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The Royal Albert Hall in London has impressed audiences since its opening ceremony on March 29, 1871. Mayors of English cities attended the inauguration in their scarlet robes along with a number of military officers, foreign dignitaries, and English royals including the Prince and Princess of Wales, Princess Mary, the Duke of Cambridge, and, of course, Queen Victoria. According to reports, “After a verse of the National Anthem had been sung, the Prince of Wales read a brief address, and Her Majesty [the Queen], in a voice so remarkably distinct that it could be heard over the whole building, said: ‘I cannot but express my great admiration for this beautiful building, and my earnest wishes for its complete success.’” With performances from the world’s leading classical, jazz, rock and pop artists—from Nina Simone, Shirley Bassey, and Janis Joplin to Adele—the Royal Albert Hall remains one of the most extraordinary examples of Italianate architecture prevalent in Britain during the 19th century.
Originally named the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, which explains the mosaic of artists and scientists that adorns the roof, the building is situated in Albertopolis, the South Kensington district that includes museums and educational institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Royal College of Art. During his lifetime, Prince Albert was committed to the arts, culture, and education for the benefit of his nation. When Queen Victoria laid down the foundation stone in 1867, she changed its name to pay homage to her late husband, Prince Albert, who had passed away six years earlier. She used a golden shovel to do the honor, and if anyone is lucky enough to hold a ticket for Stall K, row 11, seat 87, it is possible to see the inscribed piece.
Both the interior and exterior exude a regal, stately design with reddish and gold tones, and its architectural inspiration comes from the Coliseum in Rome. Contrary to popular belief, the Royal Albert Hall has an oval shape—not circular. Its jaw-dropping, glazed-iron dome—measuring 20,000 square feet—had to be completely put together in Manchester beforehand in order to be sure that its size would fit. The builders then took it apart and transported the dome by horse and cart to London.
And while the Royal Albert Hall stands out as a site to behold for its physical beauty, 148 year-old history, and its massive Henry Willis organ, it has also had its share of issues along the way. As for its sound, form took over function since the structural design was prioritized over acoustics. The concave ceiling created an echo effect for the first 98 years of its life. There was a long running joke at that time that the hall was the only place where a composer could hear their music played twice. In 1969, 135 mushroom-like fibre-glass acoustic diffusers were installed to hang from the ceiling to solve the echo problem. Fifty mushrooms were removed in 2001 to improve the sound even more.
The Royal Albert Hall can seat up to 5,267 spectators for its more than 390 shows per year. Some of those highlights include the first time The Beatles and The Rolling Stones performed together on the same lineup in September of 1963. Before the concert began, both bands participated in a photo shoot on the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Steps at the back of the Hall. Paul McCartney exclaimed, “Standing up on those steps behind the Albert Hall in our new gear, the smart trousers, the rolled collar. Up there with the Rolling Stones we were thinking, this is it: London! The Albert Hall! We felt like gods!”
As the venue has hosted events of various live music genres, the Council of the Royal Albert Hall enforced a rock and pop ban in February of 1972 due to vandalism caused by audiences. The council was also concerned about concert goers stomping in unison which affected the balcony’s structure. “Some members of the audience in Second Tier boxes became so enthusiastic and jumped and stamped around so much that the ceilings in two boxes in the Grand Tier below fell in. It is for reasons like this that we here do not like concerts at which the audience stamps and dances,” according to the council. Bands that attracted unruly fans included Deep Purple, Yes, James Brown, and The Byrds. Thankfully, the embargo was short lived.
The Royal Albert Hall has also accommodated the British fashion world. In November of 1985, Fashion Aid (a version of Band Aid to help relieve famine in Africa) was held within its walls. The show spotlighted the work of fashion designers like Armani and Yves Saint Laurent with models Grace Jones and Jerry Hall strutting down the runway. It concluded with a catwalk wedding between Freddie Mercury and actress Jane Seymour.
The very first British Fashion Awards ceremony also took place at the Royal Albert Hall in October of 1989 to honor those who have made exceptional contributions to fashion during that year. HRH Princess Diana was in attendance, wearing the famed “Elvis” white beaded dress and jacket from designer Catherine Walker. Over 3,000 attendees came to the event.
With its 150th anniversary on the horizon, the Royal Albert Hall still stands out as one of London’s majestic monuments with a deep, cultural history welcoming performers and audiences from all over the globe. Whether taking it in from the outside or enjoying an event on the inside, any observer cannot ignore its commanding presence in the performing arts.END
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