Designed by Thomas Camplin, Vice-Principal of St Edmund Hall, the Holywell Music Room was probably the brainchild of William Hayes (1708–1777), Heather Professor of Music at Oxford from 1741. The project was funded by public subscription (established in 1742) and built on land that was part of Nicholas and Dorothy Wadham’s original benefaction to Wadham College.
Acoustics ‘to die for’
Derek Jole, writing in the Oxford Times in January 2003 said of the Holywell Music Room that it ‘exerts unrivalled charm, and has, besides, acoustic properties to die for’. When the room was first in use in the 1750s one observer commented that there was ‘not one pillar to deaden the sound’.
Before the Music Room was built in 1748, Oxford concerts took place in the all-male domains of college dining-halls and noisy, crowded taverns. In contrast, the new Holywell Music Room offered a high quality performing and listening experience: moreover, as Graham Midgley pointed out in his social history of eighteenth-century Oxford, the Holywell Music Room provided ‘a setting where ladies could be introduced with safety and decorum’.
In his book The Oldest Music Room in Europe (1911), John Henry Mee wrote: ‘It was partly due to the genius of Handel, which caused the oratorio (cantata) to take first place in the estimation of the English musical public, that the Holywell Music Room came about.’ He went on to say: ‘It is possible, even probable, that Handel’s Esther was the first work to be performed in the Room ... it gives little support to the vague tradition that Handel had played in the Music room, which prevails in Wadham College.’
Eighteenth-century concerts in the Holywell in many ways resembled the Coffee Concerts of today, as musician and historian Professor Susan Wollenberg notes: ‘The audience's sense of constituting a regular gathering of friends and acquaintances; the mixture of local musicians and visiting performers; the intimate surroundings with seating for only a few hundred; these and a host of other factors – including even the involvement of the coffee houses – all make the present-day 'Coffee Concerts' seem in many ways descended from the Holywell concerts in the eighteenth century.’
Interestingly, many of the eighteenth-century musicians who performed in the music room also lived close by, forming a ‘musical quarter’ of Oxford which was vibrant from the opening of the Music Room until 1789, when the destabilizing of musical life reflected that of many aspects of English society.
A description of the Music Room in 1773 can be found in Wood’s Antient and Present State of the City of Oxford, published by the Rev. Sir J. Peshall, Bart: ‘From the Orchestre, on each Side of the Room, run four Rows of Seats rising gradually from the Floor; on the Left Hand they are continued till met by those on the same Side of the Entrance, to which they are connected by an easy Curve. Above these rise a considerable Number of others; it having been found necessary to leave Height sufficient for a Passage Underneath. On the Right, from the Orchestre, it was not practicable to continue the Side-Seats on Account of the Fire Place; nevertheless in Summer, when no Fire is requisite, and the Chimney-Board fixed up, the vacant space is supplied with three Rows of Seats.’
Town and Gown
From the start an important aspect of the Holywell Music Room was that it brought together people from both the University and the city.
With performers and audiences drawn from both spheres, it was possible to achieve a greater social harmony in the context of music than in some other areas. In the Holywell, audiences could mingle to enjoy the music of Corelli and Handel among the ‘Ancients’, alongside that of Haydn and other popular composers of the age. In 1809, subscribers to the Room would pay an annual subscription of two guineas for a ‘Gentleman’s Ticket’, and one pound and eleven shillings for a ‘Ladies Ticket’ (on the understanding that Ladies’ tickets only were transferable!).
Reversal of fortune
The Holywell continued as a concert venue throughout the eighteenth century and until 1836 when, according to former Wadham Estates Bursar R. P. Martineau, ‘it was used for a variety of events including auctions, exhibitions and even shows given by a performing horse and a vixen’. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, in difficult times politically and economically during the years of the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars, the popularity of the Music Room declined, while as the nineteenth century progressed a variety of new musical venues opened in Oxford.
Professor Wollenberg writes: ‘The Stewards of the Room saw the need to reinvent the Holywell concerts, so as to draw in their audiences. They appealed to their patrons not to withdraw their support from ‘an Institution, which has been established upwards of fifty years, and which provides so much rational and elegant amusement, at an expense comparatively inconsiderable.’ By the 1870s, the room was being used for weekly rehearsals by the Oxford Philharmonic Society.
It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the Oxford [University] Musical Union announced that it would be taking over the tenancy of the Holywell. As the Oxford Magazine (1901) reported: ‘An interesting transfer is being accomplished ... The old Holywell Music Hall, during the last century the centre of Oxford music and the scene even of the Commemoration concerts … is now passing into the tenancy of the Oxford [University] Musical Union, and so will once more take a prominent place among the agencies by which good musical traditions are advanced and maintained here.’
Professor Wollenberg writes: ‘By 1904 the move had been accomplished and the room was once more reclaimed for the use of Oxford's music-lovers, and as the headquarters of a University musical society (contemporary photographs show that the layout of the interior, with the club's tables and chairs, was very different at this period from its eighteenth-century disposition).’
The Holywell was restored and refitted in 1959–60 under the supervision of architects Garden and Godfrey, and since that time has been the location for many hundreds of recitals and concert series featuring prestigious visiting musicians as well as local groups and student performers.
The great chandeliers of ormolu gilt were used at King George IV’s coronation banquet at Westminster in 1820. Presented by Warden Tournay of Wadham College, they originally hung in the College Dining Hall. The theory that undergraduates used to swing from them at rowing ‘Bump Suppers’ seems to be confirmed by the discovery that the bolts supporting them had been pulled halfway through the beams. The original lighting was described in Mee’s history of the Holywell: ‘The room is chiefly lighted by two very handsome Lustres of Cut Glass…The elegant Stucco-Work in the Ceiling, made to receive the Chains by which the Lustres are suspended, was the Performance and Benefaction of the late ingenious Mssrs. Roberts and Stetzler’. When Mee’s book was published in 1911 he wrote: “Though the lustres and stucco work have gone, the magnificent oak floor remains intact, made from trees that were “surely felled” as long ago as the reign of Queen Anne.’
The present organ (by John Donaldson) was installed in 1985, replacing the original organ by John Byfield, which was moved to the Music Faculty’s rehearsal hall in St Aldates. The velvet curtain that hangs to one side of the music room does not hide anything – it is there for acoustic purposes. Wadham College carried out further conservation and refurbishment work at the Holywell in 2009.
The Holywell Music Room is now regularly used by the University of Oxford Faculty of Music and by Wadham College for musical performances and events. The Sunday morning Oxford Coffee Concerts are open to the public and the audiences continue to unite ‘town and gown’.