The Pump Room Orchestra Bath: Three Centuries of Music and Social History by Robert Hyman and Nicola Hyman
The Hobnob Press, soft covers, 214 pages
On Monday 17 April 1939, The Time magazine reported that Bath’s Pump Room Orchestra was to be disbanded. The reason given was ‘that for its size, Bath's orchestra had set a new record in box-office flops. This year's expected deficit: $25,000 (then about £6000)’. At that time the eighteen-piece group, conducted by Maurice Miles was the oldest established orchestra in the British Empire. This was apparently the end of an era that had begun back in the early 1700s under the auspices of England’s most famous dandy and early style-guru, Richard ‘Beau’ Nash. The money saved by the council was put towards the building of an air-raid shelter situated below the Pump Room. However that was not the end of the matter: in February 1940, the Bath branch of the National Council of Women organised an Eighteenth Century Tea Party to ‘boost morale.’ It featured such famous Bath characters as Jane Austen, the Linley sisters and the Countess of Huntingdon. The ‘soundtrack’ to the event was provided by a string quartet drawn from members of the disbanded orchestra. The music performed includes Purcell, Handel and Mozart.
Some 72 years later, ‘the band still plays’ in the Pump Room. To be fair it is not a large orchestra, but a Trio with four members-including one of the authors of the present book, Robert Hyman! It plays every day of the year except Christmas and Boxing Day. The tradition has been maintained.
The Pump Room Orchestra Bath: Three Centuries of Music and Social History is about the ‘struggles, joys, tragedies and ambitions of the ‘forgotten army’ of musicians who have spanned three centuries. The sweep of the narrative explores the story of the early Pump Room Band as it metamorphoses into the Orchestra and finally into the present-day Trio.
This is a book that will appeal to a wide variety of readership. Firstly it will be required reading for all local historians in and around Bath: the Pump Room was (and are) an integral part of a city that owes it origins to the ‘Aquae Sulis’ (the waters of the goddess Sulis) which were deemed curative for a wide range of maladies. Secondly the massive readership of Jane Austen will enjoy knowing some background history to her characters, especially Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey who visited the Pump Room as part of the novel. There are also many people interested in Georgette Heyer’s recreation of the Georgian and Regency periods, especially her novel ‘Bath Tangle.’ From a musical point of view, the story of the music at the Pump Room is full of interesting characters, such as Thomas Linley, Frank Tapp and Sidney Jones. There were many visits from international artists and composers including Edward German, Myra Hess, Albert Coates, Peter Dawson and Haydn. The works played at the concerts range from Storace to Sullivan and from Johann Strauss to Ethel Smyth.
The presentation of the Pump Room Orchestra’s history is largely chronological. It begins with a brief introduction outlining the development of the Spa as a fashionable tourist attraction and destination for the halt and the lame. There is mention of ‘a band of musick’ playing under a sycamore tree on the Gravel Walks in 1670. The story develops through ‘Beau’ Nash’s early Pump Room Band by way of Francis Fleming and the famous Thomas Linley. Other names that appear are William Herschel, astronomer, organist and band leader, Venanzio Rauzzini who was a castrato for whom Mozart had written the aria ‘Exsultate Jubilate’ and Sidney Jones, onetime violinist aboard Cunarders. Each twist and turn in this fascinating and often disturbing tale of friction and backstabbing is given in some detail. Many famous characters make cameo appearances throughout these pages: it is almost a compendium of artistic endeavour throughout the ages.
From amongst this mass of history three things especially interested me. Firstly there was the visit of Haydn to Bath in August 1791. The composer’s music had been popular in the city and his Symphony No.53 in D major was (likely) played at the Pump Room. Whilst in Bath, Haydn stayed at the home of Rauzzini. The second thing was the disturbing story of Otto Heinrich who was a violinist in the Pump Room Orchestra for some twenty-five years. However at the outbreak of the Great War this Bath musician, violin maker and teacher was branded as an ‘alien’ by the authorities and was ‘threatened with internment and bleak times for his family of ten children.’ It was an episode that was to be repeated up and down the country and affecting many musicians and artists with German sounding names –including Gustav Holst at Thaxted! And thirdly much space is given to considering the contribution of the Bath-born Frank Tapp (1853-1953). Unfortunately this composer has largely disappeared from view. Yet in the first quarter of the Twentieth century he was popular and had his music regularly played. Although largely remembered (where at all) for his light music such as his English Landmarks Suite, including ‘Ascot’, ‘Tintern Abbey’ and ‘Whitehall’, he is known to have composed an important Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra and also a symphony. He is surely a composer ripe for rediscovery: who could resist titles such as Overture Beachy Head?
The book is extremely well presented. It is printed on good quality paper, in a clear and highly readable font and is well-bound. Many quotations from contemporary letters, newspapers and diaries add a personal interest: all sources are referenced. Included in the text are plenty of illustrations and a centre section of some 14 colour plates: there are photographs, drawings and engravings of all the key players in the story. The book is not burdened with footnotes: all references are placed at the end of the book in a clear and legible font. A formal bibliography is not given, but in its place is a listing of sources. The comprehensive index is helpful to all serious readers.
I have one minor concern. The history of the Pump Room Orchestra is complicated, with many names flitting in and out of the story. It would have been extremely helpful to have given a kind of summary in tabular form by date.
Finally I enjoyed reading the book: it is written in a good ‘popular’ but never pedestrian, historical style. It is not an ‘academic’ book as such, but that does not belittle the depth of the study and the care and attention given to the presentation of information.
At today’s prices this not an overly expensive book and is priced at £14:95. Bearing in mind the superb presentation and the above-mentioned proliferation of illustrations this is certainly excellent value. I am presuming that this book will be on sale at all bookshops and tourist attractions on Bath, including the Pump Room. However, this is an important contribution to historical musicology and as such will also find its way into many academic institutions.
Certainly it gives me many ideas for future investigation, not least the musical compositions of Mr Frank Tapp.