The RNCM celebrates its 40th birthday this academic year. Robert Beale talks to some of those who were there at its birth
The Royal Northern College of Music has reached the ripe old age of 40. It’s without a principal, as Professor Jonty Stockdale stepped down from the job in July after less than four years, and Professor Linda Merrick is now Acting Principal. Formed from a union of Charles Hallé’s Royal Manchester College of Music (founded 1893) and the Northern School of Music (founded 1920), practical operations began in autumn 1972. The official birthday comes next June, as the RNCM was ‘opened’ by the Duchess of Kent, its first President, in June 1973. In 2009 she handed over to Sir Willard White, but her attachment to it is as strong as ever.
The first birthday event is on 15 November: the RNCM Symphony Orchestra recreates the college’s First Orchestra’s debut, in the concert hall it was planned for 40 years ago (actually the new building wasn’t quite complete and they played in Manchester Town Hall instead). I asked some of those who witnessed the RNCM story – or most of it – over four decades what makes it special.
The Duchess of Kent said: ‘It’s the camaraderie, the team spirit, the passion for music – I find these are stronger there than any place I’ve ever been. It’s the students themselves who make it. When I walk in, I feel this is where I truly belong.’
A singer, pianist, violinist and music teacher, she was always much more than a figurehead, singing in the chorus for the farewell concert for founding principal Sir John Manduell in 1996.
Sir John – who came to the RNCM after taking charge of the BBC’s new ‘Music Programme’ in 1964 and then the University of Lancaster’s music department – remembers the atmosphere of the early days as ‘exhilarating’. ‘It was the first purpose-built conservatoire in the 20th century in Britain – a blank sheet with the opportunity to begin a modern conservatoire of music.’
He spent 18 months planning the new institution from the living room in his own home near Lancaster, with help from a young Bryan Fox, who was his assistant (‘His secretary was in the study, and I had the dining room – often we would be going on till midnight … it was exhilarating and often humbling’). Bryan became accommodation officer and took other key roles, and is still part of the place, as a qualified counsellor.
‘I remember at the beginning being told we could go and buy 28 grand pianos from Steinways, when the local authority finance committees (who held great sway in the set-up then) had not actually given their final approval. I sent off the order, with copies to the relevant people – within 48 hours they were ringing up saying it all had to be cancelled. But it wasn’t – I think we finished up with 24.’
The college’s second principal (1996-2008) was Professor Edward Gregson, a composer and educationist – he was professor of music at Goldsmiths College before moving back to the north (he was born in Sunderland).
Gregson visited China for the first time in 1998 and made links with the Beijing and Shanghai conservatories which have lasted to this day – and, he says, have brought not only new sources of funding but also higher standards, particularly in string playing. He also developed a tradition of festivals for living composers, starting with Hans Werner Henze. His favourite performance memory is of a visit by Rostropovich to one of the RNCM’s cello festivals. ‘He was full of fun and bonhomie: after his masterclass he insisted on sharing the very expensive bottle of vodka we’d given him, and we all had to down it in one, the Russian way.’
One person closely involved with the college, from even before it began, is music critic and author Michael Kennedy. He says Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, a brilliant mathematician and Lord Mayor of Manchester 1975-76 – whose 100th birthday is also being celebrated in the 15 November concert – was a driving force.
‘Kathleen was the most fascinating person. Because she had been deaf from the age of eight and could lip-read, she could tell what people on the other side of a room were up to, even when they were whispering!
‘On the night before building started, there were fears that travellers might move on to the empty site and hold things up. She got in her car and drove round the site all night to stop anything like that happening.’
Dr Colin Beeson, who joined the staff in 1975 and became deputy principal before retirement in 2010, is still closely involved. He singles out the college’s three Queen’s Anniversary Prizes (for the Junior Strings Project in 1998, the Wind Orchestra’s work in 2000, and the cello and chamber music festivals in 2002) as recognition of the scale of its achievement. ‘We’re all terribly proud of this place,’ he says.
Celebratory concerts at the RNCM
- 15 November: 40th anniversary opening concert, RNCM
- 12 June: An Enchanting Evening with Sir Willard White, Bridgewater Hall
- 40 free concerts in 40 venues throughout Manchester, starting 29 November
- Festival of Beethoven – ‘Ludwig van’ – from 22 November, with two symphony cycles (one the originals, the other transcriptions), plus weekends of chamber (11-13 January), string (16-17 March) and keyboard (22-23 June), a mini-festival re-inventing his music for the 21st century (25-28 June) – and Beethoven’s ninth symphony at the Bridgewater Hall on 28 June, 40 years on from that official opening day.