Royal Albert Hall, London

The Royal Albert Hall is a concert hall situated in the South Kensington area of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London, England, best known for holding the annual summer Proms concerts since 1941.

The Royal Albert Hall is one of the UK's most treasured and distinctive buildings, recognisable all over the world. Since its opening by Queen Victoria in 1871, the world's leading artists from every kind of performance genre have appeared on its stage. It also hosts the annual graduation ceremony of the renowned Imperial College London. Each year it hosts more than 350 performances including classical concerts, rock and pop, ballet and opera, tennis, award ceremonies, community events, charity performances and lavish banquets.

The hall was originally supposed to have been called The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, but the name was changed by Queen Victoria to Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences when laying the foundation stone as a dedication to her deceased husband and consort Prince Albert. It forms the practical part of a national memorial to the Prince Consort – the decorative part is the Albert Memorial directly to the north in Kensington Gardens, now separated from the Hall by the heavy traffic along Kensington Gore.

History

In 1851, the Great Exhibition was held in Hyde Park, London, for which the so-called Crystal Palace was built. The exhibition was a great success and led Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, to propose that a permanent series of facilities be built in the area for the enlightenment of the public. Progress on the scheme was slow and in 1861 Prince Albert died, without having seen his ideas come to fruition. However, a memorial was proposed for Hyde Park, with a Great Hall opposite. The proposal was approved and the site was purchased with some of the profits from the Exhibition. Once the remaining funds had been raised, in April 1867 Queen Victoria signed the Royal Charter of the Corporation of the Hall of Arts and Sciences which was to operate the Hall and on 20 May, laid the foundation stone.

The hall was designed by civil engineers Captain Francis Fowke and Major-General Henry Y.D. Scott of the Royal Engineers and built by Lucas Brothers. The designers were heavily influenced by ancient amphitheatres, but had also been exposed to the ideas of Gottfried Semper while he was working at the South Kensington Museum. The recently opened Cirque d'Hiver in Paris was seen in the contemporary press as the design to outdo. The hall was constructed mainly of Fareham Red brick, with terra cotta block decoration made by Gibbs and Canning Limited of Tamworth. The dome (designed by Rowland Mason Ordish) on top was made of wrought iron and glazed. There was a trial assembly made of the iron framework of the dome in Manchester, then it was taken apart again and transported to London via horse and cart. When the time came for the supporting structure to be removed from the dome after re-assembly in situ, only volunteers remained on site in case the structure dropped. It did drop – but only by five-eighths of an inch. The hall was scheduled to be completed by Christmas Day 1870 and the Queen visited a few days beforehand to inspect. She was reported as saying "It looks like the British Constitution".

The official opening ceremony of the Royal Albert Hall was on 29 March 1871. After a welcoming speech by Edward, the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria was too overcome to speak, so the Prince had to announce that "The Queen declares this Hall is now open".

A concert followed, when the Hall's acoustic problems became immediately apparent. Engineers first attempted to solve the acoustical problem by suspending a canvas awning below the dome. This helped and also provided relief to concertgoers from the sun. A 1949 attempt removed the awning and replaced the glass dome with aluminium panels; however, the acoustics were not properly tackled until 1969 when a series of large fibreglass acoustic diffusing discs (commonly referred to as "mushrooms" or "flying saucers") were installed below the ceiling to reduce the notorious echo. It used to be said that the hall was the only place where a British composer could be sure of hearing his work twice.

Initially lit by gas, the hall contained a special system where its thousands of gas jets were lit within ten seconds. Though it was demonstrated as early as 1873 in the Hall, full electric lighting was not installed until 1888. During an early trial when a partial installation was made, one disgruntled patron wrote to The Times newspaper declaring it to be "a very ghastly and unpleasant innovation".

In 1936, the Hall was the scene of a giant rally celebrating the British Empire, the occasion being the centenary of Joseph Chamberlain's birth. In October 1942, the Hall suffered minor damage during World War II bombing but was left mostly untouched as German pilots used the distinctive structure as a landmark.

Renovation and redevelopment

Between 1996 and 2004 the Royal Albert Hall underwent a programme of renovation and development supported by a £20 million (roughly $32 million US) grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to enable it to meet the demands of the next century of events and performances. Thirty "discrete projects" were designed and supervised by BDP without disrupting events. These projects included improving ventilation to the auditorium, more bars and restaurants, new improved seating, better technical facilities and more modern backstage areas. The largest project was the building of a new south porch – door 12, accommodating a restaurant, new box office and below a new delivery area. Although the exterior of the building was largely unchanged, the south steps leading down to Prince Consort Road were demolished to allow construction of an underground vehicle access and accommodation for 3 HGVs carrying all the equipment brought by shows. The steps were then reconstructed around a new south porch on the same scale and in the same style as the three pre-existing porches: these works were undertaken by Taylor Woodrow Construction. The original steps featured in early scenes of 1965 film The Ipcress File. On 4 June 2004, the project received the Europa Nostra Award for remarkable achievement. The East and West porches were glazed and new bars opened along with ramps to improve disabled access.

Internally the Circle was rebuilt in four weeks in June 1996 providing more leg room, better access and improved sight lines. The Stalls were rebuilt in a four week period in 2000 using steel supports allowing more space underneath for two new bars. 1534 unique pivoting seats were laid – with an addition of 180 prime seats. The Choirs were rebuilt at the same time. The whole building was redecorated in a style that reinforces the buildings Victorian identity. New carpets were laid in the corridors – specially woven with a border that follows the elliptic curve of the building in the largest single woven design in the world.

The works included a major rebuilding of the great organ, originally built by "Father" Henry Willis in 1871 and rebuilt by Harrison & Harrison in 1924 and 1933. The current work was performed by Mander Organs between 2002 and 2004 and the organ is now again the second largest pipe organ in the British Isles with 9,999 pipes in 147 stops. Liverpool Cathedral has 10,268 pipes.

Design

The hall, a Grade I listed building, is an ellipse in plan, with major and minor axes of 83 m (272 ft) and 72 m (236 ft). The great glass and wrought-iron dome roofing the hall is 41 m (135 ft) high. It was originally designed with a capacity for 8,000 people and has accommodated as many as 9,000 (although modern safety restrictions mean that the maximum permitted capacity is now 5,544 including standing in the Gallery).

Around the outside of the hall is a great mosaic frieze, depicting "The Triumph of Arts and Sciences", in reference to the Hall's dedication. Proceeding anti-clockwise from the north side the sixteen subjects of the frieze are: (1) Various Countries of the World bringing in their Offerings to the Exhibition of 1851; (2) Music; (3) Sculpture; (4) Painting; (5) Princes, Art Patrons and Artists; (6) Workers in Stone; (7) Workers in Wood and Brick; (8) Architecture; (9) The Infancy of the Arts and Sciences; (10) Agriculture; (11) Horticulture and Land Surveying; (12) Astronomy and Navigation; (13) A Group of Philosophers, Sages and Students; (14) Engineering; (15) The Mechanical Powers; and (16) Pottery and Glassmaking.

Above the frieze is an inscription in 12 in (300 mm) terracotta letters that combine historical fact and Biblical quotations: "This hall was erected for the advancement of the arts and sciences and works of industry of all nations in fulfilment of the intention of Albert Prince Consort. The site was purchased with the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of the year MDCCCLI. The first stone of the Hall was laid by Her Majesty Queen Victoria on the twentieth day of May MDCCCLXVII and it was opened by Her Majesty the Twenty Ninth of March in the year MDCCCLXXI. Thine O Lord is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty. For all that is in the heaven and in the earth is Thine. The wise and their works are in the hand of God. Glory be to God on high and on earth peace."

Events

Since its opening by Queen Victoria on 29 March 1871, the Royal Albert Hall has played host to over 150,000 different events and has been affectionately titled "The Nation's Village Hall". The first concert at the Hall was Arthur Sullivan's cantata, On Shore and Sea, which was performed on 1 May 1871.

Many events are promoted by the Royal Albert Hall themselves, whilst Raymond Gubbay promotes over 70 events a year, having brought a range of events since the early 1970s, including opera, ballet and classical music.

Some events include classical and rock concerts, conferences, ballroom dancing, poetry recitals, education, motor shows, marathons, ballet, opera and circus shows. It has hosted sporting events, including boxing, wrestling (including the first Sumo wrestling tournament to be held in London as well as UFC 38 (the first UFC event to be held in the UK) and tennis.

American singer Bob Dylan concluded his world tour by performing two shows on May 26 and 27 1966. It was several years until Dylan toured again.

After Sandie Shaw won the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna, the BBC hosted the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest at the Royal Albert Hall.

Miss World Pageant finals were held at the Royal Albert Hall from 1969 to 1988.

Roger Daltrey of The Who has been intimately involved with the Teenage Cancer Trust which holds annual charity concerts at expected to continue until 2012.

The American rock band The Killers performed two shows on 5 and 6 July 2009, that were recorded for the DVD Live From The Royal Albert Hall. The DVD was packaged with a CD and was released on 6 November of the same year and earned a rating of five stars and the "best rock dvd of the decade" by Starpulse.

Swedish prog-death metal band Opeth also filmed its 20th anniversary DVD In Live Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, covering two sets: its breakthrough album, Blackwater Park, in its entirety, and a chronologically-arranged set of one song from each of its other eight albums.

Regular events

The BBC Promenade Concerts, known as "The Proms" is a popular annual eight-week summer season of daily classical music concerts and other events held at the Royal Albert Hall. In 1942, following the destruction of the Queen's Hall in an air raid, the Royal Albert hall was chosen as the new venue for the proms. In 1944 with increased danger to the hall, part of the proms were held in the Bedford Corn Exchange. Following the end of World War II the proms continued in the Royal Albert Hall and have done so annually in summer since then. The event was founded in 1895, and now each season consists of over 70 concerts, in addition to a series of events at other venues across the United Kingdom on the last night. In 2009, the total number of concerts reached 100 for the first time. Jiří Bělohlávek described The Proms as "the world's largest and most democratic musical festival" of all such events in the world of classical music festivals.

Proms is short for promenade concerts, a term which arose from the original practice of audience members promenading, or strolling, in some areas of the concert hall during the concert. Proms concert-goers, particularly those who stand, are sometimes described as "Promenaders", but are most commonly referred to as "Prommers".

The Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance, is held annually the day before Remembrance Sunday.

The Royal Albert Hall is also used annually by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London for graduation ceremonies. Kingston University also held its graduation ceremonies at the Royal Albert Hall until 2008, but have since relocated to the new Rose Theatre, Kingston upon its completion.

Since 1998 the English National Ballet has had several specially staged arena summer seasons in partnership with the Royal Albert Hall and Raymond Gubbay. These include Strictly Gershwin, June 2008 and 2011, Swan Lake in-the-round, June 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2010, Romeo & Juliet (Deane), June 2001 and 2005 and The Sleeping Beauty, April – June 2000.

Regular performers

Eric Clapton has become synonymous with the Royal Albert Hall, as it has played host to his concerts almost annually for over 20 years. It was also the venue for his band Cream's farewell concerts in 1968 and reunion shows in 2005. Clapton has cited it as his favourite venue to play in the world. He also instigated the Concert for George, which was held at the Royal Albert Hall on 29 November 2002 to pay tribute to Clapton's life-long friend, former Beatle George Harrison. Many of Clapton's DVD releases were recorded live at The Royal Albert Hall, e.g. 24 nights (CD and DVD), Cream farewell, Cream reunion (CD and DVD) and Concert for George.

Shirley Bassey has often sung at the Royal Albert Hall, usually as a special guest at large events. In 2007, Bassey performed in Fashion Rocks in aid of the Prince's Trust. On 30 March 2011, she sang at a gala celebrating the 80th birthday of Mikhail Gorbachev. She also performed at the Classical Brit Awards in May 2011, singing Goldfinger in tribute to the recently deceased composer John Barry. On 20 June 2011, Bassey returned to perform Diamonds Are Forever and Goldfinger, accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, as the climax to the memorial concert for John Barry.

Trivia

A famous and widely bootlegged concert by Bob Dylan at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 17 May 1966 was mistakenly labelled the "Royal Albert Hall Concert". In 1998, Columbia Records released an official recording, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert, that maintains the erroneous title, but does include details of the actual concert location. Dylan actually did close his European tour on 26 and 27 May of that year; these were his last concerts before Dylan got into a motorcycle accident and became a recluse for a brief period of time.

Another concert that was mislabelled as being at the Royal Albert Hall was by Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR). An album by CCR entitled The Royal Albert Hall Concert was released in 1980. When Fantasy Records discovered that the show on the album actually took place at the Oakland Coliseum, it retitled the album The Concert.

The Beatles song "A Day In The Life" mentions the Royal Albert Hall, as does the character Nowhere Man in the Beatles' movie Yellow Submarine.

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