Britain's first fully professional symphony orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, was founded by the German-born pianist and conductor, Charles Hallé. A refugee from the 1848 revolution in Paris, he accepted the post of Conductor of the long-established Gentlemen's Concerts in Manchester. In 1857, for the six months duration of a gigantic exhibition of art treasures, this Orchestra was augmented. Rather than see it disbanded when the exhibition closed, Hallé decided to launch a series of concerts at his own expense and so the first Hallé Concert was held in the Free Trade Hall on January 30, 1858.
For the next 37 years Hallé controlled and conducted the concerts. From rather primitive beginnings, he gradually raised the standard of the programmes and gave several important first British performances of works by Berlioz. When new works by such modern composers as Wagner, Johannes Brahms and Dvorák were published, Hallé speedily included them in his concerts. Most of the great executants of the day, instrumental and vocal, appeared in Manchester under his baton, and he himself gave early performances of the J. Brahms B flat and Grieg piano concertos.
After Hallé's death in 1895 three guarantors, Gustav Behrens, James Forsyth and Henry Simon, undertook to carry on the concerts. They immediately began negotiations with Hans Richter, one of the outstanding conductors of the day and a noted interpreter of Wagner, Bruckner and J. Brahms, to be Hallé's successor. Though anxious to come, he had a Vienna contract to fulfil and for an interim period the Orchestra was conducted by Frederic Cowen. In 1899, the year the Hallé Concerts Society was founded, Richter went to Manchester and stayed until 1911.
Although his programmes were eventually criticised for their failure to include music by innovators like Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, he championed the music of Edward Elgar and Richard Strauss so that Manchester enjoyed a golden age of romantic music and interpretation.
After a short but fruitful period under Michael Balling, the Orchestra was maintained under guest conductors during the 1914-1919 period, chief among them Sir Thomas Beecham. In 1920 Hamilton Harty became conductor for the next 13 years, during which he fashioned the Orchestra into a brilliant and versatile body, especially effective in the music of Berlioz and Sibelius. From 1933 to 1943 Thomas Beecham and Malcolm Sargent were the Conductors most often seen in Manchester. In 1943 it was decided to put the Orchestra on an all-the-year basis-hitherto it had been in existence for only about six months of each year-and to increase the annual number of concerts from about 70 to over 200. This bold step coincided with the appointment of John Barbirolli, who had been in New York since 1936 as permanent conductor.
John Barbirolli re-created the Orchestra amid wartime difficulties and quickly established a remarkable rapport with players and public. After 1945 the Hallé expanded still further, becoming a truly national orchestra, for it played in every part of Britain although its strongholds remained Manchester, Bradford and Sheffield. Barbirolli insisted that it should also be an international orchestra, and in the 27 years during which he was its head, the Hallé visited Germany, Austria, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Southern Rhodesia, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, France, Scandinavia, Central and Southern America and the West Indies. In this time, too, it made many recordings and played at festivals throughout Britain. Its work for British music has been especially notable, and in this Barbirolli was assisted by his Associate Conductors, George Weldon and, after Weldon's untimely death, Maurice Handford.
The respect and affection in which Sir John Barbirolli was held culminated in the bestowal on him in 1968 of the unique title of Conductor Laureate for Life. His name had become synonymous with that of the Hallé and his death in July 1970 was a grievous personal blow to thousands. From 1968 the Hallé were considering candidates for the succession to Sir John and their choice fell in December 1970 on James Loughran, the 39 year old Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. His appointment dated from September 1971, but his first concerts with the Orchestra before that date were outstandingly successful. A new and potentially exciting era had begun.