The BMS – its second quarter century: 1945–1970

It was a confident start to a new era. BMS’s 382 members before the War had grown to 800. Such was the pressure on the recitals in the Great Hall of Queen’s University that once again performers were called on to give both an afternoon and an evening recital.

Eight (actually sixteen) recitals were on offer, including singers with composer pianists: Pierre Bernac with Francis Poulenc and Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten. The Griller Quartet played six different quartets across its two Saturday recitals in January 1946, including Bartók’s Second Quartet.

The Society’s success was all the more remarkable given the competition from so many other promoters and organisations. Messrs Smyth and Co. promoted Wellington Hall ‘Provincial Subscription’ concerts and Celebrity Concerts, including those by pianists Solomon, Frederick Lamond and Louis Kentner. There were Harry Gordon’s Celebrity Concerts in the Assembly Hall (including Claudio Arrau); and CEMA’s concerts, including visits from the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Sadler’s Wells Opera Company.

CEMA, the Council for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (the forerunner of the Arts Council), was an interesting new kid on the block. Its Northern Ireland branch offered concerts in the Wellington Hall by the likes of soprano Elisabeth Schumann, pianist Moiseiwitsch, pianists Joan and Valerie Trimble, and violinist Albert Sammons with Gerald Moore.

Throughout this second quarter of the BMS’s life it remained entirely self-funded, though considerably assisted by the free use of halls at Queen’s University, courtesy of the Vice-Chancellor. BMS advertisements stated that bookings were for complete series only (afternoon or evening). Annual requests that all members should please re-register were accompanied by dire warnings that ‘Failure to Re-register before [a specified] date terminates membership’.

The newspapers’ music critics may have wanted more British music from living composers, but, to a man (and all three were), they were unanimous across the years that the BMS maintained a high standard of artist. Alas, the times they were a-changing. The BMS now had a deficit. Artists’ fees were increasing; printing was more expensive; afternoon audiences were not being maintained; there was a small decline in membership. Post-War petrol rationing cannot have helped. The season price of a guinea (21s) had to be increased.

In 1947/48, for the new subscription of 25s, members had seven afternoon or evening recitals including a visit from a young Belgian violinist, unknown to Belfast audiences. The critics were unanimous. Arthur Grumiaux was ‘exceptionally gifted and resourceful … a player of uncommonly high attainment’ (Northern Whig).

A year later, the BMS’s president, Rev. Graham Craig, looking to the future, announced that he would draw up a new constitution, new rules and include concessions to students and other young people.

The ongoing challenges presented by the weather, by illness and by strikes was an ever-present worry. The visit of the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet in November 1948 was a victim of all three. For its Friday recital in the Whitla Hall of Methodist College (halls were once again yet another issue!), the quartet flew from London on Thursday morning. However, weather conditions were so bad in Belfast, the plane was diverted to Liverpool. The quartet planned to complete the journey by boat until one member became so ill that further travel was out of the question.

The BMS committee only heard of the problems on the Friday concert morning. In the nick of time, a London agent found an alternative ensemble which travelled to Northolt airport – only to find that BEA staff had gone on strike and there was now no plane. BMS members arriving for the recital received an apology, the promise of an additional concert later in the season, and most of the original programme played on gramophone records.

The jinx returned the following month. Four hundred members waited in Methodist College’s Whitla Hall for 45 minutes for a missing soloist. Swiss-born pianist Edwin Fischer’s taxi had gone to the wrong Whitla Hall, not surprisingly in the darkness. A frantic BMS search party found him. Much relief all round! Whitla Hall confusion ended in 1949 when Queen’s University granted the BMS use of its new hall, seating at least 1,200 people, from 1950/51. The university’s music students would be welcomed with no charge.

Before that, a season was given in the Paton Memorial Hall of Malone Presbyterian Church, Balmoral. A highlight was surely the December 1949 recital by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Gerald Moore.

The first QUB Whitla Hall season in 1950/51 had a rocky start. At short notice, both the venue and date of the Members’ Night were changed so as not to clash with the inaugural concert of the City of Belfast Orchestra (CBO). Thankfully there were large audiences for the five main recitals and two lectures – even at the new annual subscription rate of 30s.

Belfast-born Howard Ferguson should have had a good Festival of Britain celebration in Belfast in June 1951. He played his newly commissioned Piano Concerto with the CBO to a ‘meagre audience’, presumably because of the then transport strike. The much-heralded BMS performance of his Octet and the Schubert Octet was cancelled at two weeks’ notice because of problems arranging rehearsal times in London. Amends were made in 1953 with the same programme given by the Melos Ensemble.

The 1950s and 60s were a golden period for the BMS. The list of singers, pianists, string players, string quartets and other chamber ensembles reads like a Who’s Who of international stars across that period. The subscription was 30s across the 1950s and only raised to 40s for the 1959/60 season just as Ulster Television was launched. Membership, having reached almost 900 by the mid-50s, began to decline in the early 1960s.

Unsurprising perhaps. There was increased competition from an expanding arts and entertainment market. February and November 1964 brought the first two Queen’s University Festivals. In 1966 Anglo-Irish Productions promoted a series of Ulster Hall piano recitals and the Ulster Orchestra, launched in October, gave many more regular concerts than the former CBO. Festival ’67, ‘richer in music than anything else’, brought the likes of Peter Pears, Julian Bream and Fou Ts’ong.

By the start of 1968, Rathcol reported that BMS membership was ‘only about half of what it was a few seasons ago’. Miss Ann Wright was appointed the BMS’s first public relations officer to stem the decline. For the February recital by Paul Tortelier there was ‘the largest and most enthusiastic audience seen there for some time’ despite a direct clash with the Phil and its G&S night.

Nonetheless, 1968/69 membership, now costing 63s (or 3 guineas) had fallen to 474 full members. No wonder. This was the era of civil rights marches, Terence O’Neill’s resignation and the deployment of British troops. The ‘Troubles’ began to escalate.

David Byers © 2020

Read about our last 100 years....


The BMS – its first quarter century or thereabouts



The BMS – its second quarter century



The BMS – its third quarter century



The BMS – its fourth quarter century