The history of musical concerts in Darlington goes back a long way. Indeed, members may recall that in 1991 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of Franz Liszt's visit to the town in 1841 with a recital by Leslie Howard.
Details of concerts in those far off days are sparse, but we do know that during the 1890's entertainment in the town seemed to centre upon regular series of "Smoking Concerts" in the Imperial Hotel. These were organised by no less an august body than the UK Commercial Traveller's Association and were vocal affairs of both popular and classical songs and arias. In 1896-7 two concerts for piano trio and vocalist were organised by Jean and Dietrich Dittmar with a Mr Drake and Miss Welby. Held on 10 December and 10 February in the Imperial Hotel, tickets 3/6d for one, 5/- for two.
Darlington Chamber Music Society seems to have come on to the scene on 17 November 1905 with a programme made up of the Kreutzer Sonata, Dvorak Terzetto, Schumann Piano Quintet and songs by Mozart and Greig. A subscription ticket to the six concert season in Polam Hall, was l0/6d per person, l5/- for two or £1 for three.
Next trace comes in 1906 when the great pianist Wilhelm Backhaus performed in the Central Hall on 13 February playing Bach, Beethoven (Waldstein), Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. The next recorded concert was a visit by the Elzy Piano Quartet on 28 October l92l in a programme of works by Faure, Delius and Brahms. It is thought that The Sisters d’Aranyi and the Griller Quartet appeared here (corroboration of this would be appreciated.)
It is, however, the re-formation of Darlington Music Society in1943 under the auspices of CEMA (Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts), later to become the Arts Council of Great Britain, that is a significant landmark. The first concert was given by the Zorian String Quartet on 16 November to a capacity audience of over 300. Tickets were 5/- per member and programmes 3d each. Hall hire at the Friends Meeting House was a 3 gns donation and a gratuity for the caretaker. The programme included the Two Fantasias by Purcell and Schubert's Quartettsatz which were repeated on 20 November 1993 by the Coull Quartet to mark the Society's 50th birthday.
During the first two seasons DMS presented performers who went on to become international stars: The Griller Quartet, Kathleen Ferrier & Maurice Cole, (both for the princely sum of 3l gns). The following season saw the London Belgian Piano Quartet, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Cyril Smith and a return visit by the Griller Quartet. Did those first audiences realise the heights to which some of those artists were to rise - one wonders!
Even in those days there was a piano problem and pianos had to be hired at 13 gns for a Bechstein from Alders and Brentnell of Newcastle or £15 for a Blüthner from Waddingtons, also of Newcastle. By 1945 this had risen by 4/- to £15/4/0d, or two pianos for £25/8/0d.
Audiences in l944/5 were no problem with a membership of 311. Administration was more leisurely, being by letter and telegram, the latter for emergencies which seemed to crop up regularly! A far cry from the ease of today's email, but that doesn't prevent the occasional emergency!
Venues over the years have included the Civic Theatre, Polam Hall, the Training College (the predecessor of the Arts Centre in Vane Terrace) and in recent years, the Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College.
In 1946 members' evenings seemed to be very much in vogue with five held during the season drawing an average audience of 60. There were 3 lecture recitals, an operatic gramophone recital and a concert by a ladies sextet and piano duo. In 1946, however, membership dropped from 311 to 225. A committee minute records that " ... the feeling of unrest and the desire for movement and change so prevalent at the end of the war is keenly felt - many members have removed and many others have taken up activities that had been in abeyance during the war"
The following season another minute records the appreciation of the committee to the Arts Council for the loan of a Bechstein Grand Piano. At the same meeting the Treasurer recorded a £27/4/6d deficit on the season. At that year's AGM comments are recorded "that the unstable political situation still prevailed
and everywhere one heard of money being lost on cultural pursuits, for example the London Philharmonic Orchestra reports a loss of £300 per concert and the Boyd Neel Orchestra lost £1,000 on
their season". Indeed, some things never change! All this bad news led to subscriptions being increased from 15/- to 17/6d per member per season.
The following year membership was 202 plus 78 student members and a surplus of £8/5/9d.
Over the years many top class artists have been featured in our concert seasons. In the 1950s these included Owen Brannigan, Max Rostal and the Allegri Quartet.
The 1960's were a prime time for the Music Society with membership at one time reaching the 250 mark and artists the calibre of Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Krainov, Dame Janet Baker and the Bartok String Quartet appearing. It was in this decade that we decided to change our image, and held a competition to find a new logo for the society. The design that still graces our programmes is that winning the first prize in 1965. (If it ain't broke, don't fix it!)
In the 1970s we had a decade that saw visits by top continental string quartets like the Talich, New Budapest and Bartok, violinist Mayumi Fujikawa and Michael Roll, pianist Craig Sheppard (twice) and the first visit by the 18 year old Michala Petri.
An interesting event in 1978 was the New Year Mini Music Festival in which we presented a series of concerts by fine local artists such as The Durham Singers, Carol Andrew, Palatine Consort arid others.
The decade following was memorable for two remarkable performances of the Mendelssohn Octet with the youthful Brodsky Quartet partnering first the Kodaly and then the New Budpest Quartets - just two of the six concerts in which the Brodskys appeared during the decade. Sylvia Rosenberg's violin recital with Lamar Crowson was outstanding and there were debut concerts by the Fine Arts Brass Ensemble and the Moscow and Vanbrugh Quartets. Tom Allen, in 1988, crowned the decade with a supreme lieder recital.
An Italian Season in 1985 presented at least two works by Italian composers in each programme. At the time it was noted that it was difficult to find any Italian music for solo piano. However, music by Boccherini, Cherubini, Malipiero, Paganini, Puccini and Respighi added a different flavour to the season.
In 1987, after eighteen months of intensive fundraising we achieved our own brand new Steinway Grand Piano with the help of Darlington Borough Council who doubled the £8,000 we raised. This is the fine instrument we use today.
Membership has been far from constant. In 1986 it stood at a mere 78 members, by 1992 it was 197, and in 1993 it was 250. By 2009 it was down to 178 but then reached a low of 94 in 2016. Up to 106 in 2019 we hope the Covid-19 pandemic does not hit us too hard.
The 1990's featured Dame Moura Lympany, Angela Hewitt, Tasmin Little and Robert Cohen.
Recitals through the early 2000's included the Maggini Quartet, Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe, Julian Lloyd Webber, the Chilingirian String Quartet, and Min-Jin Kym (five times!)
A major watershed occurred when, due to the closure of the Arts Centre in Vane Terrace, we returned (106 years after our Backhaus recital there) to the Central Hall on 14 October 2012 with a fine concert by the Borodin Quartet, made possible by the Degenhardt bequest.
Since then we have enjoyed many excellent concerts at the Central Hall, not least by Jennifer Pike, the Sacconi Quartet and so many others. We are indebted to the charitable trusts that offer invaluable support to young artists, in particular the Countess of Munster Musical Trust, and the Tillett Trust. The Cavatina Chamber Music Trust subsidises young (age 25 and under) audience members with free entry, though attracting youngsters is still a tough job.
The prize for the most visits to us is probably a tie between Benjamin Frith and the Brodsky String Quartet, with six concerts each.
We have suffered a plenty of last minute crises in recent years. In 2010 the planned concert by the Vertavo Quartet had to be rearranged when they were unable to fly in from Norway due to the Icelandic ash cloud - the Callino Quartet provided a polished performance at two days notice. And in 2018 the concert by the Jubilee Quartet had to be postponed owning to the violist scalding her hand about 24 hours before the concert - but they were able to came back five months later giving us a fine performance, on their third visit to Darlington.
Our 2019-20 season was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic. The final two concerts, by the Sacconi Quartet and the Denman Street Clarinet Quartet, being unavoidably cancelled. A great shame, not least because they were both scheduled to play Shostakovich's Opus 12 - strings cf clarinets would have been an interesting contrast!
The material for this history is drawn from various sources but primarily a history note issued in 1993 on the 50th anniversary of our November 1943 concert. If you can provide details of the early years of the society not covered here, please get in touch.