Bringing Classical Music to New Audiences: The Impact of August Manns, Victorian Conductor at Crystal Palace

Byvu lita

Aug 23, 2023

A drab, drizzly late-November afternoon in Sydenham, south east London. Seagulls trudge around the spreading puddles where once the stupendous Crystal Palace proudly stood… and died, in a heart-stopping, heart-breaking conflagration in November 1936.

Even with the elegant stone staircases and balustrades still tracing the site’s outline – and even with the Victorian floor plan to hand – it’s hard to raise the ghost of Crystal Palace’s legendary musical hero. Over here, says the plan, is the area where August Manns drove on his musicians with unflagging energy, across more than 12,000 concerts. Twelve thousand! A dizzying stat indeed that describes Manns’s marathon stretch as the venue’s music director from 1855-1901.

Manns it was who enticed and educated a new public for classical music, his influence spreading across the UK. His concerts were a formative influence on the young Elgar, who day-tripped by train from his Worcester home to attend the maestro’s Crystal Palace ‘Saturday Concerts’, departing at the crack of dawn and returning late.

Manns offered familiar classical favourites, but also repertoire adventure of many kinds. His championing of emerging native talent led one commentator to dub him ‘the father of English music’, seeing in him the catalyst for a new era in which British composers (and not forgetting performers) could hold their own internationally.

AJ Fuller-Maitland’s 1902 English Music in the Nineteenth Century said of this ‘English Musical Renaissance’ that ‘as far as its source can be ascribed to any one spot, that honour must be ascribed to the Crystal Palace at Sydenham’. And thus to August Manns.

Well over a century later, Manns authority Michael Musgrave affirms Fuller-Maitland’s judgment. ‘Everyone wanted to play and be performed at the Crystal Palace,’ he says. ‘Manns was known as a very sensitive conductor, and supportive of young composers and new developments in music. Nowadays we take the “repertory” of British music for granted, but Manns was a major figure in establishing what we’ve now long taken over.’

Who was August Manns?

And yet Manns – like his counterpart musical catalyst in Manchester, Charles Hallé – was no home-grown hero. Both were born in Germany – Manns in 1825, in Stolzenberg, near Leipzig. His father was a glassblower of limited means, but an avid music enthusiast.

After a broad training in strings, woodwind and composition, the young August spent the larger part of his early career as a Prussian army bandmaster. That background is perhaps what in 1854 drew him to Crystal Palace (the year it opened) where he was appointed to play the clarinet in what was a military-style band, while also conducting, arranging and copying parts. All for £3 a week.

Chrystal Palace
© Getty Images

The following year, Manns assumed full responsibility for musical performance at the invitation of the secretary of the Crystal Palace Company, George Grove (founder of the go-to Dictionary of Music and Musicians). Grove can hardly have imagined the revolution that would be wrought by this unknown immigrant. Manns was to write that in 1855 he ‘found neither orchestra, library, concert room nor musical audience [and] had to battle with strongly rooted prejudices against classical instrumental music. It was really a matter of patience, prudence, perseverance and pluck.’ Characteristics which paid off handsomely at the Crystal Palace.

Joseph Paxton’s monumental glass structure had been removed to Sydenham from its 1851 Great Exhibition site in Hyde Park and then modified for a variety of future uses. It was envisaged as an entertainment/event space – and in the following decades was the setting for everything from fine art exhibitions and Shakespeare festivals to circus acts, cat and dog shows and automobile extravaganzas. At the outset, provision for musical performance was considered low priority. To Manns’s everlasting credit, classical music became a major element in defining Crystal Palace’s profile and reputation.

It was as well that Manns had perserverance. He refused to bow to Groves’s view that the venue’s mammoth acoustic ruled out string players. At first, his concerts featured separate repertoire for strings and wind, but Manns soon shaped two conventional orchestras. Of central importance was the enclosure of a dedicated Concert Room within the Palace interior.

In no time, Manns was offering concerts six days a week. A basic of two concerts per day, Monday to Friday, were performed by the Crystal Palace Company’s Band. At the weekend came the showpiece ‘Saturday Concert’, given by the larger (and expanding) Crystal Palace Orchestra – a weekly magnet for keen music-lovers, not least those after serious-minded novelty. Special festivals and single-composer seasons varied the musical appeal. Nowhere else did a conductor have such close, daily contact with his musicians, who were offered a rare stable income.

At the heart of Manns’s strategy was a focus on familiar and less well-known (to British audiences) core classical repertoire – first UK performances were a significant feature here, including a string of symphonies by Schumann and Schubert (among them the ‘Unfinished’ Eighth and ‘Great C Major’ Ninth). Brahms’s music was largely established in this country via Manns’s concerts. Beyond this, especially on Saturdays, came new music from the likes of Saint-SaënsDvořákTchaikovsky and many other non-Germanic composers. The performances were enhanced by detailed programme notes – Groves led the way as their writer, but Manns and others also contributed.

What really catches the eye is the number of first performances of works by British composers, the majority barely remembered (if at all) today… such as Ebenezer Prout, George Macfarren, Thomas Wingham, Henry Holmes and many more. Equally, both established and up-and-coming British singers and instrumentalists found a welcome at Crystal Palace. ‘There is scarcely one British musician prominent before the public today who does not owe his first hearing to August Manns,’ wrote a journalist looking back at the conductor’s reign.

Manns’s conducting seems to have been marked by a rhythmic vigour which in the right repertoire might set a performance on fire, even if his beat could be erratic. That hectic weekly schedule of concerts meant preparation was vital: those who examined his scores observed a mass of red and blue markings. A truly historic Handel recording is our sole opportunity to hear him in action, displaying the fruits of such diligence.

Manns took musical responsibility for the great Handel Triennial Festivals at Crystal Palace from 1885. In 1888, a passage from Israel in Egypt was captured (at distance) on an Edison phonograph – one of the very earliest surviving recordings of classical music. The technical quality is execrable, but through the appalling hiss and crackle we still get a vivid sense of a conductor fully in control, albeit at slow speeds necessitated by the sheer size of the thousands-strong choir and the fact that the performance took place in the gargantuan acoustic of the main Crystal Palace transept. Tuning and balance are impressive and there’s a real body to the sound.

There can be no bigger tribute to Manns than the long list of great performers his concerts attracted: superstar violinists included Joachim, Wieniawski, Sarasate and Ysaÿe; among the pianists, Clara Schumann, Anton Rubinstein, Saint-Saëns, Busoni and Liszt.

One Liszt story speaks volumes. The Hungarian attended an afternoon concert of his music at Crystal Palace under Manns’s baton, before going on that evening to a dinner in his honour in London. Manns arrived late to this event, but to forestall a very public embarrassment Liszt ostentatiously rose from his seat to greet him, reportedly with the words: ‘I must thank you again for this wonderful afternoon. I have often heard of the excellence of your orchestra, but I never thought it was anything like it is. And more than this, I never thought I had written such beautiful music.’

Alas, Crystal Palace’s prominence as a major orchestral venue couldn’t last. Concert halls in central London were on the up, with Queen’s Hall’s arrival in 1893 the crowning glory. Arguably they benefited from Manns’s work in building that new audience for classical music. Having to journey ten miles or so from central London down to Sydenham had always been a potential disincentive for concertgoers – hence the printing of train times in Crystal Palace programmes and the availability of cut-price combined rail/concert tickets.

The two Crystal Palace orchestras were disbanded in 1900. Gratifyingly, Manns (who became a British citizen in 1894) was honoured with a knighthood in 1903. June the following year saw the 50th anniversary of the opening of Crystal Palace. Manns duly conducted a jubilee concert on a suitably massive ‘Handel Festival’ scale. A 10,000-strong audience gathered in the central transept to hear 3,000 performers blast out Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise and other favourites. At the close, the ageing maestro was presented with a wreath to recognise his own 50 years at the venue. In the evening, he and Lady Manns were guests of honour at the jubilee banquet, after which fireworks (courtesy Messrs Brock) haloed the great glass edifice.

Manns continued to live nearby until his death in 1907 at the age of 81. The multitude attending his funeral included Hubert Parry and Charles Stanford, two central figures in promoting that ‘British Musical Renaissance’, both as composers and teachers. Each owed much to Manns’s championing of their music.

The modest grandeur of Crystal Palace railway station remains as a memorial to the days when tens of thousands might pass through en route to the famous site. They used also to arrive here for Crystal Palace FC home games, played in the building’s shadow from 1905. Although the club is now based two miles south, it’s comforting to think that on match days a choir of thousands still chants in the name of Crystal Palace. No Handel… but at least they’re singing.

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