During the first two weekends in July, central London would have hummed to the strains of the British Summer Time festival in Hyde Park. In its eighth year, headline performances at the sell-out concerts were due to include Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift and Duran Duran. But while we’re all missing this fixture of London’s social calendar due to coronavirus, it gives us plenty of time to take a look at the varied – and surprisingly tumultuous – history of music in The Royal Parks, from Handel to The Who…
The disaster artist
One of the first mass celebrations held in a Royal Park saw both the premiere of a musical masterpiece and an architectural catastrophe in one night. In 1749 King George II wanted to mark the end of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) by hosting a dazzling outdoor festival at Green Park, complete with fireworks and a new piece by renowned composer George Frideric Handel. The event began with a rousing performance of Music for the Royal Fireworks, an orchestral suite in five movements that Mozart would later describe as “a spectacle of English pride and joy”. A dazzling firework display then followed as a dramatic climax, set against the backdrop of the ‘Temple of Peace’, a towering structure specially built for the occasion. However, disaster struck when many of the fireworks went awry and flew into the Temple, causing it to explode and injuring several spectators.
Unbelievably, history repeated itself in 1814 when a gala was held in the same park to commemorate the end of conflict with France. Once again, an imposing structure was erected called the ‘Temple of Concord’, and once again stray fireworks destroyed it; this time, however, several lives were lost. Ironically, the designer of the Chinese pagoda that exploded, Sir William Congreve, also invented an early form of the military rocket. Happily Handel’s reputation, at least, remained unscathed, and in 2002 Music for the Royal Fireworks was performed in the Buckingham Palace Gardens for Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee – finally with well-behaved fireworks.
Bringing music to the masses
It would be some time before the general public could enjoy concerts in The Royal Parks. In 1855 Queen Victoria permitted music to be played in Kensington Gardens and unwittingly created uproar. The Archbishop of Canterbury objected on the grounds that it would create undesirable fervour, overexciting the crowds, and the Keeper of the Privy Purse agreed: although “the recreation and amusement of the class who are confined during the week is of great importance” he didn’t think “military music was a necessary ingredient of it”. Under this pressure the Queen retracted her permission, but gradually the growing popularity of the central London parks meant seating, drinking fountains, refreshment facilities and boating were added to enhance visitors’ enjoyment of green spaces. Finally, in 1869 the first bandstand was erected in Kensington Gardens, establishing a tradition of bandstand concerts in our parks that continues to this day. ‘The Royal Parks Band’ was even formed, which played across our sites well into the 20th century. The bandstand in Kensington Gardens – one of the oldest in Britain – was moved to Hyde Park in 1886; after performing there during World War II the brass band maestro Harry Mortimer described it as "uncomfortable, unsanitary, but much loved". Today the venerable structure forms the centrepiece of the ice rink at Hyde Park’s annual Winter Wonderland festival.
However, in the latter half of the 20th century military music was blown out of the water by rock and roll, and soon Hyde Park became one of the prime venues in the capital to hear live music. Almost 100 years after that first bandstand was built, a crowd 15,000-strong gathered to watch Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Roy Harper perform on a summer’s day in 1968. The event was free and held in a shady enclave of the park known as ‘The Cockpit’; recalling the innocence of picnics and peaceful greenery, the late music critic John Peel described it as “the nicest concert I’ve ever been to”.
A new tradition of large-scale rock concerts had begun. A year later one of the most famous gigs of the 1960s took place, ‘The Stones in the Park’, with up to 500,000 screaming fans. It had been two years since The Rolling Stones last performed live, and just two days since the death of their founding member Brian Jones. As a tribute, Mick Jagger read an extract from Adonais, a poetic eulogy by the Romantic poet Percy Shelley on the death of his fellow poet John Keats. Hundreds of white butterflies were then released as a final farewell. The concertgoers were respectful of their environment as well as the band – many helped to clear up afterwards with the promise of a free Stones record if they produced a full sack of litter! In 1976 Queen drew 200,000 music-lovers for another free show. Unfortunately, it overran and came to an abrupt halt when the police threatened to jail lead singer Freddie Mercury for breaching the peace. Freddie refused to do an encore for fear of having to spend the night in a bleak cell wearing nothing but his barely-there jumpsuit.
Hyde Park has also hosted more high-brow fare. In 1991, with typical British stoicism, more than 100,000 people endured torrential rain to celebrate the 30-year career of acclaimed opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. Enjoying greater popularity than ever after Nessun Dorma became the anthem for the 1990 World Cup, Pavarotti brought the crowd to its feet with his stirring rendition. Five years later the BBC launched its Proms in the Park initiative to bring the Royal Albert Hall concerts outside to thousands of people across the country. Starting in Hyde Park, it now hosts gatherings in Scotland, Wales and Northern Island.
All in a good cause
In the 21st century Hyde Park has become the setting for many musical events with a campaigning or ceremonial purpose on the national and international stage, bringing together more diverse crowds than ever. In 2005 the British Live 8 concert took place here, replicating the pioneering 1985 Live Aid concert that raised funds to tackle developing-world debt. Acts included U2, Coldplay, Elton John, R.E.M., Madonna, The Who and Paul McCartney; there was also a highly-anticipated set by the original line-up of Pink Floyd, who performed for the first – and last – time in 24 years. In 2008 a star-studded concert was held in honour of Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday and to raise awareness of his HIV/AIDs charity work. Made all the more poignant by echoes of the 1988 tribute show at Wembley calling for Mandela’s release from prison, the evening concluded with a moving speech by the South African leader: “Your voices carried across the water to inspire us in our prison cells…Tonight we can stand before you free”.
2012 brought the glorious summer of the London Olympics, and a gig was played in Hyde Park as part of the opening ceremony. It featured acts from each of the UK’s four nations – Duran Duran represented England, the Stereophonics Wales, Paolo Nutini Scotland and Snow Patrol Northern Ireland – complete with the obligatory Red Arrows flypast as a crowning flourish. This spectacle followed hot on the heels of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, when a massive concert staged on The Mall was also screened in Hyde and St. James’s Park. Again, the show culminated in a lavish firework display, but fortunately this time all buildings were left standing.
Hyde Park has never lost its appeal as a memorable venue for popular music. In 2013 The Rolling Stones returned to the site of their original concert after 44 years to entertain a new generation. They headlined two nights at the inaugural British Summer Time festival; tickets sold out within three minutes of going on sale. Since 2011, the Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park festival has also taken place every September, featuring artists from Gary Barlow to Clean Bandit via Chrissie Hynde and Blondie.
Although we are deprived of music en masse this year, there are still ways to enjoy a beautiful melody with The Royal Parks. The innovative Music for Trees app in Regent’s Park, for example, provides a captivating soundscape of pieces composed by students from the Royal Academy of Music. Each work has been inspired by a different tree in Regent’s, and automatically plays as you walk in their shadows. While music might be a more solitary pursuit for now, our parks can always offer the uplifting combination of striking landscapes and soothing tunes to help the spirit soar.