Symphony orchestras were not as dominant a musical force as choirs, brass bands and hand-bell ringing groups when music became a popular pastime in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the two key orchestras formed in this period have had, and remain to have, a significant musical influence on the town’s civic identity.
However popular choirs and brass bands were in the region it is telling that some commentators were growing tired of the supremacy of these forms of music-making. Even though Slaithwaite had an orchestra since 1891, in 1898 one commentator was moved to write to the press: ‘Why not a philharmonic orchestra – musicians are tired of Messiah – it is like the poor, always with us.’47
The first orchestras had issues in raising finance and recruiting sufficient players, particularly in the woodwind section. In terms of repertoire, shortages of sheet music restricted what orchestras could play, resulting in a great variety of standards of performance. As a consequence many orchestras never graduated beyond polkas, waltzes, or perhaps, attempting an early Haydn symphony.48 Nevertheless, they were slowly improving.
Edward Elgar recognised the strength of amateur orchestral musicianship in the North, when, in 1903, he wrote a flattering letter to the organiser of Morecambe Music Festival that ‘Someday the press will awake to the fact, already known abroad, and to some few of us, that the living centre of music in Great Britain is not London, but somewhat farther north.’49 Orchestras remain a significant part of Huddersfield’s musical identity.