Oliver Cross: Musical traditions of post-war Leeds remembered

Leeds Town Hall where the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra played.
Leeds Town Hall where the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra played.
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I HEARD a rather sad programme on BBC Radio 4 about the short-lived Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra. This was launched in 1947, at a time when there was hardly any money about but the post-war spirit – the hope of making things better for everybody – had yet to be destroyed.

It was paid for entirely by ratepayers from various parts of Yorkshire and came to an end in 1955 when the contributing local councils decided they couldn’t afford it any more. The last piece played at the orchestra’s final concert in Leeds Town Hall was Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold.

In the programme, Alan Bennett remembered his boyhood visits to see the orchestra, which, he said, were part of his growing up, “of feeling one belonged in Leeds.” David Hockney was also a regular in the audience – I like to think of the two of them sitting together, possibly wearing identical NHS glasses, quite unaware that they were set for greater things.

Schoolchildren could watch the concerts for sixpence and Bennett remembers that one girl always took along a photograph of the conductor Herbert von Karajan so that she could gaze at it throughout the performance. You wonder whether she later switched allegiance to Elvis and hope that the orchestra’s founding conductor, Maurice Miles, didn’t catch her at it, which would have created important ego issues.

Bennett himself always sat behind the double basses, which, he said, was a similar experience to watching a circus through the legs of an elephant. After the show all the smartly-dressed musicians would put on scruffy raincoats, light their cigarettes and line up to catch trams home, quite destroying the glamour of the occasion.

The programme contained other passing references to conditions in Yorkshire at the time, which seem to have been on the grim side. Bennett remembered that the magnificent Victoria Hall at the town hall looked rather decrepit and always smelled of fish and chips, it being next to the municipal canteen.

A musician remembered that when the orchestra went on tour to places like Huddersfield, they didn’t travel in luxury coaches but on ordinary buses which were always freezing cold. Even after 60 years she still shivered at the thought of them.

There were also memories from the Leeds Town Hall organist Simon Lindley and the veteran former councillor Bernard Atha, who has been describes as ‘veteran’ for so long that he’s probably thoroughly fed up of it by now and wishes he could upgrade to something different – although obviously not ‘late’.

Ex-Coun Atha described how, although many in Leeds wanted to stay true to the project, other councils started dropping out until the end was inevitable. The concept of attracting sponsorship or pricing out the poor doesn’t seem to have occurred to civic leaders.

The story is of a bold attempt to build something of national importance in a place which, although it has a fine musical tradition, is too often overlooked as provincial.

The biggest names among musicians and conductors made regular visits to the orchestra, which championed the works of English composers like Delius and Vaughan Williams when they were out of favour – a possible reason for the disappointing ticket sales.

It was sad but somehow predictable, I thought, that although the BBC made several recordings of the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, it has only preserved one of them and, were it not for this programme, the orchestra would have been well on its way to historical oblivion.

Thank heavens, for the sake of Leeds’s cultural profile and the chance to celebrate the glory of the Victoria Hall, that we still have the recently-retired Dame Fanny Waterman and the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition.