performance had to be hastily added the following night. Until 1916, concerts raised money for the Red Cross and other charities, but the strain of having so many men on active service soon told and the Phil’s activities had to be suspended.

When peace finally came in 1918, the Phil returned with a triumphant Victory Concert, featuring rousing and poignant performances of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Sullivan’s In Memoriam and Elgar’s For The Fallen.

Further hardships lay ahead for the society, however. In the 1920s, Charles Phillips had to stand down due to poor health, while an economic recession, combined with the advent of radio broadcasting, hit attendances for concerts hard. The Phil survived only by joining forces with other societies to form the Musical Guild. Despite some successes, like the first Cheltenham Competitive Festival in 1926 and the Gustav Holst Festival in 1929 to honour the town’s most famous musician, live music was undeniably in decline.

Yet the onset of the Second World War in 1939 had a surprisingly positive impact. As large numbers of people got out of London, there was a rise in demand for music in Cheltenham and an influx of talented players and singers. Under the guidance of Musical Guild chairman Eric Woodward, the Cheltenham Philharmonic emerged as an independent society once again and held concerts throughout the war. The decision was taken to focus on the works of Beethoven performing his First, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Symphonies, the Coriolan Overture, the Violin Concerto and Piano Concertos Nos 3, 4 and 5.

Like in 1918, the end of hostilities was marked with musical celebrations in Cheltenham, from the first International Festival of Music to four days of concerts organised by the Cheltenham Cultural Council. The Phil went from strength to strength as membership numbers rose and guest conductors like Reginald Jacques and Sir Adrian Boult were invited. Then, in 1954, the orchestra triumphed over five rivals to win the Cheltenham Competitive Festival with the first movement of Haydn’s London Symphony.

In 1962, the young pianist John Ogdon performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 (K488) and the John Ireland Piano Concerto, just weeks after claiming the joint-top prize at the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Competition. Unsurprisingly, Cheltenham Town Hall was packed for what still ranks as one of the Phil’s best-received concerts.

Innovative new works and local musicians

It was at this time that the Cheltenham Philharmonic introduced its “Friends” scheme, where people could take out an annual subscription in return for tickets to concerts. From the 26 who enrolled in the first year, the scheme has continued. We are now pleased to have many supportive Patrons and Friends of the orchestra. Patrons have been an invaluable source of financial support and regular attendance at concerts.

The following decades brought many changes for the Phil, not least a new name, the Cheltenham Philharmonic Orchestra, and a new concert venue, the Pittville Pump Room. Duncan Westerman, who had played oboe and violin in the orchestra, was appointed conductor in 1973, a position he held for over 40 years until 2016. The Phil has tried to maintain its tradition of performing music which otherwise would not be heard in Cheltenham. Rarities have included works from Julius Tausch, Tossy Spivakovsky and Paul Creston, as well as new pieces by local composers, such as Tony Hewitt-Jones, Philip Lane and Graham Whettam. The Phil has been honoured to have been joined by a long list of outstanding soloists too: cellist Susan Monks, violinist Jagdish Mistry, and pianists Anya Alexeyev and Joanna MacGregor to name a few.

During Duncan’s tenure, the orchestra found a new role for itself in the surrounding towns, making excursions to Northleach, Guiting Power, Dursley, Winchcombe, Cricklade and Cirencester for concerts in aid of charitable causes. There have also been ventures overseas, thanks to an exchange with the Harmonie de Cherbourg. As new generations of young players joined the orchestra, social events proliferated, too, from visits to the Severn Valley Railway to garden parties, and the occasional orchestral romance, including our current conductor and leader, Stephen and Sue Belinfante!

Stephen Belinfante became conductor in 2016 and enthusiastically embraced introducing a variety of challenging works a variety of works to the orchestra, from a lively American programme to a reflective concert of remembrance, from romantic classics to a newly commissioned concerto. The orchestra had an amazing programme of concerts planned for the 125th anniversary in 2020, until being stopped mid-season by the pandemic. Stephen encouraged us back to socially distanced rehearsals and we returned to live music in November 2021 with a concert featuring local young cellist Rebecca McNaught.

Cheltenham Philharmonic Orchestra has had many illustrious Presidents over the years, including Herbert Sumsion, Tony Hewitt-Jones, Phillip Lane, Joanna MacGregor and Diana Galvydyte, who recently accepted the role following her much appreciated solo performances of music by Lalo and Sibelius.

In 1988, when Cheltenham Philharmonic Orchestra became a registered charity, its objectives were described thus: “To promote, improve, and maintain public education in, and appreciation of, the art and science of music in all its aspects.” Now, in 2023, as the Phil continues its second century of making music in Cheltenham, the aims of its founding members seem to have been well fulfilled.