Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The original Glastonbury Festivals 1914-1926

The First Glastonbury Festival - 30/31 August 2014

To commemorate 100 years since the establishment of the original festivals at Glastonbury by Rutland Boughton, I am organising a weekend mini-festival with presentations and music on three English composers who were associated with their beginnings in 1914. There will also be a song and chamber music recital featuring the works of English composers.

During the weekend there will be both commercial and non-commercial CDs available for sale PLUS the opportunity to buy a copy of the 2nd edition of Michael Hurd's biography on Rutland Boughton (published by the Boughton Trust).

Attendees can expect a full detailed glossy programme when purchasing tickets now available (see below)

In addition, during August, Finborough Theatre of London is putting on no less than 9 performances of Boughton's successful, The Immortal Hour, which to date has been hailed as a great success by the Media.

- Ian Rutland Boughton, Manager of The Rutland Boughton Music Trust

I am grateful to James Russell for providing the following article in 2007. 

            Long before the pyramid stage appeared among the grazing cattle of Worthy Farm, a rather different Glastonbury Festival enjoyed a decade of international fame. Launched at the town’s Assembly Rooms on 5th August 1914 – a day after England declared war on Germany – the first Festival brought to the sleepy market town not only an eclectic programme of song recitals, dances and plays, but also a crowd of Bohemian characters, whose presence delighted and scandalised polite society.
If Michael Eavis gave us the modern "Glasto", the original version owes its existence to composer Rutland Boughton, a man cast in the mould of the great Victorian radicals. Boughton was a remarkable individual, composer of an opera that still holds the record for the longest continuous run in London and a socialist so committed he was happy to endure obscurity and poverty rather than compromise his principles.
Boughton was that rare thing, a pragmatic visionary. A close friend of George Bernard Shaw and musical luminaries like Edward Elgar, he believed that the emotional power of music could free people from the shackles of conformity and encourage political liberation. In the last decades of the nineteenth century a folk and Celtic revival swept Britain, and Boughton was drawn both to this movement and to the emotionally charged drama of Wagner. He was also a champion of English composers, particularly Purcell, whose opera Dido and Aeneas received its first 20th century airing at Glastonbury.
In our hedonistic times it is curious to reflect on Boughton’s seriousness. The festival was designed to entertain, certainly, but it was also meant to enlighten: the young ladies at the summer music school running alongside the festival were taught avant garde dance designed to awaken their political consciousness. Not all parents saw this as a good thing, and Boughton found his musical revolution opposed by “That section of the community which regards all positive happiness as tending to evil, and all beauty as an endowment of the devil.
“For it did undoubtedly happen,” he wrote at the time, “That the young things who studied with us acquired a liveliness and a physical carriage that marked them out from their fellows ... Therefore it has been rather trying to be met with refusals from parents who seek to save the eternal souls of their young from the satanic influences of the arts in general, and of the Glastonbury Festival in particular.”
No doubt there are still parents who react like this to the news that their darlings are heading off to Pilton, but in those days small town society was conformist in the extreme. So why choose Glastonbury for a festival of music and drama that aimed to be the English Beyreuth? The answer lies with Avalon’s most famous son, King Arthur, around whose life story Boughton constructed a Wagnerian cycle of operas (few of them, it must be said, ever performed). The town’s mythic associations lured the composer and his retinue, who equated the contemporary Celtic revival with populism. Indeed, Boughton’s version of Arthur’s story is unique in that it ends not with the king’s mysterious vanishing but with a peasant’s revolt.
So even as the German generals were boarding the train to France, Boughton was bringing music and drama to Somerset. And these were not any old performances. Though deprived of a full orchestra by the exigencies of wartime, the artistic team made up for it with a visual and choral spectacle. In particular they employed the extraordinary innovation of building the set for each scene out of people: the chorus performed choreographed movements emulating the sea or a castle, and so gave the drama a living backdrop instead of a set.
Critics and audiences alike responded warmly to these dramas, and the first night of Boughton’s opera, The Immortal Hour, was a great success. Based on the folk tales of Fiona McLeod, the opera has a mood and tone not unlike Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with faerie magic aplenty. The fact that the mysterious McLeod had been exposed as a male writer masquerading as a woman added a certain frisson to proceedings, but nobody expected the opera to enjoy the success it found when it reached London in 1922. Though staged in the relative obscurity of Kings Cross, The Immortal Hour was so popular that it ran for an unprecedented 216 nights, a record (for serious opera) that has yet to be equalled. One fan was reputed to have seen it 150 times, and the tabloid press reported regularly on the attendance of royalty and other celebrities of the day.
Although the Glastonbury Festival had been interrupted when its guiding light was called up for military service it was back in business by this stage, attracting music lovers from many nations, and it looked set to become an institution.
Edward Elgar wrote at the time, "We believe that Glastonbury has in it the possible development of a movement of the greatest importance, both for British music and the regeneration of the life of the countryside.”
Only four years later, however, the Assembly Rooms were filled for the last time with the sights and sounds of this peculiarly English avant garde extravaganza, and Boughton himself had already severed his connections with the Festival – or had them severed for him. The main problem, in the year of the General Strike, was his determination to side with the workers and refusal to make the compromises necessary to woo rich patrons.
Can we imagine a modern festival organiser taking a stance like that, and seeing his fame and success evaporate? Though for the last thirty years of his life Boughton lived in comparative poverty and obscurity, he did not see this as a sign of failure. Times have certainly changed. The town of Glastonbury, however, still retains the Bohemian quality introduced by the Festival Players. It won’t be long, surely, before this original Glastonbury Festival is revived, perhaps with a performance of The Immortal Hour staged in the Assembly Rooms, lit only by skylights and with a chorus of dancers giving a human interpretation of the moving sea.

© James Russell

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