Open-air concerts have been a popular attraction in London's public parks for over a century. The ornate and now often neglected bandstands in many municipal parks reveal a long history of summer concerts, often played by brass bands, enjoyed by crowds sitting on the lawn or in the council's striped deckchairs.
Brass bands gave way to other forms of popular music in the late twentieth century. Mindful of this fading golden age of bands in parks, London Landscapes reader Lady Emma Tennant sent us the article reproduced opposite, from an anthology of 1937 writing, and suggested publishing it to find out how much music is on offer in London parks today like those mentioned, including Myatt's Fields and Mountsfield Park.
The bandstand in Myatt's Fields
Open-air music today usually brings to mind multi-day summer music festivals, which are big business and attract huge crowds, but traditional free concerts in the park can still be found. The Royal Parks run a series of much-appreciated open-air brass band concerts in St James's Park every summer. A series of concerts took place at Clapham Common's refurbished bandstand last year and at Victoria Embankment Gardens workers on their lunch breaks can enjoy daily concerts throughout the summer months, with music from jazz ensembles and marching bands as well as brass band performances.
The Bandstand in Ruskin Park
Outdoor concerts do not always meet with universal approval. In 2006 the Renewable Energy Foundation, who have offices near the Victoria Embankment Gardens, formally objected to a licence for the 2006 concert season, complaining that they were "regularly disturbed by concerts taking place at the bandstand." In the event Westminster issued the licence while imposing a 70 decibel maximum noise level on the performances.
Occasionally concerts are held at bandstands in other London parks.
The bandstand in Lincoln's Inn Fields
With HLF grants often including the refurbishment of the bandstand, it may be that a revival of the brass band concert is overdue. If you know of any concerts planned in your local bandstand, please let us know here at London Landscapes for future coverage.
THE L.C.C. are not only concerned with refuse-collection, sanitary inspection and welfare clinics. They have their human and æsthetic side and the music and entertainment they provide in the London parks deserve a music critic's notice as much as many a pompous orgy in the Albert Hall. Sixty bands are engaged and play in different parks throughout the summer. Nearly every park has a band on Sunday evenings, from 7 to 9. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays Victoria Embankment Gardens revels alone, but on Wednesdays Bethnal Green Gardens and Deptford Park join in, and on Saturdays, Highbury Fields, Islington, and Clissold Park. But on Thursdays there is music from Kilburn Grange in the north to Mountsfield Park, Lewisham, in the south, and from Horniman Pleasance, Kensal Road, in the west to the Recreation Ground, Wapping, in the east. Then Hyde Park daily and Green Park, Regent's Park and Kensington Gardens on Sundays form a sort of blackleg group not subject to the L.C.C.
Everybody loves a military band. It has a tang of sincerity, a lack of affectation, a straightforwardness, which appeals to the musician as much as to the nursemaid. When a brass band plays "good" music, it does not desecrate it. It broadens the nuances and lessens the contrasts, but it gives an honest-to-God brass-band rendering. In July there are no concerts to go to. If you are fond of music, of the open air and of your fellow Londoners, why not go to the parks for your music?
I did. I went first to Victoria Embankment Gardens. A different band plays there every night from 8 to 10. Sitting down costs 2d, and you can buy a programme for a penny. There are a few of the usual green wooden park seats free, but these are crammed like a Southern Electric compartment some time before the music begins. People (the general tone is very respectable) walk round or stand and listen. The acoustics of the covered bandstand are remarkable. You can hear every note from 300 yards away without difficulty. The band the night I went was first-class. We had Schubert, Gounod, Messager, and Sibelius, apart from Colonel Bogey, Forget-me-not and The Uhlan's Call. A delightful evening.
On Thursday I tried going further afield. Mountsfield Park, Lewisham, had a band, so I went there. I was surprised to find it one of the finest flower gardens in London. On the top of a hill, with a fine South London view, it is an ideal place to walk in on a summer evening. And when you've walked, you have the band to hear, and there is even a restaurant close to the bandstand for your refreshment. The crowd was a more drifting one than at the Victoria Embankment, wandering round past tennis-courts and cricket-pitch and children's playground and back to the music. Not quite so comfortable a crowd, perhaps, but still not badly off.
To see the poorer and, to me, more attractive audience, you must go to Myatt's Fields, Camberwell, also on a Thursday. This is a pretty little park which not long ago was a market garden, "with cabbages growing instead of flowers", as I was informed. The band plays in a circular railed bandstand, with a wider circle of railings shutting off a space from the tennis and cricket. I arrived punctually at 7.30, but there was no sign of room on the seats and I couldn't squeeze onto the railings. So I selected a tree to lean against, which I shared with a thin elderly workman.
The band wasn't up to Victoria Embankment Gardens standard, but the children made so much noise that this wasn't important. You could only collect the broad trend of the music and it was good enough to please us all. The children danced to it, played ball to it, sang to it and ignored it. The grown-ups, all elderly, all listening, sat round on their wooden seats or leant against their green railings and were happy.
One bald and fierce man, clutching two Bibles under his arm, walked round the garden twice, violently looking for converts or sinners. Then a little child of two, dancing a pas seul to selections from Tchaikowsky's Eugene Onegin, caught his eye. Would he even try to convert this chi1d, I thought, bristling? But I misjudged him. He broke into a smile of phoney happiness and joined in the dance, making a pas de deux with the child.
My neighbour at the tree told me he was very fond of music. Especially opera. He used to go to the Old Victoria Hall, he said, about forty years ago, when Miss Bayliss first took it over. (Can it really be as long ago as that?) "They were a rare tough lot in the gallery in those days," he said. "At least they looked tough. But once the music was on, you could hear a pin drop. 1 believe they'd 'ave thrown out anybody who made a noise, but nobody did." It used to cost him 3d. for a seat in the gallery, 1d. fare there, 1d. fare back, and 1d. for a packet of Woodhines (they used to give away a box of matches with it)- 6d. for the evening. The Daughter of the Regiment and Faust were his favourites.
I think Myatt's Fields provided the best evening of all, Tchaikowsky was the only classic, but there was an Overture by Bilton ("My old Stable Jacket"), which, with the noise of the crowd, and one's eyes shut, sounded like a scene from a Rossini opera.
Yesterday in this column we discussed the quality called foresight. This newspaper has it.- Leader in the DAILY EXPRESS.
Why didn't you say so at the time?