The Musical Life of Nineteenth-Century Belfast

Roy Johnston's posthumous chronicle of the formative period is an unprecedented work. Claire Savage reports from its launch at the Linen Hall Library

With a vibrant music scene which encompasses everything from folk and blues to indie, rock, jazz and more, Belfast is a melting pot of musical talent. How much, though, do today’s musicians and concert-goers know about the city’s rich musical heritage, and the challenges faced by their predecessors to develop the thriving scene we all enjoy today?

A crowd of music aficionados are gathered at the Linen Hall Library this afternoon to celebrate the launch of The Musical Life of Nineteenth-Century Belfast. Charting the musical history of the city throughout this period, the book was written by the late Roy Johnston, with musicologist/music teacher Dr Declan Plummer helping to finish the book after his death.

A former member of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and chair of its music and opera committee, Johnston was also a governor of Linen Hall Library. He was further on the board of Castleward Opera and was a trustee of the Grand Opera House.

Passionate about music, his dissertation on concerts in the musical life of Belfast to 1874 earned him his doctorate from Queen's University in 1996, while he also wrote, lectured and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 about opera and musical history.

Amongst the audience today is Johnston’s family, including his daughter, author and poet Rosie Johnston, who grew up in Portstewart and Belfast and now lives in London. Retired senior librarian at the Linen Hall Library, John Killen, is also here, along with many of the late writer’s other friends and colleagues.

'The Linen Hall was always especially dear to my father,' says Johnston. 'Not only was he a governor of the library in the eighties, but it was his place of high industry and his rest for the soul. He was convinced the work [on the book] was absolutely essential, as it filled a hole in Belfast’s history.'

Indeed, as Plummer points out, 'This is the first ever publication to chart the fascinating growth of Belfast’s musical life during the nineteenth century, and how it was shaped by economic, social, political, religious and even geographical factors. It contains a wealth of information about all operatic, choral and orchestral activity in the city during the nineteenth century.'

Liszt in the concert salon, 1842

Split into two main sections, the text focuses, says Plummer, on Belfast’s operatic and concert life, with references also to folk music and the Belfast Harp Society. 'The book provides more than just a collection of facts and dates,' he adds. 'It should give you a vivid picture of what music was like at the time.'

Giving a multimedia presentation at the launch, Plummer shows old images of iconic landmarks such as the Ulster Hall, the Music Hall and the Grand Opera House. Politics, he says, had a huge influence on the city’s early musical life, with disruptions and even rioting breaking out at performances if certain songs weren’t played at the crowd’s request.

Indeed, pre-19th century, the theatre was generally viewed as being a place of depravity, says Plummer. This was something that theatre managers Thomas Ludford Bellamy and later, Watkins Burroughs, sought to remedy, Burroughs introducing smooth Italian operas to the Belfast stage and tapping into the popularity of touring virtuoso performers.

Having written a full draft of the book before his death in 2012, Roy Johnston drew on a wide range of material for The Musical Life of Nineteenth-Century Belfast. This included various extracts from the Belfast Newsletter and other papers, in which he was assisted by researcher Kathleen Agnew.

'Roy taught me at school,' she says. 'We also bumped into each other at concerts and he asked me if I would be interested in doing some research. He wanted me to go through all the newspapers printed in Belfast from 1737.

'The main thing that stood out for me was Roy’s ability to use the material I brought to him – the way he would look beyond it, and the insights he had. Roy was so enthusiastic about the subject matter. He was convinced this had to be done, and done well.'

The result is a detailed book which shows how Belfast’s musical life was predominantly formed, not by the gentry, but rather, by the townspeople. They laid the foundations in the eighteenth century, while several instrumental and choral societies in the nineteenth century pushed musical life into its next exciting phase.

'In the 1700s, there would have been lots of informal gatherings here and there,' says Rosie Johnston. 'What my father has tracked is the move from these initial gatherings, through to the flourishing of artistic life and the building of the Ulster Hall.'

Indeed, the book references the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival and the 1813 Messiah Festival, and how audiences changed over the years. It also documents the building of the Exchange Rooms, the Arthur Street Theatre, the Music Hall, the Ulster Hall and the Grand Opera House, exploring how these musical spaces influenced what was performed.

'The book provides an unprecedented examination of the repertoires, newspaper reviews, membership, leadership and financial struggles of all major chamber, orchestral and choral groups that were based in the city, with particular emphasis on the Belfast Anacreontic Society, the Classical Harmonists’ Society, the Belfast Choral Association and the Belfast Philharmonic Society,' says Plummer.

'Recorded in the histories of these societies are the visits to Belfast of dozens of international stars, including Catalani, Hallé, Kalkbrenner, Liszt, Paganini, Sims Reeves, Sivori, Thalberg and many more. New ideas in concert promotion, such as 'People's Concerts', two-day concerts, promenade concerts and outdoor concerts, are also explored.'

'My father’s main sources for this information were the Belfast Newsletter and especially the Linen Hall Library,' adds Johnston. 'There’s plenty about places like Edinburgh and Dublin and so on, but my father found a gap that nobody else had. Nobody before him had brought together all this information about what was actually happening here.'

'Throughout the 19th century there was a great boom for Belfast, and The Musical Life of Nineteenth-Century Belfast is about the growth of a great, thriving alternative life in Belfast.'

The Musical Life of Nineteenth-Century Belfast is published by Ashgate and is available now. Enter for your chance to win a copy over on our competitions section.