Royal Albert Hall, Since 1871

Royal Albert Hall,

On my very first trip to London — so long ago I dare not reveal the year — I attended a concert at this venerable institution.  Being a student and nearly penniless as were my companions, we sat way up at the top in the cheapest seats. Sad to say I don’t remember anything about the music we heard, but I will never forget the view of the vast auditorium packed with cheering fans. For what, I couldn’t say, though I assume it was one of the Proms.

Prince Albert, by F. X. Winterhalter

Prince Albert (of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, 1819-1861) carved out a place in British history both as the Prince Consort who assisted his wife Queen Victoria in many ways, and as a promoter of science and technology developments.  He was the mover and shaker behind the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the development of South Kensington, which came to be known as Albertopolis, into a center of education, scientific and cultural development.

map showing the institutions of South Kensington/Albertopolis
For a fuller exploration of the architecture of the area, consult the Royal Institute of British Architects here.

Many now-great institutions grew here on the site of an agricultural oasis up to the mid-19th century:  the Natural History Museum…

Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road
… the Science Museum,
Science Museum, Exhibition Road 
… the Imperial College London, the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal College of Art, and the Royal College of Music. The Victoria and Albert Museum, sprawling repository of great works of the decorative arts is the eastern most part of the neighborhood.
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road
Victoria and Albert Museum Entry

Northern most of the complex is the Albert Memorial, recently renovated, in Kensington Gardens opposite Royal Albert Hall. Sir George Gilbert Scott designed the Gothic structure, dedicated by Queen Victoria in 1872.

Albert Memorial
Prince Albert
Getting back to Royal Albert Hall, it was begun in 1867 and dedicated by Queen Victoria in 1871.  The design was conceived by Henry Cole, who was inspired by ancient Roman amphitheatres; the details were worked out by two Royal Engineers, Captain Francis Fowle and General Henry D. Scott.  The vast central auditorium is elliptical in shape, about 185 feet wide and 219 feet long; it can be rec
onfigured for many types of events both with traditional staging and in the round. 
Take a Virtual Tour of Royal Albert Hall here.
Funds for building the Hall came partially from profits of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. Prince Albert suggested that the area of South Kensington be filled with institutions to promote education and progress, but he died before the scheme was completed.

For a full timeline of the construction of the Hall and many of the events held there, click here.

Among the many stray facts about the Hall is the number of red bricks used: 6,000,000.  Originally it was lit by gas, which was replaced by full electric lighting in 1888.  Only minor damage to Royal Albert Hall occurred in Word War II; it was said that the German pilots, as they did for St. Paul’s Cathedral, left it alone because its distinctive appearance served as a landmark for their bombing runs. Refurbishment took place in 1996-2004, with the addition of many modern conveniences, upgrading the restaurant facilities and other amenities.

massed choirs in the RAH
Royal Albert Hall was purposely designed to adapt to all sorts of events, concerts, conferences, speeches, meetings, ceremonies, exhibitions, sporting events (tennis, wrestling, boxing) and even the circus.  Classical, opera, jazz, folk, rock and pop concerts have included the most famous performers in the world. Verdi, Wagner and Elgar all conducted their works at the RAH.  The list of stars who have play the Hall would illuminate not only the vast dome but the entire sky above.
Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary, 2011
Royal Albert Hall is held in trust for the nation of Great Britain but it operates entirely on its own earned funding.  Many educational programs are operated in collaboration with schools and other institutions.  Even if the hall is “dark” when you visit, you can book a tour.
The annual 8-week program of BBC Proms will run through Saturday, September 8, 2012.  For more info in the Proms, click here.
Rock on, RAH!

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