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Cover Image

Forward: 100 Years of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is published by Elliott and Thompson on 29 November 2019, and is available from the CBSO website on 14 November 2019.

It’s been a while since I wrote here, and the only real excuse I can offer is that in January 2018 I was commissioned by Stephen Maddock and Abby Corfan of the CBSO to write a new illustrated history of the orchestra to celebrate its centenary in 2020. It was a thrilling commission to receive, but also an overwhelming one. With a copy deadline of Christmas 2018 – and no relaxation in my usual working schedule – that meant devoting almost all of my free time in 2018 to research in the CBSO Archive, reading some 61 books on the general subject, conducting interviews with over 30 living witnesses of the CBSO story (including Sir Simon Rattle, Andris Nelsons, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, Sakari Oramo and Simon Halsey), and then untangling various (often conflicting) narratives to write the story – trying all the while to make it both historically rigorous and an entertaining read. The aim was to create a sort of ‘100th birthday gift’ from the CBSO to its supporters: something that they could genuinely enjoy.

And then, after submitting the manuscript, there was almost as much work to be done again: proofreading, rewriting and discussing the design with my brilliantly sympathetic and patient editor Olivia at Elliott and Thompson; then seeking out around 100 historical images and obtaining the necessary legal permissions – a task in which I was helped, with enormous patience, imagination and enthusiasm, by my old CBSO colleague Maria Howes. The CBSO Archive is full of rarely-seen treasures; the aim was to get a few of them out there for people to enjoy. This sort of thing, for example:

Harold Gray grimace

CBSO associate conductor Harold Gray rehearses a group of management and music staff in Haydn’s ‘Toy Symphony’ some time in the 1970s – percussionist Annie Oakley (left) assists.

You wouldn’t imagine how much legwork is involved – even obtaining the necessary permissions for the cover image, Concerto by Alexander Walker, took us about two months of research. Who owns the intellectual property of a deceased Catholic monk, who had taken a vow of poverty? This was exactly the sort of thing I didn’t expect to learn when I started out on this project, and which kept me, Maria, Abby, and Olivia and her team busy right through until the end of last month (Even the index required weeks of work). Whereupon we all breathed an enormous sigh of relief and I, for one, cleared off on holiday to look at more Austro-Hungarian relics in Transylvania.



Even the title took some thought and a few drafts. Forward is the motto of the City of Birmingham, and the book is about the city as much as its orchestra. The two cannot be separated and both share the same ambitious, forward-looking, sometimes impatient outlook – a subject that I’ve written on before now.

Anyway, it’s with the printers now – and rather to my surprise I feel distinctly nervous. It feels a bit like waiting to go onstage; there’s already been some press and part of me is terrified to see what glitches and howlers we missed (there are always some), just as an equal, if quieter, part of me is excited to see how people react. Above all, I hope that readers enjoy it, and that it deepens their enjoyment of and appreciation of the CBSO. It’s on sale from the CBSO website from 14 November and from Amazon and all good real-world bookstores from 28 November 2019. I may well be talking about it again…