Looking back At RNCM's First Fifty Years

A world-beating institution celebrates a key birthday
November 29, 2022

MANCHESTER’S Royal Northern College of Music is gearing up to mark its 50th anniversary with events planned both sides of New Year.

The college which was opened in 1973 involved a merger of the Royal Manchester College of Music and Northern School of Music, into a new building on Oxford Road.

The building was the first purpose-built conservatoire in England in the 20th century and was designed with state of the art acoustics at the time.

A reporter from The Stage newspaper of March 1, 1973, who attended the gala opening on February 20, 1973, said: “The opera theatre's simple and ornament-free lines, the walls of a rough finished grey brick, and the upholstery and carpets in a pleasing shade of green, all help to concentrate attention on the stage.

“A fairly steeply raked auditorium guarantees one hundred per cent vision from every seat; equally the acoustics are such that even the pianissimo voice carries through to the back row.

“Indeed, on the opening night occupants of the rear two or three rows found the volume of sound from full chorus and orchestra during a performance of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast almost too heavy.”

The new college also boasted an orchestra pit for 70 players, a workshop and paint shop, well-equipped dressing rooms and showers. The theatre had a seating capacity for more than 600 people.

The proscenium (stage in front of the curtain), had an opening of 45 feet wide by 20 feet high, while special features included a fly tower 77 ft wide by 26 ft deep and the stage itself, of overall depth 74 feet and wide 60 feet.

The Opening Of The RNCM

Sir John Manduell, the RNCM’s founding principal and a former producer of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, quickly established the RNCM as one of the world’s most forward thinking conservatoires, aimed at propelling students into lifelong careers as both inspiring and versatile musicians.

Manduell was not only a music educator but also a music and festival director. He travelled internationally to assess what modern conservatoires were doing, in order to help create the most innovative and relevant conservatoire possible. When not touring, all the thinking and planning and financing for the college was pretty much done out of his own front room.

The RNCM building houses three major performance spaces, which includes a fully equipped theatre and concert hall, plus a vibrant live music venue.

The RNCM, which over the years has picked up many plaudits for its music excellence, today still offers unparalleled opportunities for up to 1,000 students from 60 countries, to perform to public audiences, as well as to work alongside professional musicians and visiting artists.

The early origins of the RNCM in Manchester date back much earlier to 1893 when Sir Charles Halle founded the Royal Manchester College of Music (RMCM), on Ducie Grove, while in 1920 Hilda Collens, created a similar establishment: namely the Northern School of Music (NSM), latterly on Oxford Road, which were both designed to premiere music and performance.

With post-war World War 2 budgeting still an issue into the late 1950s and early 1960s, local councils around Manchester saw they were funding two music colleges in the city and actively encouraged a consolidation of assets and resources, to focus on one or the other of the colleges.

Both principals, Ida Carroll (NSM) and Frederick Cox (RMCM) were the figureheads of the new college's design which combined the strengths of the two institutions.

The amalgamation of the two colleges in 1972 provided the answer to many of Manchester’s music professionals, who had for decades, queried why the city didn’t have its own opera company too.

The RNCM with a dedicated theatre designed specifically for musical works, helped to fill in a gap. Opera was one of the first performances with regular performances over the decades since.

RNCM archivist Heather Roberts said the perceived wisdom when the new college was opened was that aspiring musicians from the region should not continue to move down to London or up to Scotland to get a professional and a dedicated music education.

She explains: “Over the years the RNCM has dedicated it energy into being as innovative as possible, to ensure local students and the local audiences gained unique experiences. jazz, composition, electronic music etc. were all designed into the offer from the start, and more recently pop.

“Equally, the college has commissioned and performed new work, and contemporary music was experimented with and performed, giving Manchester and the North a musical culture that went beyond the classics alongside the emerging pop, rock and indie scenes.”

Heather added: “Brass band and brass ensemble music, a stalwart of the North's musical culture, was included in a dedicated course. This not only saluted the brass tradition of the North and allowed local brass musicians to enjoy professional training but eventually attracted brass musicians from all over the world.

“Not only does the college now attract students from across the globe, wanting to be trained within Manchester's legendary musical heritage, but it has built on the legacies of its previous two colleges by attracting world-class tutors and visiting professionals for master classes.”

Peter Donohoe

Writing for Slipped Disc news website on the death of Sir John in October 2017, pianist Peter Donohoe, a former student at RNCM and acclaimed pianist, remarked: “My Manchester student years in the early 1970s were dominated by him, his personality and his vision.

“He managed – against huge odds – to place the RNCM on the international musical map. To us students his priority seemed to be to build the image of the new institution to the outside world.

“I was often – as a student and just afterwards – guilty of maligning him; I was a difficult student, very quick to judge, and generally behaved like a very large square peg in a small round hole.

“I always realised what a visionary he was (at the same time as being a realist in the modern world). What an excellent writer, a media-friendly character, a brilliant politician: he was a past master at fielding public meetings and word-spinning to the point of genius! An overall exceptional man.”

Royal Manchester College Of Music

Professor Linda Merrick, the RNCM’s current principal, believes that the institution has moved with the times since those early initiatives to position it as one of the world’s leading conservatoire’s going forward:

She explains: “The music industry has changed significantly since we first opened our doors 50 years ago, and we are incredibly proud of everything the RNCM has achieved since then.

“With a shift towards portfolio careers, today’s conservatoire is dedicated to preparing talented young musicians from all over the world to develop meaningful and fulfilling careers in music.

“The unrivalled performance opportunities, professional placements, and projects we now offer within our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes – together with the important emphasis placed on entrepreneurship – are just some of the ways that we achieve this.”

In a second piece to appear shortly, Mag North, will detail the events planned for the college's 50th, plus an appeal to help poorer musicians realise their dreams.