During the course of his medical training, Boyd Neel (1905-1981) had also taken up music theory at the Guildhall School of Music and by 1932, he was recruiting members of a proposed new orchestra by placing notices on the bulletin boards of various London colleges. The Boyd Neel London String Orchestra -- consisting of 11 violins, two violas, two cellos, and two double basses -- made its debut at London's Aeolian Hall in June of 1933, with a program that included the British premiere of Ottorino Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3, Haydn's Piano Concerto in D major, Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, and the Adagietto from Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5. Immediately after that concert debut, Neel was called away to deliver a baby, but the more important cultural birth that day took place in the concerthall: the beginnings of the modern chamber orchestra and the roots of the early music and authentic performance movements.
Up to that time, professional orchestral activity in England, as elsewhere, was confined to large-scale, Romantic-era sized orchestras, consisting of upwards of 100 players. Those few Baroque- and Classical-era works that were performed were, except under unusual circumstances, played by forces that were far larger than the music demanded and modern works such as the Respighi and the G. Mahler were considered novelty pieces. The success of the Boyd Neel Orchestra proved that this repertory could stand on its own and, in the hands of the right players, provide boundless inspiration for musicians and listeners alike. The orchestra made its first broadcast in December 1933 and in autumn 1934, they made their recording debut under contract to England's Decca Records with Gustav Holst's St. Paul's Suite. The G. Holst piece, released as a 78 rpm album for a cost of three shillings -- the equivalent of about a dollar and a half, in 1934 dollars -- was an immediate success. The group's second release, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (recorded under the supervision of the composer in January 1936), was to prove even more popular. In August 1937, the Boyd Neel Orchestra performed at the Salzburg Festival, premiering a new work written specifically for the occasion, Benjamin Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, which established the reputation of the then little-known B. Britten and made the orchestra well-known in international circles. The orchestra itself recorded the piece the following month in London and it quickly became one of B. Britten's most popular instrumental works.
In addition to performances of these modern works, the orchestra made its name by re-establishing seldom-heard Baroque string works by J.S. Bach and Johann Christian Bach, George Frideric Handel (including the Water Music), Antonio Vivaldi, Giuseppe Torelli, and Geminiani, and made the first recording ever done of G.F. Handel's Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 -- today regarded as a staple of the Baroque repertory -- and also the piano concertos of Mozart.
World War II brought an interruption to the group's activities as Neel's skills as a doctor were more necessary for the national emergency. After the war, however, the orchestra was revived under Neel's leadership and undertook a new round of tours and recordings. Neel, by that time, was regarded as far more than a talented music enthusiast and conducted the Sadler's Wells Opera and the D'Oyly Carte Opera.
In 1953, Boyd Neel was appointed the dean of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, the most important music college in Canada. He held the position for 18 years and became a major contributor to the musical life of Canada. The Boyd Neel Orchestra was renamed Philomusica of London (= POL) after Neel's departure (1948?). It continued performing as well as recording for English Decca, specializing in the works of J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel, and other Baroque-era composers into the early stereo period. Philomusica of London served as an early vehicle for the work of such noted figures in the early music movement as harpsichordist/scholar Thurston Dart and provided the model for the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (with which Thurston Dart later worked) and the entire next generation of chamber orchestra ensembles.
POL is a long established Chamber Orchestra performing a wide range of music from the Baroque to the 20th Century. For the past 9 years, POL has presented a special series of concerts with the well-known TV and Radio personality Richard Baker, that has attracted excellent houses all over the UK. Principal Conductor today (1996) is David Littaur. In 1998 POL celebrated its 50th Anniversary.