18 May was the anniversary of the founding of the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra which seemed an appropriate occasion to delve back into the Society’s archives.
Herbert Menges (1902-1972) was the originator and first Musical Director and Principal Conductor of the orchestra we now know as the Brighton Phil.
Siegfried Frederick Herbert Menges’ early life was spent in Hove. His father was German and his mother British, and both taught the violin there. His elder sister, Isolde, would become a world famous violinist.
Herbert appeared in public as a violinist at the age of four but later abandoned the violin for the piano. Aged 19 he went to the Royal College of Music where his three-year course included composition under Vaughan Williams and Holst.
Back in Hove, though he was no longer resident there, his mother assembled a small string orchestra for him to conduct, consisting of her ex-students, local professionals and good amateurs. Called the Symphonic String Players, they gave their opening concert at Hove Town Hall on 18 May 1925, and received encouraging high praise from the local press. Their stated intention was “to become a large and powerful String Orchestra, and to give periodic concerts of a high standard in Brighton and Hove.”
Their first season began that October at Hove Town Hall, with five orchestral concerts and three recitals. A supporters’ society was soon formed which in due course became the Brighton Philharmonic Society.
In only their second season Myra Hess appeared, the first of 20 visits and in 1928/29 came Solomon, a childhood friend of Herbert’s, for the first of his 22 visits.
By this time the concerts had been moved to the Dome in Brighton and the orchestra increased to symphonic size, with the new name of Symphonic Players.
By the mid-thirties, Herbert had persuaded celebrated soloists Cortot, Schnabel, Szigeti, Rubinstein, Moiseiwitsch and Gieseking among others to appear in Brighton. Conductors came too, including Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Hamilton Harty, Sir Henry Wood and Sir Adrian Boult, and for solo recitals such legendary figures as Rachmaninov, Elena Gerhardt and Suggia. Despite the difficulties of the war years, the Society carried on and by the 1944/45 season was offering a record 13 orchestral concerts and six recitals.
The next big step for the Society came in 1945 when the orchestra became fully-professional and for the following 13 years was known as the Southern Philharmonic. The war had created a hunger for classical music and it was realised that several other towns along the South Coast might welcome regular concerts again. So, with financial aid from the Arts Council of Great Britain, they extended their work with annual seasons in Portsmouth and Hastings. This additional undertaking ceased in the mid-1950s when official policy for orchestral concerts in the South East changed. The orchestra was then renamed the Brighton Philharmonic.
In the music world Herbert Menges’ name was synonymous with Brighton, and in 1963 came official recognition when he received the OBE for his services to music, “especially for his sustained influence on the musical life of the South East”. In 1972, after 47 years as Principal Conductor, he died at the age of 69. A memorial to him in Brighton Dome says that he conducted 326 concerts there while musical director of the BPO. It adds: “He founded a tradition which is his permanent memorial.”
A Brighton & Hove bus (fleet number 468 on the number 5 route ) is named after him.