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Edgar Speyer and Marin Alsop – the last night of the Proms

When Marin Alsop sensationally lifts her baton on the last night of the Proms this Saturday, making history as its first woman conductor, I wonder if she will spare a thought for Sir Edgar Speyer, a great British benefactor who saved the Proms from bankruptcy – yet whose magnanimous generosity has been ignored in this country.

Having learned about Speyer during visits to his former sprawling home at Sea Marge, near Cromer, now a popular hotel in North Norfolk, I was delighted to meet Prof Tony Lentin, a Cambridge academic and historian whose book, Banker Traitor Scapegoat Spy? The troublesome case of Sir Edgar Speyer, is gripping and leaves one feeling incensed by the injustice which Speyer and his family experienced after the outbreak of World War 1 as a result of his German background when they were forced to flee to the United States.

In his letter just published in The Guardian, Prof Lentin describes why Speyer’s prominent role with the Proms should not be forgotten, indeed, tribute should be paid to him and should be acknowledged by the BBC:

With the Proms in their 119th year, I suggest it is time that recognition be given to Sir Edgar Speyer, the American-born philanthropist who more than a century ago saved the Proms from extinction.
While the BBC credits Robert Newman with launching the Proms, it omits to mention that when Newman went bankrupt in 1902, Speyer immediately came to the rescue. He reconstituted the Queen’s Hall Orchestra as a limited company under himself as chairman and subsidised the Proms from his own pocket to the annual tune of £2,000 – at least £200,000 in today’s values – offering season tickets at an average price of fourpence a night. He also professionalised the orchestra, recruiting new members and broadening and modernising the repertoire. His proteges included Elgar, Debussy and Richard Strauss, whose works were premiered at the Proms.
Speyer, a naturalised British subject who also bankrolled the London underground and Scott’s expeditions to the Antarctic, personified one of the minor tragedies of the war through his German background and connections. In 1921, after a controversial judicial inquiry found him guilty of disloyalty, he was stripped of his British citizenship and membership of the privy council. Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC has said that in the Speyer case the legal system “not merely failed one prominent citizen but blotted its own copybook”.
In August 1914, William Boosey, who owned the head lease on the Queen’s Hall, had given Speyer notice to quit, denounced him in the national press as a “highly placed spy” and unleashed a prolonged and unscrupulous campaign against him, in consequence of which Speyer took refuge in the US in May 1915.
Elgar acknowledged to Speyer “the indebtedness of the English people to you”. Plainly put, without Speyer no Proms. When the promenaders join in Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory or Parry’s Jerusalem on the last night of the Proms, and rightly garland the bust of Sir Henry Wood, it would be fitting that belated homage also be paid to the memory of Sir Edgar Speyer. Perhaps the 1914 centenary would be an appropriate occasion.

This is a link to an earlier post I wrote about Speyer.

As I write this, Prof Lentin is being filmed by Anglia TV at Sea Marge. His story of Speyer is capturing people’s imagination. Was he, or wasn’t he a spy? I doubt it, but we cannot doubt that he was certainly a great music lover and a very generous benefactor to the Proms. You can order Tony’s compelling book from this link.



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