The LSO in World War I: The Sad Tale of Adolph Borsdorf

So far on this historical journey, there have been stories of men from within the ranks of the London Symphony Orchestra who went to fight, some of whom were never to return.

One story that we have uncovered however, is tragic, but in a completely different way. Jo, Libby and I were delighted to meet recently with two of the the grandchildren of horn player and founder member of the LSO, Adolph Borsdorf. Between us we were able to fill in gaps in each others' knowledge to complete a very sad chapter in the history of the Orchestra.

Adolf Borsdorf

Adolph Borsdorf was born the son of a farmer in Saxony on 23 December 1854. He studied at the Dresden Conservatoire and then joined a regimental band, a common career path. It was while playing with them that he first came to England in 1879 and won a contract to play in the stage band at Covent Garden. With this came regular engagements around the country as a horn player and also as a viola player in the Gaiety Theatre in London! During his time at the opera, he was noticed by the conductor Hans Richter who always requested him for his concerts and for a while, he dominated the concert halls of Britain with his playing. He became professor at both the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music and revolutionised the style of horn playing in Britain, becoming one of the most influential teachers of the period. He gave the British premiere of the famous horn part of Till Eulenspiegel, conducted by the composer Richard Strauss, and features in a vast number of concert programmes from the turn of the century.

Borsdorf was one of the founder members of the LSO and for years was on the Board of Directors from the very start in 1904. His friendship with Richter was instrumental in the conductor coming to the Orchestra and the debt that the LSO owes him for his drive and skill in keeping the fledgling band on the right path both on and off stage is immeasurable. Alongside the Managing Director and horn player Thomas Busby, A.E. Brain and Henri Van Der Meerschen, the horn section were known as, “God’s Own”, such was their legendary skill and musicianship. Early recordings from 1913 conducted by Arthur Nikisch find them in fine form. He was on the historic trip to the USA and Canada in 1912 and had long since become a British national after marrying Sybel Hambleton in Marylebone in 1887.

It was fairly well known that Borsdorf contracted a gum disease, Pyorrhea, sometime in 1911. This gradually impacted on is playing and we had all assumed that this had led to him leaving the LSO during the war. However, the Board minutes and family history tell a darker story.

Cartoon of Adolf Borsdorf: The Master BlowerIt started in 1914 when the Board had begun to book younger horn players to replace Borsdorf without his consent. He quite naturally complained and the matter was closed by agreeing to him sitting on 2nd or 3rd horn, but being paid as a principal. The Board agreed however, that this didn’t set a precedent. After the war began, things changed significantly. There was anti German sentiment in the press and whilst people thought that the war would be over quickly, the LSO had suspended all German nationals from playing until the end of hostilities. Borsdorf’s family, during a great period of difficulty, lost their income and to make matters worse, even at home, a brick was thrown through their front window simply because of their German surname.

By June 1915, Borsdorf wrote a letter to the board asking to be reinstated as ‘anti german sentiment to all naturalised Germans’ had begun to subside. Unfortunately, his letter coincided with the first Zeppelin raid on London and so any chance of being asked to rejoin was lost. He was told that his suspension would last until the end of the season. Two weeks later, the board decided in his absence to demote him to the post of first extra horn with a cut in pay. It made no difference in reality as he was still suspended.

Around this time the LSO was coming under fire for playing too much German music. The Pall Mall Gazette was very critical that they were playing Brahms and so repertoire was replaced with appropriate English music. It made little difference to the tiny audiences coming to see them at that time, but it did affect the way the Board felt able to do business. In October, the Board discussed Borsdorf’s membership and decided that it was time for him to go. On 28 October, they decided unanimously to ask for his resignation. There was no reply for a week from the Borsdorf household and so a letter was sent by recorded delivery until on 20 November just to make sure it was delivered. Adolph Borsdorf resigned from the LSO and never played again.

Board meeting minutes recording Adolf Borsdorf's dismissal

The Borsdorfs had 14 children, eight of whom survived childhood. Oskar and Francis were also horn players, having been taught by their father. Whilst their father was being hounded for being German, his sons were serving Britain in the armed forces. Partly because of what happened to Adolph and partly to prevent awkward questions if they were captured by the enemy, they changed their surname from Borsdorf to Bradley. After the war Oskar went to America and had a glittering career as a composer and conductor with CBS and Francis stayed in London playing with the LSO, and joining the LPO, BBC and ending up at ENO where he retired in 1976, aged 77.

Adolph Borsdorf and his role in the LSO should never be forgotten. One of the greatest and most influential horn players of his time - his career and livelihood were another casualty of war without him ever having joined the armed forces.