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Past Images of the Month - June 2018

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Engraving by Thomas Dale after Jacob Schnebbelie. Published London, 1 January 1819.

Engraving by Thomas Dale after Jacob Schnebbelie. Published London, 1 January 1819.

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The Old Vic, Part II

Today this 200-year old theatre is associated almost exclusively with straight drama. However in its bicentenary year the Old Vic's long and distinguished record with regard to music demands equal celebration. The following selection of programmes can only hint at its scope and importance. In particular the interwar promotion of English opera and ballet under the legendary Lilian Baylis is of major significance to British music history.

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Engraving by James Stow after Jacob Schnebbelie. Published London, 1 January 1819.

Music was an essential element from the start.  The opening performance on 11 May 1818 comprised a 'melo-dramatic spectacle' Trial by Battle; or Heaven Defend the Right, a ballet Alzora and Nerine; or The Fairy Gift and a harlequinade Midnight Revelry; or Harlequin and Comus, all accompanied orchestrally.  The playbill listed 'Mr Crouch (from the King's Theatre)' as 'Composer of the Music and Director of the Orchestra' and Mons. [Charles] Le Clercq as Ballet Master.  This was to remain a standard programme pattern.

Playbill for a benefit performance at the Royal Coburg Theatre on 14 May 1828. Mr Bryant, comic actor, singer, playwright and composer had been in the company from the opening. The programme, comprising two English operas separated by miscellaneous items was typical of the regular repertoire.

The playbill above is for a performance at the Royal Victoria Theatre, 21 January 1834.  The name was changed on 1 July 1833 in honour of Victoria, Duchess of Kent. On 27 November 1833 the Duchess brought her daughter, the young Princess Victoria, for what was to be her first and only visit to what she described as "a very clean and pretty little theatre". The programme is notable for the contribution in all three items of the 15-year-old Priscilla Horton whose career as singer, dancer and actress was to span more than fifty years.  On her visit the Princess had described Horton as "a pretty little person".

Advertisement from The Morning Advertiser, Monday, 16 June 1834 for Paganini's last concert in London on the following day. © The British Library Board. All rights reserved.

The Royal Victoria Theatre closed on 12 June 1880.  On 6 January 1881 the long-term leaseholder sublet the theatre to 'a Committee of Gentlemen' representing the Coffee Music Halls Company.  This body had been setup in 1879 by Miss Emma Cons (1838-1912) 'to provide for the working and lower middle classes recreation such as the music hall offers, without the attendant moral and social disadvantages.'  Rather than a theatre the building was to be run as The Victoria Palace Temperance Music Hall.  The first manager, William Poel, was succeeded by Cons herself in 1883; in 1884 she purchased the remainder of the lease.  A pattern of variety concerts, lectures and 'Penny Readings' soon developed into a regular series of 'Ballad Recitals' including operatic and Shakespearian excerpts and featuring distinguished soloists such as Sir Julius Benedict and Antoinette Sterling.

On the death in 1886 of Samuel Morley, M.P., industrialist, social reformer and partner in The Coffee Music Hall Association a ' College for Working Men and Women' was set up as the Morley Memorial College, operating in the theatre's back rooms and dressing-rooms until 1924.  Initial emphasis was largely on scientific subjects with Miss Caroline Martineau as Principal but Gustav Holst became Director of Music in 1907.

Engraving of The Royal Victoria Coffee Palace and Music Hall from The Graphic, 20 August 1881. Engraving of The Royal Victoria Coffee Palace and Music Hall, from The Illustrated London News, 22 February 1890.

Flyers for three typical Ballad Concerts managed by Emma Cons. Note the costumed tableau performance of Faust in the programme for 28 April 1887.

Programme for a concert in the South London Popular Concert series mounted by Emma Cons, 9 January 1908.

Advertisement of future opera performances from a programme for King Richard the Second, for November 1916.

Lilian Baylis (1874-1937) was born in Marylebone, the eldest child of musical parents and, like her five siblings, taught to play a variety of instruments from an early age.  From 1881 she spent six years in South Africa, at first touring widely with her family's concert party and then teaching dance and violin.  She was the niece of Emma Cons, who in 1887 paid for her to return to England for what was intended to be a six months convalescence following an operation.  Recovering remarkably quickly, she soon threw herself into helping her aunt run the Old Vic, and in 1902 finally decided to stay away from war-torn South Africa for good.  Appointed Acting Manager, she soon put her mark on Old Vic programming, introducing 'animated pictures' (educational, needless to say) on Monday nights and developing the operatic presentations and 'symphonic concerts' in collaboration with the resourceful conductor Charles Corri (formerly a cellist in Emma's orchestra).

On Emma's death in 1912 Lilian became Lessee and Manager.  She quickly obtained a Dramatic Licence and two years later bravely commenced a complete cycle of Shakespeare's First Folio plays.  This cycle, rounded off with Troilus and Cressida in 1923, was the first such to be mounted anywhere in the world.

Her formidable achievements during the next twenty-five years have been extensively documented in print and online.  Many of Britain's finest actors and opera singers took their early steps on the stage of the Old Vic.  Baylis's campaign for opera in English (during the war years sometimes presented with piano accompaniment or reduced orchestration) took a big step forward in 1920 and, under the conductor Lawrance Collingwood (1887-1982) produced major Russian operas to add to a standard repertoire which already included ambitious works by Wagner and Verdi.  Other conductors during her reign included Elgar, Beecham and Constant Lambert.

The acquisition and rebuilding of the derelict Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1930 considerably extended the available resources and led to the establishment of the Vic-Wells Ballet under Ninette de Valois, who had joined Baylis's staff in 1926.  By the time of her death in November 1937 Baylis was not only running two theatres and three companies but can also be credited with the foundation of our National Theatre (housed in the Old Vic from 1963 to 1976), English National Opera and Royal Ballet.

Programme for the important production of The Marriage of Figaro, 15 January 1920. The baritone Clive Carey produced and sang the role of Figaro.  The translation was the first of many made for Miss Baylis by Edward J. Dent.

Examples of Baylis's early introduction of operas by native composers to the Vic repertoire.

Advance notice of performances and lectures on the programme for La Traviata, 9 & 11 November 1922.  Gustav Holst was Director of Music of Morley College from 1907 to 1924.

Dance card for the third Old Vic Circle Costume Dance, 18 February 1922. These annual fund-raising balls continued until the outbreak of war, the later ones being at the Royal Opera House.

Programme for the first night of Troilus & Cressida, 7 November 1923.  This completed the complete cycle of Shakespeare First Folio plays which Baylis had initiated in 1914 - the first such cycle to be mounted anywhere in the world.

Advertising leaflet for performances at The Old Vic and Sadler's Wells, Season 1932-3. Advertising leaflet for performances at The Old Vic and Sadler's Wells, Season 1937-8.

The programme above is for one of the plays in Tyrone Guthrie's first (single) year as Drama Producer at the Vic.  Guthrie's policy of importing West End and cinema actors (and their audiences), although profitable financially, was not at first welcomed by Baylis.  However in 1936 she invited him back as Director of Drama and it was he who during the next ten years steered the company towards its 'National Theatre' status.

Forthcoming Arrangements on the last page indicate the Vic-Wells Ballet's presence in both theatres at this period.  The previous Monday had seen the ground-breaking premiere at the Vic of their production of Giselle, starring Markova and Dolin with Constant Lambert conducting.  This was the first time the ballet had been danced by a twentieth- century British troupe, and it was recognised as a triumph.

A late letter dated 13 March 1937 from Baylis to Clive Carey (1883-1968), baritone and producer.  Later he was a distinguished professor and Head of the Opera School at the Royal College of Music.

From The Old Vic and Sadler's Wells Magazine, Vol.5, No.6 (March 1938). From The Old Vic and Sadler's Wells Magazine, Vol.5, No.3 (December 1937).

Emma Cons. From Edwin Fagg: The Old "Old Vic", London, 1936. Postcard photograph of Lilian Baylis "Lessee & Manager, Old Vic" by Maull & Fox, [London, c.1920.] Signed "Sincerely yours, Lilian Baylis". Postcard photograph of Lilian Bayliss, "Lessee & Manager of the Old Vic and Sadlers Wells". Photograph by Mesdames Morter, [London, 1930s.]

The first London production of Oscar Hammerstein II's adaptation of Bizet's Carmen. First performed on Broadway, 2 December 1943, Hammerstein's successful version ran at The Old Vic from 22 March 1991.