Dr. George Cathcart, otolaryngologist and financier, died on the 4th of January, 1951.
Most anyone with an interest in classical music would recognise the name of Sir Henry Wood. Mention of ‘The Proms’ or the ‘BBC Proms’ or the ‘Henry Wood Promenade Concerts’ as they were called for many years, would undoubtedly encounter similar recognition. However, it’s fair to suggest that there are few who would recollect or even profess to know of two other men who were far more responsible for the inception and launch of ‘The Proms’ over one hundred years ago in 1895. The series of classical concerts now known as the ‘BBC Proms’ and performed at the Royal Albert Hall each year in London are famous the world over and fairly entitled to the accolade of “the greatest series of concerts the world has ever seen”. But when the original event was first conceived, Henry Wood, who went on to become forever eponymously associated with the concerts, was only a bit part player. The two main protagonists were an Englishman called Robert Newman and a Scot from Edinburgh by the name of George Cathcart.
Unlike Robert Newman, George Cathcart has been honoured in recent times. His memory was celebrated by the ‘Cathcart Spring Proms’ at the Royal Albert Hall, an annual event that ran for thirteen years until 2008. Regrettably, the 2009 concert was cancelled after the collapse of the promoter and since then, it hasn’t been reinstated. George Cathcart was an Edinburgh Doctor and according to the publicity material for the 2008 concert in aid of the World Wide Fund for Nature, his was the idea of staging Promenade Concerts. It’s a nice thought to have that credited to a Scotsman, but to be fair to Newman, that’s stretching the truth more than just a wee bit. Until the concerts dedicated to his name, Dr George Cathcart also remained an unsung hero in the annals of classical music. George Cathcart was born in Edinburgh in 1860 and after he qualified as a doctor, he became an eminent otolaryngologist – or an ear, nose and throat specialist. In 1891, he moved to London, to work at the Children’s Hospital in Great Ormond Street. Cathcart, not unnaturally in terms of his chosen career, had developed an interest in throat problems experienced by singers, several of whom had visited him in his professional capacity as a Harley Street specialist, seeking advice.
Cathcart was also an aurist who advocated the use of the ‘diapason normal pitch’ for singers, otherwise known as the ‘low’ or ‘Continental Pitch’ and which was in general use by continental musicians in Europe, whereas in Britain at the time, the majority of singers ‘favoured’ the higher ‘English pitch’. Unfortunately, that had the side-effect of causing strain to the voice – or more properly, to the voice box or larynx. It wasn’t that British singers really favoured the higher pitch in the sense that they preferred it; it was more to do with fashion – as ever. The pitch in general use in Britain at the time was A=452.5 vibrations per second, also known as the ‘Philharmonic Pitch’. The ‘Continental Pitch’ became known as the ‘New Philharmonic Pitch’ and is A=439 vibrations at 68 degrees Fahrenheit (or 435 vibrations at 59 degrees). Of course, Cathcart knew what damage the vogue for high pitch had on the voices of native, British singers. The ‘Catch-22’ for those performers was that most British organs and wind instruments were pitched high, so singers had a simple choice; strain their voices or get no work.
Robert Newman conceived the idea of ‘Promenade Concerts’ based on the French model and he should be remembered for that and his perseverance in making it happen. But he couldn’t have realised his dream without the young Henry Wood, who became the conductor for many a year, nor Cathcart in particular, who put up the money for the first concert. Newman first mentioned his concept for the concerts to Wood in 1894 and then again, enthusiastically, the following year as Sir Henry later recollected, “With hardly a word of greeting, he [Newman] tackled the question of what was obviously uppermost in his mind [saying] ‘I have decided to run those Promenade Concerts I told you about last year…’.” However, Newman’s problem was that he didn’t have the wherewithal to finance the concerts.
Perhaps fatefully and shortly afterwards, Wood was due to give a singing lesson to a Scotsman called Peterkin and, coincidentally, that creatur’ was accompanied by a friend who had come to listen. When Wood mentioned Newman’s plans to Peterkin and his mate, Cathcart, for it was he, said, “Please tell me more about this project, Mr Wood.” Cathcart became hooked on the idea, being a cultural kind of a guy and after Wood introduced him to Newman, Cathcart agreed to underwrite the cost of the first series of concerts on two conditions. The first of those, according to Wood’s recollection, was for Newman “to establish the low pitch” and, despite his liking for the high pitch, Newman “succumbed to the Doctor’s better judgement” The other condition was to engage Wood as the sole conductor of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.
One major problem that Cathcart’s financing resolved had to do with the orchestra. You see, the woodwind and brass players in the orchestra were unwilling or unable to purchase low-pitch instruments. So Cathcart imported instruments from Belgium and lent them to the players for the first season, afterwards selling them to the musicians. The first concert took place in the Queen’s Hall, in Langham Place, on the 10th of August, 1895, with an orchestra of eighty players. Interestingly, Queen’s Hall was acoustically almost perfect and in comparison to the Royal Albert Hall, it didn’t have that perplexing echo and there were no ‘dead spots’. The first, seven week season of ‘Mr Robert Newman’s Promenade Concerts’ consisted of forty-two concerts and the very affordable ticket prices were one shilling for a single Promenade ticket, two shillings for the Balcony, three or five shillings for the Grand Circle, and one guinea for a transferable season ticket, valid for all that season’s concerts.
Apart from the investment in the instruments, according to Wood, who knew practically nothing of the financial arrangements, Cathcart was “Personally and directly responsible for the inception of the Promenade Concerts in August, 1895.” Cathcart knew the arrangements all right and his statement puts the relative success of those first concerts into perspective. He said that there was a loss of not less than £50 on every concert of the first season except for two, where the singer Sims Reeves performed and which were a sell-out. Nevertheless, Newman’s concept of ‘The Proms’ had seen the light of day, thanks to Cathcart. Thanks to Sir Henry Wood and the BBC, they survive to this day.