Eighteenth Century London Concerts: 5 – The Concert Season

Johann Christian Bach

This article in the series exploring the Eighteenth Century London Concerts dataset looks at when the concerts were held. This covers questions such as in which decade or year they took place, at what point during the year, on which days of the week, and at what times of day? And how did this vary according to the type of concert?

The following chart shows the distribution of concerts by type for each year and month, where the colour indicates the number of concerts in that month.1 Spring – February to May – was the busy season, with garden concerts taking over during the summer months. There was little activity after September, apart from concert societies and a few other isolated events. Concert and Oratorio Series and Benefit concerts ran throughout the half-century, whereas Societies petered out after about 1770, and Garden concerts were mainly confined to the period 1760-1775, apart from an intense period of activity (at Vauxhall Gardens) in the summers of 1786-7.

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The next chart focuses in more detail on when in the year the concerts were held. The horizontal axis (labelled “WeekNoDay”) is a number between 0 and 53 representing the week number, plus (1/7) times the weekday number, so that Sunday always falls on a whole number value.2 The busy Spring season is confirmed, as in the previous chart. The “spikiness” of the lines indicate regularity by days of the week. The best example is Oratorio Series concerts (bottom left), which were almost entirely held on Wednesdays and Fridays, mainly in March. Similar regularity can be seen, to a lesser extent, for the Concert Benefit and Concert Series types.

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The next chart looks at weekdays and start times, split by decade and concert type. Interestingly, Sunday is absent from the vertical axis – concerts on Sundays were very rare, and the handful of Sunday concerts in the dataset do not have a specified start time, so are excluded from this chart.

The regular Oratorio Series (seventh row) Wednesday and Friday slots were both early evening (starting before 7pm), although there were a few later ones towards the end of the period. Among Concert Series (second row), popular times included Wednesday Evenings (7-8pm) from the 1760s-80s (these included the “Bach-Abel” series, organised by Carl Friedrich Abel and J C Bach, until the latter’s death in 1782). Late evening (after 8pm) concerts were also common – on Mondays after 1770 (including the “Pantheon”, “Professional” and “Opera” series), and Thursdays after 1780 (later “Pantheon” and other series).

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Daytime was a popular choice for “Concert Benefit” and “Oratorio Benefit” concerts, plus, in the 1750s, the Garden Series. By the 1790s, however, garden concerts usually started late in the evening. In fact, for all concert types, start times got progressively later, as shown in the following chart, which plots the actual concert dates and times (for those starting after 6pm) by type, with a best-fit straight line in each case.

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The “Title” field in the dataset consists of a name followed by the year and perhaps a sequence number. Extracting the name part, it is possible to identify long-running series of concerts. Of course, this would need closer investigation to establish the nature (if any) of the series, but for our purposes we can take it at face value. The following chart shows the series with 30 or more concerts over the period. The vertical axis lists the series name and the total number of concerts, and the subsequent dots, with colours corresponding to types, indicate the number of such concerts each year.

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The two top series were the Oratorio Series (early evenings on Wednesdays and Fridays in March, as above) at the Covent Garden Theatre (CG) and the nearby Drury Lane Theatre (DL). Third was the Bach-Abel concerts from 1768-1781, and fourth – mainly concentrated in two years – were the Vauxhall Gardens concerts.

There was undoubtedly a lot going on for music lovers in late-eighteenth-century London, especially during the main season.3 The data indicates that it was a competitive marketplace – after all, this data only exists because of all the newspaper advertising, and we have also seen that ticket prices fell over the period. The Pantheon series concerts changed from Monday to Thursday around 1790, perhaps because Monday was getting rather crowded. There are also signs of promoters jumping on band-wagons – evidenced by transient series that did not last long, and (as observed in this article) a flurry of private houses hosting concerts in the 1780s, but few repeating them.

It is hard to summarise such complex data, or to present it in a concise form. The charts used above were selected from a large number of attempts – some of which worked better than others. The charts that highlighting interesting patterns are not necessarily the best ones for illustrating those patterns, so it is worth trying different combinations to see what works.

Of course, there is much more that could be done on this theme. I have focused on concert types, but I could also have looked at venue types or locations, repertoire, ticket prices and other factors. I have focused here on presenting the data graphically, but there are also ways of mathematically analysing time series data such as this – which might be useful for answering specific questions.

Cite this article as: Gustar, A.J. 'Eighteenth Century London Concerts: 5 – The Concert Season' in Statistics in Historical Musicology, 10th October 2020, https://www.musichistorystats.com/eighteenth-century-london-concerts-5-the-concert-season/.
  1. In previous articles we have mainly considered venue types, but in this article it is more relevant to look mainly at concert types. There are links between the two, as discussed briefly towards the end of this article.
  2. Monday is taken as 1, Tuesday as 2, etc. Note that this calculation does not necessarily keep the concerts in the correct order.
  3. 4,000 concerts over 50 years equates to 80 a year, mainly during the spring season, when there would have been several each week.

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