When Freemasons’ Hall welcomed actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Sir Ian McKellen and Tom Hiddleston into the Grand Temple, Jessica Hopkins was in the audience to listen to messages of love and anguish in Letters Live
Without words we’d be forever fumbling in the dark; letters throw light wherever they are cast.’ And so opens a night of extraordinarily moving literary entertainment at Freemasons’ Hall.
It began as a simple idea: a website dedicated to photos of remarkable letters from the past, accompanied by transcriptions and introductions. Letters of Note then became something of a Twitter sensation before becoming a hardback anthology and then morphing into Letters Live. This year’s five-night live performance spectacular at London’s Freemasons’ Hall in April saw a glittering line-up of performers read against the glorious Art Deco backdrop of the Grand Temple.
While events at Freemasons’ Hall do tend to be bespoke, one-off occasions, Letters Live offered the chance to do something quite different. ‘It was unique and like nothing we had done before,’ explains Karen Haigh, Head of Events at the Hall. ‘Even though I knew we could do it, I also realised that we had never done anything on this scale.’
With 7,500 tickets sold, more than 40 performers treading the boards and some 100 letters read aloud – not to mention an unexpected fire blazing beneath the streets of nearby Holborn – it was no small feat to pull off. When the Holborn fire forced Freemasons’ Hall to cancel the Wednesday performance, many of those scheduled to read that night came along to the Thursday show instead, creating a dream playbill: a who’s who of the stage and screen scene.
The audience didn’t know who was performing until the moment they appeared on stage, so whoops of surprise and delight were heard as Sir Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Sir Ben Kingsley, Simon Callow, Sophie Hunter and Clarke Peters stepped up to the podium, to name but a few.
With opening and closing music by newcomer and one-to-watch Kelvin Jones, as well as a passionate solo cello performance by Natalie Clein, the evening – like the whole run – had been thoughtfully curated to match performers to letters. Subjects spanned the arts and politics, love and loss, family and friendship, longing and rejection.
There were letters filled with advice and encouragement, such as Kurt Vonnegut to Xavier High School, read with McKellen’s wise drawl: ‘Practice any art… no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.’
There were letters filled with furious rejection, like Hunter S Thompson’s to Anthony Burgess on receipt of a ‘50,000 word novella about the condition humaine…’ instead of the Rolling Stone thinkpiece he had commissioned. Performed by Dominic West and full of language far too colourful to reproduce here, it was one of the more spirited readings of the evening.
The Grand Temple buzzed with energy from the performers, while the splendour of the venue was equally captivating – visually beautiful and acoustically fantastic, it became an enhancer when it could have been a distractor. Those attending were left with the feeling of having witnessed something truly magical. It’s an effect Karen was keen to achieve: ‘We wanted people to enjoy the experience of going to the theatre but also be somewhere completely unique,’ she enthuses.
It certainly didn’t disappoint.
Evocative and emotional
For Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter to her husband, Leonard, the Grand Temple turned to darkness with only a single spotlight on reader Greta Scacchi: ‘I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time… Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.’ A visceral, desolate performance.
Benedict Cumberbatch drew on his best David Bowie impression to read a letter written from the musician to his first American fan in 1967, when he had no sense of how famous and renowned he would become, which added to its innocent excitement and humility. In a duologue performance, Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey – facing one another across the Grand Temple and very much in-the-round – read letters from Chris and Bessie: two everyday British civilians who fell in love via ink and paper while separated during World War II. The collection showcased quite beautifully how letters written by ordinary people with passion and something to say can contain just as much poetry within their pages as those written by thinkers, artists and academics.
Perhaps the performance of the evening came from 87-year-old actor Joss Ackland, who read a letter he’d written to his future wife Rosemary, who was engaged to another person at the time. Either side of the reading he performed the part he was rehearsing when he first met her: Act II, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s soliloquy from the Capulet’s orchard, ‘But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?’
‘I might be a trifle old, but I think this is the way I played it,’ he told the audience before reciting from memory a speech full of lust and longing. And then, after the letter: ‘This is how I would play it now, with Rosemary no longer with me.’ In a breathtaking performance, the longing remained, but it was cloaked in sorrow rather than driven by lust.
With considerable media coverage, Letters Live has been one of the more high-profile events hosted at Freemasons’ Hall, generating only positive sentiment according to Karen. ‘Events such as this are a way of saying to people that we’re not what you think we are,’ she explains. ‘Because when we open our doors people’s preconceptions are completely blown away.’
Recognising our legacy
HRH The Duke of Kent explains how funding from the Royal Arch is supporting the Royal College of Surgeons and has helped to restore the Willis organ in the Grand Temple
You will remember the generous £2.5 million raised for the 200th anniversary appeal to support the research work of the Royal College of Surgeons. A fundamental decision was needed as to how this sum should be invested and administered.
It was decided that this would best be done together with the existing Grand Lodge Fund, launched for the Royal College in 1967, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Grand Lodge.
It has been agreed that the fellowships will be allocated to both the Craft and the Royal Arch in proportion to the contribution of funds. So, this will mean that there will be two Royal Arch Fellows in every five fellowships that are supported.
As patron of the fund, I confirm that in order to reflect these important changes – notably that the funding for these fellowships has come from both the Craft and the Royal Arch – the name of the fund has been changed as of January 2015 to The Freemasons’ Fund for Surgical Research.
On the east wall of the Grand Temple at Freemasons’ Hall, the Willis organ has been renovated and greatly improved during the past year. You will be aware that Supreme Grand Chapter has funded this initiative from its reserves as the Royal Arch’s contribution towards the Tercentenary of the United Grand Lodge of England. In recognition of this contribution, the organ’s new case bears a triple tau at its top as well as on the front of the renovated console.
I am sure you would want me to congratulate all concerned with this project, which not only enhances this magnificent room, both audibly and visually, but also adds to the heritage of this building and the memory of those many Freemasons who died in World War I.
‘The renovation of the Willis organ is the Royal Arch’s contribution towards the Tercentenary of UGLE.’
First concert for newly restored grand organ
Following an extensive Harrison and Harrison refurbishment and renovation of the very fine Willis Organ in the Grand Temple at Freemasons' Hall an inaugural concert by Thomas Trotter, Organist of St Margaret's Westminster Abbey and Birmingham City Organist, has been planned to celebrate. Listeners are therefore cordially invited to this free event on Wednesday 30th September, 2015 at 7pm.
With works ranging from Bach and Mozart to Coates and Goss-Custard, the programme is very wide-ranging and designed to show off the brand new "Grand" Division of this versatile three-manual.
This event has now sold out.
The New and Young Masons Clubs’ Conference 2015
Please join the Connaught Club, and many other new and young masons' clubs, at Freemasons’ Hall, London, on Saturday, 24th October 2015, and take part in the first New and Young Masons Clubs’ Conference
After a short introduction, representatives of each club will be given the opportunity to present any ideas they have, explain which events have worked well for their respective clubs, present best practices they’ve discovered and impart any event organising tips they might possess. Of course, no one and nothing is perfect, so tips for avoiding pitfalls will also be most welcome.
The event promises to be very insightful, informative and helpful for all clubs which attend. We believe by bringing many of the new and young masons' clubs together in this way, we can all gain from the shared knowledge and experience, and reach our shared objective – keeping new and young masons engaged with the Craft. With increased and continuous engagement with the Craft, we hope, in some small way, to prolong its existence.
We would encourage as many of the new and young masons' clubs from around the United Kingdom to attend this conference for the betterment of the masonic social clubs’ movement which is spreading, not just across the UK, but also around the world. We would also like to cordially invite any representatives from the various Provinces in the UK, which don’t currently have a ‘light blue’ or young mason club, to come along, and hopefully, be inspired to establish a club in their own Province.
The conference will start at 13.00 and last two hours, which will include time to mingle and chat to the members of other clubs, whilst enjoying some light refreshments.
After the conference, the Connaught Club’s lodge, Burgoyne Lodge No. 902, will be holding its Installation meeting, which you are most fraternally welcome to attend. The lodge will tyle at 17.00 and will be held in one of the many splendid temples at Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen Street. Following the Lodge meeting, a three-course Festive Board will be enjoyed at a local dining venue.
If you would like to register your interest in attending the conference, please enter your details below and a member of the Club Committee will be in touch here: http://www.connaughtclub.org/nymcc2015/
Freemasons’ Hall is closed over the Easter period and there are no tours on Friday 3rd April, Saturday 4th April or Monday 6th April 2015
The Library and Museum will be open as usual from 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday except for the Easter closure.
The Brand Republic Digital Awards is redefining the traditional awards ceremony with a brand new format for 2015
The evening will start with a champagne reception and canapés on arrival at London's Art Deco Freemasons' Hall. Guests will then enter the auditorium to watch the awards and find out which agencies and brands will be going home victorious.
After the ceremony guests will head back into the hall for networking, substantial food, unlimited drinks until 1pm and entertainment. A well-known DJ will have everyone partying into the early hours.
The awards will take place on 18 June at Freemasons' Hall and tickets are on sale now.
With more than 500 entries – a record for the BR Digital Awards – the competition is hot and the event is shaping up to be the best one yet.
The judging process has begun and the shortlist will be announced from 7 April.
For more information on the ceremony and to buy tickets visit the awards site here.
Letters Live comes to Freemasons' Hall
Letters Live returns to London for its most ambitious season yet, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey in starring roles.
Five unique shows at London’s Freemasons’ Hall (Covent Garden), from Tuesday 31st March until Saturday 4th April.
Following its great successes in 2013 and 2014, LETTERS LIVE present its first season of shows in 2015 at the iconic Freemasons’ Hall, one of the finest Art Deco buildings in Britain. Inspired by Letters of Note, the bestselling anthology compiled by Shaun Usher, and To the Letter by Simon Garfield, LETTERS LIVE is a series of curated, live events that celebrate the enduring power of literary correspondence.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey will take to the stage for every night of the Freemasons’ Hall run, reading letters alongside a diverse array of world class performers each evening, including the recently announced Sally Hawkins and musician Tom Odell and luminaries from the stage, screen, music, art and literary worlds.
From Patti Smith’s unread letter to a dying Robert Mapplethorpe; to Richard Burton’s parting words to Elizabeth Taylor as they separated after years of tempestuous marriage. David Bowie’s enthusiastic letter to his first American Fan and Che Guevara’s revolutionary words to his children. LETTERS LIVE captures the humour, sadness, inspiration, and brilliance that illuminate all of our lives.
We don’t just programme a series of readings, we curate performances taking into consideration the content of the letter, its style, the person who reads it and where, ensuring each event is unique and intimate.
Book your tickets here: http://www.ticketmaster.co.uk/Letters-Live-tickets/artist/2096475
Notes from history
The Grand Temple organ has finally returned to Freemasons’ Hall for reassembly. Ian Bell, consultant to the restoration project, traces its origins to discover a proud dynasty of organ builders
When the components of the Grand Temple organ were packed off to Durham for a year of restorative therapy, it was the first time they had left Great Queen Street since their installation. More than eighty years of wear had taken its toll on the complex mechanism of an instrument that proved to be a feat of technical engineering when it was installed in 1933.
The Grand Temple organ was by far the largest of the three fitted by organ builders Henry Willis & Sons at Freemasons’ Hall. The others, in what became Lodge Rooms 1 and 10, have long since fallen into disuse. However, their sister in the Grand Temple has continued to serve with character and distinction, only beginning to show her age comparatively recently – and only when viewed at close quarters.
The Willis dynasty had been major participants in the world of organ building since the company’s founder, Henry Willis, produced a startlingly bold and groundbreaking instrument for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park. Considerable success followed and the baton of team leader was in due course handed to successive generations of the family, each named Henry, who modestly numbered themselves in the manner of royalty. The man in charge of the installations at Freemasons’ Hall was Henry Willis III.
Though relatively young, Willis III had just overseen the installation of a grand new organ in Westminster Cathedral before coming to Freemasons’ Hall. Prior to that, he had installed the largest church organ in the country at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. The organist at Liverpool was Henry Goss Custard, whose brother Reginald was Grand Organist. As such, Reginald presided over the Grand Temple organ at the opening ceremonies in July 1933, and had approved the designs that Willis, himself a Freemason, had put forward.
It is clear from his writings that Willis was very proud of the opportunity offered to him, but the project was not without its difficulties. Money did not seem to have been in short supply, but space certainly was. The awkward and irregularly shaped spaces left for the organ meant that it had to be packed in very tightly. Standing uncomfortably inside it today, one might imagine that the brief to Willis would have been something like: ‘Here are two remaining spaces we are able to offer you – pack as much organ into them as you can.’
The organ’s 2,200 pipes are ingeniously crowded into two very narrow spaces, each triangular in floor area and tapering from the widest end next to the balconies, down to virtually nothing at the eastern end where the openings into the Grand Temple are located. So although the pipes are shouting very loudly, they are unavoidably shouting in the wrong direction, away from the listeners, and their output is being squeezed down until the point where, like toothpaste bursting from a tube, it can eventually escape sideways into the room.
To the organist against the east wall, and indeed to those seated on the dais below it, the organ clearly has considerable power; to those in the body of the Grand Temple, however, it has instead a somewhat muted roar.
To add to the difficulties, the acoustics were extensively treated with absorbent material to minimise reverberation and clarify speech. This was anathema to what an organ builder dreams of: the sound of pipes speaking without restriction or obstruction, creating a flattering and reverberant cathedral acoustic, inappropriate though such an acoustic might have been here. Willis’s pleasure at the chance of making his mark in the heart of the masonic peace memorial was therefore unavoidably dampened by the hazards thrown into his path. Writing in his house magazine in September 1933 he says:
‘I was clearly given to understand from the very start that the acoustical properties of the Temple would be such that the requirements of speech would be considered first, last, and all of the time; and that it would not be possible to modify this requirement to suit the needs of the organ in any way. It was under these onerous conditions of restricted space and an almost non-existent reverberation period that I had to make my plans.’
One can sense a heavy heart going about the making of those plans. But whatever his misgivings, Willis succeeded in putting up a good fight. By the end of the same article he cannot resist quoting a letter of congratulation from Goss Custard: ‘Everyone is more than delighted with the Temple organ and I must say that personally I consider it one of the most beautiful that you have ever made. Considering the difficulties that you have had to overcome with the site, the effect is nothing short of marvellous.’
And, not unusually, it has to be admitted, Willis felt moved to pat himself on the back too: ‘If I may say so, a noble organ in a noble edifice. Only the best has been good enough for the masonic peace memorial in every part of its structure and furnishing. The Temple organ is worthy, in every way, of its superb setting.’
Cleverly planned, beautifully built, and packed with cutting-edge technical innovations designed to cope with all that a modern, centrally heated environment could throw at it, the organ was to be one of the last entirely new instruments that Willis III was to build on such a scale.
The organ remains not only a worthy tribute to a proud Freemason, but one where the daring technicalities proved well-chosen. The new addition of a separate section that is able to speak without restriction along the Grand Temple, providing the clarity that has been elusive for eighty years, has allowed the organ to be restored without alteration. As Willis would surely have wished.
‘Only the best has been good enough for the masonic peace memorial… The Temple organ is worthy, in every way, of its superb setting.’ Henry Willis III
The Poppy through history
Start March 4, 2015 6:00 pm
End March 4, 2015 6:45 pm
Dr Nicholas Saunders, the author of a recent book about the history of the poppy, will be talking about how the poppy became such a powerful symbol at the end of the First World War. There will also be an opportunity to view the current Library and Museum exhibition Freemasonry and the First World War.
Venue: Freemasons' Hall, London
Tel: 020 7395 9257
The welfare of others
Pro Grand Master Peter Lowndes believes that we should recall the brotherly love shown between Freemasons during the First World War
At the Quarterly Communication held on 2 September 1914, one hundred years ago, the First World War had been under way for just under a month. Your predecessors would have known that, even in such a short time, the German Army had already defeated the Russian forces at the Battle of Tannenberg and the French and British armies were in fierce contact with the German advance in the south of Belgium. That Quarterly Communication was presided over by Sir Frederick Halsey as Deputy Grand Master, as the then Grand Master, HRH the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, and the Pro Grand Master, Lord Ampthill, were away serving their country.
Sir Frederick proposed the motion that ‘Grand Lodge expresses the deep appreciation of the loyal and devoted service now being rendered to our country by HRH the Grand Master, the Pro Grand Master, and very many other brethren of all ranks in the Craft, and its earnest prayer for their continued well-being’. He went on to say – among other things – that it was a time of great anxiety and that every Grand Officer would carry out his work without panic and alarm and show that calmness and confidence which animates the breast of every Englishman and mason.
Sir Frederick added: ‘Our hearts go out to our friends and relations, to our dear ones, both in the Craft and outside it, who are now serving their country at the call of duty; our prayers follow them, and we trust that before long, in the mercy of the Great Architect of the Universe, they may emerge from this present struggle safe and sound.’
Sadly, more than 3,300 masons, serving in the four fighting services – Army, Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Flying Corps – never made it home. Freemasons’ Hall was created as a peace memorial dedicated to them and its magnificent commemorative window has recently been restored thanks to the generosity of London lodges and chapters, as well as individuals coordinated by Metropolitan Grand Stewards’ Chapter. Below the window is the bronze shrine containing the Roll of Honour parchment scroll honouring those who gave their lives in service of their country. We should not forget that numerous sons and grandsons of members were killed – many of whom would have been potential members.
Brotherly love remains as important today as it was in those dark days of the Great War. To exercise kindness, tolerance and charitable support – and to be interested in the welfare of others – is a source of the greatest happiness and satisfaction in every situation in life.
It is, I believe, of the utmost importance today to ensure our long-term survival, but I am concerned that we are not always seen internally as a caring organisation, with junior members too often marginalised and unsupported. This must change and it is the responsibility of every member to help to retain those of integrity within their lodges by making them feel cared for. By so doing we will ensure that they will gain the same fulfilment and satisfaction from their masonry that we have all been lucky enough to enjoy.
‘Sadly, more than 3,300 masons, serving in the four fighting services, never made it home. Freemasons’ Hall was dedicated to them.’