125 Years of the Dundee Orchestral Society

We are quite lucky at Dundee City Archives to have many collections relating to music. There could be several reasons for this. Perhaps the people of Dundee are very musically minded. Or perhaps it is due to some of our archivists having musical skills and being involved with that sphere of life. The range of musical collections we hold is quite wide from the Dundee Operatic Society (GD/DOS), to the Friends of the Caird Hall Organ (GD/FCHO). We even have records of the Thow Brothers, who were Bagpipe makers and sack printing block manufacturers (GD/X1039). One of the oldest musical collections is that of the Dundee Orchestral Society (GD/X76).

The Society has been celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, and we hold records going right back to its beginnings in 1894. However that is not the oldest thing in the collection. There is also a minute book for an older society called the Dundee Philharmonic Society. This society was started in July 1850. The first minute book appears to have been lost, but a volume covering 1875-1891 has survived in the Orchestral Society collection. Although the committee members were completely different to those of the Philharmonic society, there must have been a link between the two musical groups. An interesting couple of volumes relating to the Philharmonic Society are held at Dundee Central Library. These contain photographs of 136 members of the society from 1862-3.

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The cover of the minute book of the Dundee Philharmonic Society

The Philharmonic Society seemed to falter when the conductor Mr S C Hirst, asked for the practice night to be moved from a Thursday, as he had started a paying gig on that night of the week. An attempt to move practice to Tuesdays failed. The last committee meeting was held on 27th November 1891. It seems that they couldn’t help the situation and the society ended.

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The first meeting of the Dundee Orchestral Society on 18th October 1894

Dundee was not without Orchestral entertainment for long. The first minute book of the Orchestral Society records a meeting on 18th October 1894. Undoubtedly there would be many members of the new society that were in the old – the conductor, Mr A M Stoole, had been the leader of the orchestra in the Philharmonic Society. John More Smieton of Broughty Ferry and Victor Fraenkl at some point sat on both of the societies’ committees.

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An advertisement from the Courier for the Orchestral Society’s first concert.

The first concert of the new society was performed in the Kinnaird Hall on Friday 5th April 1895, in aid of the Children’s Free Breakfast Fund. There were around 60 people in the orchestra – a third of these were women. A variety of pieces were played including Greig’s Peer Gynt Suite, No1; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 Op. 60; and, as the Courier described it ‘a capital selection from “Tannhauser”’.

The collection also includes a couple of scrapbooks, accounts, correspondence and posters for concerts given by the society. Particularly interesting are two large posters from early WW1 concerts in aid of the Belgian Refugee Fund. Posters of this size are quite rare to survive, usually because they were pasted up and difficult to take down (these must have been spares) but also because of how flimsy they are.

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The poster for the Orchestral Society’s benefit concert for Belgian Refugees in April 1915. Note that the edge of the poster is the colours of the Belgian flag.

Following these concerts in 1915, the society appears to have taken a hiatus until 1921. After regrouping it is noted in the minutes that it would be good to encourage women to sit on the committee. The 1930s appear to have been a bit of a rough patch. The minutes abruptly stop in 1931. The next item in the minutes is a report of the dire state of the society’s finances, largely due to falling membership and ticket sales. Clearly the 1930s Great Depression was biting at the music lovers of Dundee. However the society pulled through.

Now when performing the Society is known as the Dundee Symphony Orchestra. They still perform 3 times a year and are largely made up of amateur performers. You can find out more about them on their website.

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