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Sir Edgar Speyer: Saviour of the Proms and the first London Tube lines (©Illustrated London News/Mary Evans)

The Promenade concerts are a great British institution, combining high musical culture with popular enthusiasm and gentle patriotism. Now run by the BBC, the Proms began life in 1895 as a private enterprise, albeit one designed to make classical and modern music accessible to the widest possible public. The driving force behind them was the impresario Robert Newman, aided by the conductor Henry Wood, with whose name the Proms are now invariably associated. But in 1902, Newman was bankrupt, and the Proms were saved by the intervention of Sir Edgar Speyer — now largely forgotten but then one of the most influential men in Britain.

The Proms’ original home was the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, but the orchestras were scratch affairs, often poorly rehearsed. Speyer set up the Queen’s Hall Orchestra as a limited company with himself as chairman and Newman as manager. The orchestra was put on a professional footing. He largely paid the costs himself, persuading leading performers and composers of the day to appear. He kept ticket prices to a minimum, and it was possible to buy a season ticket that worked out at fourpence per day. Henry Wood continued as principal conductor, and was overwhelmed by Speyer’s generosity: when, for instance, Wood lamented the absence of a decent first oboe, Speyer whisked him off to the Paris Conservatoire to audition and hire the best in France.

Edgar Speyer was the scion of a prominent German Jewish merchant banking family from Frankfurt, originally wealthier than their neighbours the Rothschilds. By the middle of the 19th century there were branches in New York, Frankfurt and London. In 1886, Edgar himself took over Speyer Bros, the London branch housed at 7 Lothbury, an extravagant Venetian Gothic building behind the Bank of England; he became a British citizen in 1892 at the age of 30. His brother James ran the New York bank and brother-in-law Eduard Beit von Speyer oversaw Frankfurt. The three branches cooperated on a global scale, investing in major trade and infrastructure projects, while maintaining substantial domestic businesses. Edgar was thus part of the pre-war cosmopolitan elite, sophisticated, cultivated and philanthropic.

Speyer rapidly integrated into British life, taking British citizenship in 1892, joining the Church of England and becoming a member of the Liberal Party. As a friend of the Liberal leader Herbert Asquith, he was created baronet in 1906 and appointed to the Privy Council in 1909 — a signal honour for a man of German Jewish origins, and one that would return to plague him.

In 1902, at the age of 40, Speyer married the German-American violinist Leonora von Stosch, with whom he had three daughters. He knocked together 44 and 46 Grosvenor Street in Mayfair and commissioned the fashionable architect Detmar Blow to build the imposing Beaux Arts mansion that still stands there today. The heart of the house was a music room dominated by John Singer Sergeant’s portrait of Leonora. Among the guests who performed there were Elgar, Debussy, Grieg, Richard Strauss, Percy Grainger and Henry Wood.

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