The Guardian view on the Wigmore Hall: happy 120th birthday | Editorial

It may seem staid – to some. But the music played at the Wigmore Hall, and at vital venues like it, stirs the soul



The Wigmore Hall in London opened its doors 120 years ago this week. It has survived two world wars and has vibrated to the sounds of everyone from the great African American singer Grace Bumbry and the Amadeus Quartet to David Bowie. (The last appeared here twice, once with his folk-and-mime trio Feathers and once as a dancer, months before the release of Space Oddity.)

Almost exactly 12 months ago, the Wigmore Hall brought hope when it staged a moving series of recitals. Artists performed to an empty hall, but the concerts were broadcast on BBC Radio 3. They were some of the first stirrings of live music-making after the silence brought by the pandemic. At the moment, attending a concert at the Wigmore Hall involves polite queueing, face masks, social distancing and no bar or restaurant. That might appear a little miserable, but not to its visitors, who are interested in the profound listening that can come in a small hall with a perfect acoustic.

The Wigmore Hall is a place where one hears that most unshowy and perhaps unfashionable of art forms, chamber music. The audience can seem to be rather staid and silent: the quiet is occasionally broken by the phenomenon known colloquially as “the Wigmore chuckle”, a collective rippling sigh that might go up after a particularly amusing scherzo. Do not be fooled, though. The emotions aroused in the breasts of the audience by the music performed – despair, elation, ecstasy, fury, desire – are inaudible and invisible, deliberately repressed in order to maintain that extraordinary atmosphere of deep listening. Those emotions are no less real for being muffled. It has been claimed that audience members have died during performances here. Occasionally it has been theorised that this is owing to the venerable age of some patrons of the hall. But what better way to die, Arthur Rubinstein once reflected, than to a movement of a late Schubert piano sonata, or a Beethoven string quartet?

The Wigmore is one of many such spaces – a grand one to be sure – where profound things happen to an audience of a few hundred. It might be the Crucible Studio in Sheffield. It might be the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. It might be the Britten Studio at Snape in Suffolk. It might be a venue that comes alive with chamber music during an annual festival – events that map the UK from north to south, from the churches and town halls of Orkney that burst with sound for St Magnus festival to the church in Peasmarsh, East Sussex, that resounds during that village’s eponymous chamber music festival, or the churches and assembly rooms used by the small town of Presteigne for its annual feast of music.

Many of these festivals and venues are waiting to see whether their events can go ahead at all. Some are anticipating a digital or hybrid festival this year. Many are struggling financially. But they are all needed. The music-making that goes on in them is fierce and profound, and the audiences who come, so politely and undemonstratively, leave with powerful feelings stirring their souls.

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Editorial

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