The First World War most commonly evokes scenes of battle. Images of casualties. The home front. The Soldier poets. Poppies. Remembrance Day. And so much more.

What is perhaps rarely shed light on is how truly all-encompassing the effect of this “war to end all wars” was – how it also had a dramatic impact on the lives of people that did not lose family members, or experience the trenches, or work in a munition factory – or were not, in fact, involved in the war in any active capacity at all.

In the case of Michael Balling, German conductor of Manchester’s famous Hallé Orchestra, we find one such example.

Orchestras are often highly international organisations, musicians frequently having to leave their home country in order to find work abroad. The Hallé itself was founded by a German, whose name it bears to this day: Carl Halle from Westphalia, born in 1819 into a musical family, who anglicised his name to Charles when he came to England after the revolution of 1848.

This German tradition continued with Hans Richter, who was conductor from 1899 to 1911, and further with Michael Balling, whose undoubtedly great contribution to Manchester’s – and indeed Britain’s – musical history forms the bedrock of this story.

When the First World War broke out at the beginning of August 1914, and therefore near the end of the summer break, a great many of the Hallé Orchestra members were scattered all over Europe, visiting their families and friends. Michael Balling was one of them. In the correspondence that has survived from this time and the anxious months and years that followed, his letters from and to Gustav Behrens stand out due to the quiet, but nonetheless heart-wrenching drama they contain.

Gustav Behrens (1846-1936) can be considered one of the most influential businessmen of his time, certainly in Manchester. His father was Jacob Behrens, who in 1838 had been the first textile export merchant to be established in Bradford and soon after set up business with his brothers in Manchester, which Gustav (Jacob’s eldest son) joined in 1871. For his charitable and educational work, through which he improved many aspects of society, Jacob Behrens was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1882.

Gustav very much followed in his father’s footsteps. Not only was he director of Midland Railway for 45 years, he also had great interest in Manchester’s cultural progress. In 1896, he and two others founded the Hallé Concerts Society, and he was its chairman from 1913-1924. In his obituary, the Manchester Guardian wrote that “no man did more than he to add ‘sweetness and light’ […] to the rather grim philosophy which governed Manchester’s development. He was an example of the good European.” It is therefore not surprising that he and Balling became good friends, as the rest of this article will confirm.

After Hans Richter had given up the post of conductor in 1911, it was decided to have several guest conductors over the following season, before eventually appointing someone new. One of these guest conductors had been Balling, who is often referred to in the literature on the Hallé as Richter’s protégé – but it was certainly Balling’s idealistic approach to devising concert programmes and his excellence as a musician that recommended him. As Michael Kennedy writes in The Hallé Tradition: A Century of Music,

“Balling had made his name in Manchester before he took over the Hallé […] by his conducting of the city’s first performances of The Ring in English. […] By giving Edinburgh The Ring before any other provincial city had heard it Balling made musical history in Britain.”

Professionally, Balling was not someone afraid of risks or adventurous enterprises, as his biography reveals.

Portrait of Michael Balling (1913)

Balling was born to poor parents in Heidingsfeld-am-Main in 1866, but was able to follow his musical talent by means of scholarships. In his lecture on Balling, held at a Viola Congress in Kronberg, Germany, on June 11 2003, Donald Maurice recounts that Balling was intended by his father to become a shoemaker, butwon entry to the Royal School of Music at Würzburg as a singer. As a violin student of Hermann Ritter (1849-1926), he won a viola-alta as a prize and was encouraged to take up this instrument as a serious pursuit.” The viola-alta is a larger version of the viola, and Balling quickly became a fervent advocate, preferring it to the standard viola. He is even said to have pioneered it as a solo instrument in the UK. Eventually becoming the youngest member of the renowned Bayreuth Orchestra, Balling apparently made his solo debut when another player missed his cue. From his back seat, Balling broke the silence and played the part himself!

An extraordinary career had begun. As Maurice further notes, “Balling’s rapid ascent in the orchestra led on to invitations to Wagner’s house, where he became acquainted with the important musical personalities of the day, musicians such as Hans Richter and Humperdinck.”

Then, in 1893, a new opportunity arose: the Harmonic Society of Nelson, New Zealand, was looking for a new conductor. The man this position was offered to, a German called Schultz, had second thoughts. Balling, said to have been recovering from a nervous breakdown at the time, knew Schultz and offered to go in his stead.

Though Nelson was generally considered to be quite a cultured town, Balling soon found that sport was undoubtedly the main event. Nevertheless, his first performance playing the viola-alta, thereby also introducing the instrument to New Zealand, met with a spell-bound audience and raving reviews.

But more importantly, for Balling, Nelson presented a chance to do some pioneer work. Having befriended two influential townsmen, the plan to found a conservatory after the German fashion was soon conjured up and set in motion. Accordingly, in his two years in Nelson, Balling made a remarkable contribution to the cultural life of the city. The Nelson School of Music exists to this day and their website recalls that “Balling made a strongly favourable impression on all who met him.”

Much the same thing can be said for Balling’s cultural impact on Manchester.

“On June 10, 1912, at the annual general meeting of the Hallé,” Michael Kennedy recounts in his book The Hallé Tradition, “tribute was paid to Balling for the zeal with which he had started on his duties.”

A zeal that clearly did not abate over time. Moreover, the eminent music critic of the Manchester Guardian, Samuel Langford, wrote of Balling’s first performance with the Hallé that “the society has hardly ever, to our knowledge, given a finer concert.” Amusingly, Balling called Langford simply “Esel” in his letters, due to the initials “S.L.” sounding like the German word for “donkey”!

Also, Balling’s zest for reform and improvement was reflected in the fact that “[h]e was the first Hallé conductor publicly (on 29 November 1912) to call for municipal aid to the concerts; he ensured that the orchestra was paid a six-month salary instead of a fee per concert; and he advocated the building of an opera house in Manchester, with a resident company to serve Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford and other centres.”

It thus becomes apparent that Balling was not an idealist with his head in the clouds, but rather a pragmatic visionary. C.B. Rees (One Hundred Years of the Hallé) writes of Balling that “he had the highest standards; did not believe that great art should be judged by its success or failure at the box-office; and he expressed his views in uncompromising terms.” Kennedy agrees: Balling “saw the post of permanent conductor as Hallé himself had done – not merely as an orchestral position but as a medium for spreading the gospel of fine music to as many people as possible.”

From his letters to Gustav Behrens, it seems that Balling was very happy in Manchester and would never have left his post voluntarily. On 30 December 1914, he writes from his “home” in Partenkirchen, amongst the Bavarian Alps:

“Wether this letter reaches you or not – that I dont know but I will send it off by the way via Oldenzaal. I hope you and your family all are quite well also your brother and sister in Bradford. We should like so very much to hear from you how you all are – and how things are going with the Hallé Society. – Some time ago I had a letter from the sister of Willy Cramme wherein she told me that the Concerts were going on allright and that Manchester was just as usual – I was very glad to hear that – but naturally I should like to hear a little more about it – especially about the ??? – and about the choral concerts etc. – please do write and tell us something about it all – if you have time to do so. […] – of course I know it is allmost impossible to send letters – but still I think it is easyer to send a letter from England as to England. – We had so far a very mild winter and a very pleasant one as far as weather is concerned – of course here amongst the mountains very little can be heard and seen of the great doings out in the world and it is allmost as if all is but a dream – but now and then one sees an officer or soldier who stays a week or too here for a rest. An old english colonel stays here in P. with his daughters and I see him sometimes – he quiet aggrees with me – if one is unable to be activ it is best to be far off from it all. – I nearly was going to america for this season but when I heard that it was not very safe travelling I thought it better to stay at home with my wife and let music as a profession for this winter anyhow be other people’s doings […]. Poor old Richter [Balling’s predecessor in Manchester] gets very old and he now and then writes very silly letters to the Newspapers – “Newspapers” I never was a friend of them but now I think they are villany itself – I wonder how your “Esel” (S.L.) gets allong now? […] how long ago it seems that I played Billiards at Holly Royde [=the Behrens’s home in Manchester] – I wonder whether that happens again?”

Unfortunately, Behrens could not give Balling much hope. In his letter from 20 July 1915, he replies:

“The times, as you rightly say, are terrible. The loss of life all round apalling… Noone could ever have thought that civilized nations would tolerate a continuance of such wholesale slaughter, which affects not only present but future generations. We here are all well, I am glad to say. My three eldest sons are serving in one army + my youngest is in Serbia, assisting the Serbian Relief Committee. My sister in Bradford will be very pleased to have news about you + the […] family. I am sending your letter on to her.

Now as to business: Even if it were possible for you to come here, I fear that feelings of nationality, which unhappily affect even artists, make it impossible to resume old + cherished relations. You are of course perfectly free to enter into engagements in America as it would, under the existing circumstances, be unreasonable to bind you to your English contract.”

In fact, Balling’s place was – and probably had to be – filled very quickly. In an editorial article entitled “The Need for Music”, published in the Manchester Guardian on 9 September 1914, the pragmatic approach towards the new vacancy is revealed:

“The essentially English character of our orchestras will be demonstrated by the negligible difference which the war will make in their constitution. Mr Balling’s absence will be chiefly felt but a season of guest conductors, chiefly British, will be by no means unwelcome, and will help towards a more just appreciation of their merits. […] The days are surely not so far distant when the foreign conductor, except as a guest, will be as superfluous here as in Germany itself. In the choice of music, a moderated ambition will be wise and generally acceptable. We do not abate at all our general advocacy of contemporary music, but at the present moment music a little removed from the turmoil of affairs will give us the best relief from the strain of them. It will be found, too, that music this year must not be for the adept only, but for the populace. The emotions of the people are much stronger and more warmly welded together than in normal times, and they need an art which will provide them with a common expression. […] …granted the necessary dignity, the simpler our music can be the better.”

In other words: the course that Balling had taken with his programmes, slightly – but not overly – challenging the musical tastebuds of the British public, was to be, if not abandoned, at least suspended. The claim that Balling’s and other musicians’ absence made no real difference to the orchestra is an expression of unhidden nationalism and, though deplorable, hardly surprising. Although it is of course true that the orchestra, the concerts and Manchester in general managed to go on without him, Balling himself certainly was not able to leave his life in Manchester behind. His letter from 2 February 1916 is indeed, as Kennedy simply puts it, “[a] sad letter.” Balling enquires after various (former) members of the orchestra, and goes on to say that

“I am hard working in the garden – by and by I forget alltogether that I am or was a musician! well potatogrowing is perhaps a more usefull thing to do than to conduct the Orchestra! – Will you kindly remember me to all of your family also to Forsythens, the Hallé committee but not to S.L. and Brand Lane [= a “rival” orchestra in Manchester] […] Today two years ago I was at Bradford! – it seems to me 10 years! – but I must no longer trouble you and the Censurer and therefore better finish up […]. With kindest regards I still remain and allways shall do so – Yours very sincerely

Mich. Balling.”

Apparently, Behrens and Balling kept in touch throughout the years, but Balling would never return to England. His career continued to prosper in Germany, but he was not forgotten in his former adopted home. A ‘London Letter’ (regularly sent ‘By Private Wire’ from 149 Fleet Street, EC4) published in the Aberdeen Press and Journal on 13 June 1925, entitled “An Operatic Suggestion”, proposes Michael Balling for the post of conductor at the prestigious Covent Garden Opera House:

“…Covent Garden has always been both international and cosmopolitan, and there is no reason why we should not have an international and cosmopolitan conductor. Why not Michael Balling? For years he has been conductor at Bayreuth, with the Wagner tradition at his fingers’ ends. He has played and conducted in Australia, was Sir Frank Benson’s chief d’orchestre, and last, but not least, succeeded Dr Richter as the conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, and was a popular personality in the North of England. A man of great geniality, with an intense admiration for everything English, Balling has always been persona grata with both orchestra and singers, and would seem ideally fitted for the Covent Garden appointment.”

I could not find any hint as to whether Balling was indeed ever considered for this position, but even if he had been, it would have been too late. Having become the conductor in Darmstadt in 1919, where he stirred up the usual concert repertoire just like he had done in Manchester, he died there only six years later, at the age of 59, on 1 September 1925 – and thus not even three months after the above letter was published. Obituaries were published in several British newspapers, amongst them the Manchester Guardian, who gave a lengthy account of Balling’s travels and various professional engagements.

However, the story does not end there!

21 years and another World War later, a letter to the editor appeared on 5 November 1946 by no less than John Barbirolli, one of Balling’s successors as conductor of the Hallé, containing a touching appeal to Manchester residents. He had received a “moving letter from the widow of Michael Balling, whom many of your readers will remember with affection as a very talented conductor”, telling him that her husband’s prized possession, the concert programmes from his time with the Hallé, had been lost in the fire that destroyed their house in Darmstadt during the war. Barbirolli asks the readers to send any programmes they may have kept from Balling’s seasons on to him so that he in turn could send them to Mrs Balling, who, like her husband, “had valued [them] highly and hoped [they] would be a reminder to their son of a beautiful past.”

This was met by a wonderfully enthusiastic response, and two months later, another letter from Barbirolli quotes the heartfelt reply he got from the very moved Hertha Balling, thanking him and the readers. She wrote:

“This again proves to me that the spiritual bonds are the strongest of all, outlasting even the evil of such a deadly war.”

Even if Balling’s time as conductor of the Hallé was sadly curtailed, his life’s plans falling victim to the arbitrariness of war, it cannot be denied that Balling had a lasting effect on the people of Manchester and the city’s cultural life. His concern for music and musicians alike, as well as for the advancement of the cultural life of a city, be it Bayreuth, Nelson, Manchester or Darmstadt, make Balling a man ahead of his time. Who knows what more he could have achieved in a more peaceful age.


This blog post was researched and written by Carlotta Dewald, a volunteer at Archives+.



Aberdeen Press and Journal – June 13, 1925.

Entry on Balling in the Darmstadt City Lexicon

History of the Nelson School of Music

Kennedy, Michael. The Hallé: 1858-1983: A History of the Orchestra (Manchester; Dover, NH: Manchester University Press, 1982).

—. The Hallé Tradition: A Century of Music (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1960).

Maurice, Donald. “Michael Balling 1886-1925 Pioneer German Solo Violist with a New Zealand Interlude”

Rees, C.B. One Hundred Years of the Hallé (MacGibbon & Kee, 1957).

Sir Jacob Behrens & Sons Limited: The First 150 Years

The Manchester Guardian – 9 September 1914; 5 September 1925; 5 November 1946; 4 January 1947;

WWI Letters from the Hallé Orchestra

Wikipedia: Portrait of Michael Balling