From: Malcolm Neesam, Music over the Waters. How Music at Harrogate Spa led to the establishment if the International Festival, and its fifty year history to 2016, Harrogate 2017, pp. 5–16 (abridged)

‘In 1835, a business man named John Williams built the Chalybeate Spa and Concert Rooms on a site at the junction of Ripon and King’s Roads. The magnificent building, fronted with an impressive portico of six Doric columns, was opened on 21st August, the birthday of King William IVth. During the Spa Rooms’ earliest years, the musical entertainments provided for the amusement of visitors were of the most light-hearted kind, with a predominance of popular dance music and ballads in programmes. In 1839, Thomas Gordon was appointed manager of the Spa Rooms.

One of Gordon’s first acts as manager was to engage a small orchestra for the season, comprising leading London musicians, some connected with the opera houses at Covent Garden and “Her Majesty’s Theatre”. To lead this orchestra, Gordon later engaged a brilliant young pianist, Julian Adams, who, born in 1824 in London, had distinguished himself by giving a recital at the Hannover Rooms at the age of seven. He had studied in Paris in 1837 and appears to have first performed as a pianist in Harrogate in 1841.

On 12th September 1839, within only eight weeks of his appointment, Gordon had engaged the great Thalberg to play in the Spa Rooms, accompanied by a Miss Birch, Signor Ivanoff, and “Mr. Balfe”. Sigismund Thalberg, along with the French master Alkan, was regarded by Liszt as his only serious rival as a public virtuoso pianist. Thalberg and Liszt had totally different styles. Thalberg eschewed display, and Chopin thought he tended to lack feeling, yet Liszt said of him: “Thalberg is the only artist who can play the violin on the piano.”

How Thomas Gordon persuaded Thalberg to visit Harrogate we shall never know. Since the famous pianist, born in 1812, was only twenty-seven, it is odd to read in the advertisement that the concert was to be “positively Mr. Thalberg’s last appearance in Harrogate.” There is no likelihood that Thalberg had visited Harrogate before 1839, and that visit was not to be his last, as he returned in 1849. Nothing is known of two of Thalberg’s musical companions, Miss Birch and Signor Ivanoff, but “Mr. Balfe” was none other than the brilliant Irish musician Michael William Balfe, who four years after his Harrogate visit became famous as the composer of the popular opera “The Bohemian Girl”. Over the years, Balfe was to return twice for the end-of-season gala occasions.

In 1840 Gordon brought to the Spa Rooms three major stars with two of their satellites. They were Giulia Grisi, soprano; Antonio Tamburini, baritone; Julius Benedict, pianist-conductor; and Ernisla Grisi and Signor Brizzi. Benedict, born in Stuttgart in 1804, had been introduced to Beethoven by Weber, had become conductor of English opera at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, during Balfe’s great popularity, and went on tour to America with Jenny Lind, acting as her accompanist.

On 17th October 1849, another fine concert was held in the Spa Rooms, when a number of significant artists appeared: pianist Madame Louise Dulcken, violinist Apollinaire Kontski, cellist George Hausman, St. Petersburg baritone Schonhoff, and German soprano Sophie Schloss. Dulcken was the sister of the great violinist Ferdinand David for whom Mendelssohn had written his violin concerto. She settled in London and was regarded as the foremost female pianist of the time. Indeed, Queen Victoria appointed her as her piano teacher. The cellist Kontski, when aged twelve, was heard by Paganini, who consented to his becoming his pupil, one of only two pupils ever taken by the great master.
By 1868, the Harrogate press was reporting “We are glad to record that the musical element of the entertainments of this watering-place is kept up to a proper standard. The programmes selected by Mr. Julian Adams the conductor and solo pianist are really first class […]. The Company at Harrogate seem also to highly appreciate the music presented to them.”

This site has been conceived in conjunction with the HERA-funded research project The European Spa as a Transnational Public Space and Social Metaphor. Conception: Astrid Köhler, Text © Astrid Köhler and Karen Southworth, Design © Jana Riedel.