The building was designed by the architect Thomas Collcutt as a venue both grand and intimate – early reviews praised its acoustic and described its marble-lined, gilded and illuminated interior as luxurious, tasteful and ‘the most sumptuously comfortable place of its kind to be found’.
The cupola, designed by painter and muralist Gerald Moira, was as striking then as it is today. Building on the idea of the Hall as a space dedicated to music in all its forms, the painting shows Love and Psyche inspiring a performer and a composer in their quest for what Moira saw as the elusive essence of the art. In the centre, a genderless figure representing the soul of music is crowned by the golden light of harmony – the crucial, indefinable source for which musician and composer alike are searching.
The Hall opened with two star-studded gala concerts on 31 May and 1 June 1901, featuring Italian pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni, Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe, Ukrainian pianist Vladimir de Pachmann and legendary Lieder singer Raimund von Zur-Mühlen, among others. Ensuing years saw visits by the greatest performers of the day, including Caruso, Rubinstein, Gerhardt, Godowsky, Cortot and Brahms’s friends and colleagues Joseph Joachim and Richard Mühlfeld.
An extraordinary array of composers also appeared on our stage during this time; audiences at the Hall might have seen Saint-Saëns, Ravel, Fauré, Hahn, Falla, Skryabin, Coleridge-Taylor, Holst, Quilter and even Ivor Novello performing and accompanying their own works.
During the First World War, German firms in London had their assets seized, and so the Hall had to be closed. It was sold to the Debenhams group in 1916 and reopened in 1917 with a new name – Wigmore Hall – and a first concert attended by an eager audience that included Virginia Woolf.
The Hall continued to go from strength to strength over the following decades. Its international reputation brought Prokofiev, Poulenc, Tailleferre, Barber and Szymanowski to the stage, while key British composers Ethel Smyth, Rebecca Clarke and Ruth Gipps put on concerts of their works. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears gave frequent recitals, with many of Britten's most significant chamber and vocal works given their premières here. A series of recitals given to celebrate the Hall’s 75th anniversary in 1976 included concerts by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Julian Bream and Arthur Rubinstein, who ended his performance with the surprise announcement that it had been his farewell concert, and a plea for audiences to continue to support ‘this wonderful hall’.
The 1976 anniversary concerts heralded a new era at Wigmore Hall. Director from the late 1960s through to the mid-2000s, William Lyne oversaw much-needed changes to programming – not least the introduction of the artistic series, beginning with an overview of Fauré across 1979/80 that included concerts by Elly Ameling, the Nash Ensemble, Imogen Cooper and Gérard Souzay. This period also saw the beginning of the Hall’s enduring Sunday Morning Concerts, an annual Early Music festival cementing Wigmore Hall’s place at the heart of that repertoire, the first concerts by Graham Johnson’s Songmakers’ Almanac, and other composer-focused festivals.
In 1991/92 the Hall underwent a year-long renovation, ensuring the preservation of its beloved original features while bringing the building’s infrastructure up to date for the turn of the millennium. Wigmore Hall’s 100th birthday in 2001 was celebrated with a glittering series of concerts by a host of familiar faces, including The English Concert, Steven Isserlis, Matthias Goerne, Joshua Bell and Dame Evelyn Glennie.
Wigmore Hall's current director is Limerick-born John Gilhooly. He joined the Hall as Executive Director in 2000 and became Artistic Director in addition in 2005, at the age of 32. Gilhooly has maintained and expanded the Hall's core repertoire of classical song, chamber and early music, as well as developing major new audience initiatives.
The introduction of artistic residencies and Associate Artists in recent years has enabled the Hall to build and deepen creative relationships with some of the most exciting figures in music today – among them Hilary Hahn, Iestyn Davies, Vijay Iyer, Vox Luminis, Christian McBride, the Takács Quartet, Dame Sarah Connolly, the Castalian String Quartet, Sir András Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, Christian Gerhaher, Leif Ove Andsnes, Ian Bostridge, Karita Mattila, Solomon’s Knot, Amjad Ali Khan, Nitin Sawhney, Brad Mehldau, Igor Levit, the Belcea Quartet, Pavel Haas Quartet, Steven Isserlis, Joshua Redman and Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective. Constantly innovative and ever-expanding, Wigmore Hall’s Learning programme has become a way for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with music in all its forms, including concerts and creative music making for schools, families, people living with dementia and young people on the autism spectrum.
The interweaving of this extraordinary history with the diversity and breadth of today’s forward-looking programming is part of what maintains Wigmore Hall’s place at the heart of chamber music and song, for audiences familiar and new alike. The celebrated acoustic, turn-of-the-century beauty and unrivalled intimacy remain unchanged; in all other ways, the Hall has continued to adapt, proving itself as vital a venue for the present day as it has been for over 120 years.