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The Harmonic Institution

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It was in 1818 that a group of 21 musicians formed a partnership to 'print and vend our own musical Compositions and the Compositions of our Musical Brethren at large who found themselves unable to obtain fair Terms from other Publishers' - the Regent's Harmonic Institution. They represented the very best performers and teachers in London at that time, including François (or Franz) Cramer, principal violinist at the King's Theatre, Haymarket and later to be a Master of the King's Musick, his brother JB Cramer, pianist and founder of the music publishing company that bore his name1, and composer/conductor Sir George Smart, a founding Member of the Philharmonic Society2. Their premises at the Argyll Rooms in Regent's Street, London, were situated on the corner of little Argyll Street. The Argyll Rooms had also been the venue for the concerts of the Philharmonic Society since its formation in 1813.

One of the musical works the Regent's Harmonic Institute printed and published in 1819 was Beethoven's Piano Sonata in B flat major No.29 Op.106 - known as the Hammerklavier sonata - completed in the autumn of the previous year. No great care was taken over this however; the Institution's edition was printed and published without opus number and in two apparently unrelated parts.

A Grand Plan for the West End of London

London's Regent's Street (or New Street as it was first called) came about as a result of the planned building development in what was in the early 1800s called Marylebone Park, now Regent's Park. It was realised that for the development to be a commercial success, a wide modern road route linking the park to Charing Cross and Westminster was needed. In 1810, two sets of plans were commissioned, one of them from John Nash, the architect to the government's Office of Woods and Forests (forerunner to the present Crown Estate). Nash's plans were essentially self-financing whereas the other set submitted would have required public funding, so Nash's plans were approved by the Treasury. The New Street Act was adopted by Parliament in 1813, and at the end of 1814, the proprietor of the existing Argyll Rooms was informed that his premises would be required by the New Street Commissioners. A number of architects were involved in the design of individual redeveloped buildings along the street. Nash himself executed the work on the Argyll Rooms, drawing up plans that would have required minimum alterations to the existing building. The proprietor stalled for as long as possible, but when work finally commenced in the autumn of 1819, the old buildings 'absolutely fell when part of the Roof was taken off' and the whole had to be taken down to the foundations3.

As well as providing the Institution's shop on the lower storey, Nash's new design provided three good public rooms on the upper storey: the large concert-room, 95 feet by 36 feet (29m x 11m); the occasional concert-room, 30 feet by 27 feet (9.1m x 8.2m); and a dining- or assembly-room, 48 feet by 28 feet (14.6m x 8.5m). Five tall windows with triangular hoods graced the exterior of the upper storey of the Regent's Street façade, with a railed balcony in front, supported by rectangular pillars with bust-head tops. To the right of this façade, as seen facing the building, was a domed semi-rotunda, with a Corinthian colonnade to the upper storey.

The [New] Argyll Rooms were opened on 28 February 1820, with a 'Grand Concert of Vocal and Instrumental Music: Leader of the Band, Mr F Cramer; Conductor, Mr Greatorex...Tickets at half-a-guinea4 each...'

From Regent to Royal

Following the accession of the Prince Regent to the throne in 1820 as King George IV, The Regent's Harmonic Institution changed its name to The Royal Harmonic Institution. As well as publishing and selling sheet music, the Institution also put on and promoted concerts at the Argyll Rooms. On 21 April, 1820 a season of 'Argyll Concerts' was launched, the first featuring symphonies by Haydn and Mozart, a Spohr violin concerto played by the composer, and the finale of Mozart's opera, La Clemenza di Tito.

An advertisement in The Times newspaper for Friday, 2 July, 1819 was for a benefit concert to be held at the Argyll Rooms:

For the Benefit of Mr. Cobham5, now labouring under the severe visitation of the Almighty, having been seized with a second paralytic stroke, which has entirely deprived him of the use of his left side, and thereby prevented the possibility of providing for his numerous young family, who are solely dependent on his professional abilities...

Whose Paper is This?

Selling sheet music might seem an innocent enough occupation, but in October 1819, the Regent's Harmonic Institution was involved in a bizarre scenario with a plot worthy of a comic opera, which occupied the attention of the Magistrate at the Guildhall on no less than three consecutive days. The Institution had been made aware that sheets of their printed music was being used by a cheese-monger on Ludgate Hill to wrap his produce. He was able to produce a bill and receipt for the paper from the proprietor of a ham and beef shop in Blackfriars. The meat shop proprietor in turn said he had bought it from a waste-paper seller in the Strand, but despite being of good character was nonetheless taken into custody by the Beadle and brought before the Magistrate6 together with the waste-paper seller. The Harmonic Institution and their lawyer told the Magistrate that although the sheet music paper most certainly originated from the Institute, they could not be certain as to whether they had actually lost any. The waste-paper seller said he had most likely bought it from one of three people, though he couldn't say which. The Magistrate was minded to keep both men in custody pending further investigations, but after strong legal objection on his behalf, the meat shop proprietor was released on condition of his re-appearing the next day. The waste-paper seller was further detained for a short period, but when the man whom he had named as the most likely to have supplied the paper to him confirmed the fact, he also was released on condition of re-appearing the next day. In the mean time, the Harmonic Institution's agent and a legal officer ransacked the waste-paper seller's lodgings in search of further evidence, but nothing was found.

Next day, purely by chance, a young lad from whom the third man in the paper-supply-chain had bought the material came into his shop. To his surprise and no doubt terror, the lad was promptly handed over to an officer and brought before the Magistrate. The boy, who lived with his father in Hackney, said he had been given the paper by his late master, who turned out to be none other than the music-printer to the Regent's Harmonic Institution. When the printer appeared before the Court, he confirmed the boy's account and showed that the paper in question was indeed waste as it contained various printing errors and was therefore worthless.

Thus despite the fact that no crime had ever been committed, over a period of three consecutive days three innocent people had been put up as prisoners. After being 'recycled' to the boy, the paper had been sold-on no less than three times before being used to wrap cheese! In view of the potential seriousness of the situation had a theft actually taken place, the Magistrate made an offer to the boy's father to furnish the lad with a certificate asserting his complete innocence and good character.


Despite its lofty ideals, the Harmonic Institute enterprise does not seem to have been a successful one, possibly for lack of proper management direction - the partners seem to have had different objectives for the business. The formal dissolution of the original partnership was announced on 1 May 1820, and in 1822 all the remaining Royal Harmonic Society founders, apart from Thomas Welsh and William Hawes, withdrew from the Society. The Crown lease on the new Argyll Rooms was granted to these two men in 1823, and in the following year they mortgaged the property for £7,000.

On Monday, 21 June, 1824, a historically-significant announcement appeared in London newspaper The Times:

New Argyll Rooms - Master LISZT, aged 12 years, a native of Hungary, who has had the honour of playing before their Royal Highnesses the Princess Augusta, the Duchess of Glocester [sic], the Duchess of Kent, the Princess Sophie Matilda of Glocester, and also at the principal Courts on the Continent, respectfully informs the Nobility, Gentry and the Public in general, that his BENEFIT CONCERT will take place on Monday evening, June 21, to commence at half-past 8 o'clock precisely, when he will perform on Sebastian Erard's new patent Grand Pianoforte, a concerto by Hummel, new Variations by Czerny, and play extempore upon a written Thema.

Throughout the 1820s, the Royal Harmonic Society put on concerts, masques and balls at the Argyll Rooms.

Decline and Fall

In 1828 William Hawes went bankrupt and his shares were purchased by Thomas Welsh, who carried on alone until the Argyll Rooms burned down overnight of 5-6 February, 1830. As well as the building, the entire stock of printed music was destroyed and with that the Royal Harmonic Institution ceased to exist; it had lasted just 12 years. In place of the Argyll Rooms, six houses with ground-level shops were erected. Welsh kept the corner house as a music shop until 1836. Until 2006 the site was occupied by the Messrs. Dickins and Jones department store, who (as Dickins, Smith & Stevens) first moved there in 1835.

1JB Cramer & Company. Around 1880 the company moved into manufacturing pianos. The company and the Cramer name are now owned by the Kemble piano group.2Messrs Thomas Attwood, William Ayrton, John Beale, John Braham, JB Cramer, Franz Cramer, William Crotch, Thomas Greatorex, GE Griffin, William Hawes, Charles Knyvett jnr, William Knyvett, FC Meyer, Henry Mullinex, Charles Neate, Jonathan Nield, Ferdinand Ries, JB Sale, Sir George T Smart, Thomas Vaughan and Thomas Welch. 3 'Argyll Street Area', Survey of London: volumes 31 and 32: St James Westminster, Part 2 (1963), pp. 284-307.410s 6d (52.5p).5Probably Charles Cobham, leader of the orchestra at the Drury Lane Theatre, who died in September 1819.6Sir Charles Flower, Bart., an Alderman of London and a former Lord Mayor (1808). An extremely wealthy self-made man (at his death in 1835, his estate amounted to £550,000, an amount difficult to value at today's prices, but certainly not less than £50-100 million), he was the elder son of a cheese-monger!

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