Step change

'Step Change: Francesco Berger and the Philharmonic Society of London, 1884-1911'

In an illustrated keynote talk for the large and distinguished Berger family, among whose modern members is the art critic and novelist John Berger, interest centred on one of their musical ancestors, Francesco Berger (1834-1933).

Though ostensibly only a minor composer and piano teacher in late 19th-century London, Francesco developed a remarkable network of creative artists and friends, including Charles Dickens for whom he composed theatrical music in the 1850s. Having also inherited and developed strong family gifts as a linguist, writer and organizer, Francesco eventually became honorary (i.e. unpaid) Secretary of the Philharmonic Society of London. How he acquired this role and what he did over 27 years to turn around the failing fortunes of the Society bears study.

Francesco's phenomenal success indeed saved that institution and faciliated some of the greatest music of the age - new works by Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky, Elgar - as well as better performing conditions for Philharmonic-sponsored concerts and a healthy public outreach. His unstinting work for the Society marked a step change in his own career, too.

Research for this talk, supported by Michael Berger, was based in the RPS Archives of the British Library. Hundreds of letters to and from Francesco are preserved there for the period 1884-1911. The talk was given at the Library in June 2014, facilitated by Dr Nicolas Bell, Curator, BL Music Collections and RPS Council member. It was followed by a remarkable concert of music written by or associated with Francesco, organized by Oliver Davies and performed at St Pancras Parish Church, Euston Road.

'Brava, bravissima ... you hit the right note for the occasion while not compromising on facts and interpretation'

Arthur Searle, Hon. Librarian, Royal Philharmonic Society

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