Glasto, but not as you know it
Friday 14th October 2016
The first series of Glastonbury festivals came to a hasty end 90 years ago. PETER FROST remembers those utopian socialist musical events and believes it is time for their revival
Long before the current series of Glastonbury Festivals were established in 1970 a British communist opera composer, Rutland Boughton, ran a successful series of utopian socialist music events in the Somerset town.
These popular and well supported opera and cultural festivals came to an unfortunate end exactly 90 years ago. Today they are almost totally forgotten.
The festivals that ran each summer between 1914 and 1926 were part of Boughton’s much grander cultural plans that included the founding of a national theatre, summer schools and music festivals.
Glastonbury was eventually chosen as the location because of its strong connections with the legend of King Arthur and its many historic and even prehistoric sites and mythology.
Among those who supported the festival were Edward Elgar and George Bernard Shaw. Financial support came from the famous shoe making Clark family based in the nearby town of Street.
By the time the festivals ended in 1926, 350 fully staged works had been performed to packed houses, as well as comprehensive programmes of chamber music, lectures and recitals.
The festivals ended ignominiously when Boughton’s backers withdrew funds. They did not approve of the composer’s special reworking of his enormously popular nativity opera Bethlehem. His 1926 London production brought the original opera into sympathy with the struggle of the miners and the General Strike.
This version had Jesus being born in a miner’s cottage, Herod became a bloated capitalist complete with top hat, his Egyptian soldiers became truncheon-wielding British policemen.
The production caused a huge row and in many ways finished Boughton’s previously enormously successful popular career.
Today, Boughton — who died in 1960 — is far too little known and his works rarely performed but in the early 20th century he was enormously popular as a composer of opera and choral music.
He composed three symphonies, several concertos, songs, chamber music and operas. His best known work was the opera The Immortal Hour.
The 1915 composition Bethlehem was based on the Coventry Nativity Play and notable for its choral arrangements of traditional Christmas carols. It became very popular with choral societies worldwide.
To give you some idea of Boughton’s popularity, his 1922 Glastonbury Festival Players’ production of The Immortal Hour achieved the record breaking run of over 600 performances in London — it played to huge audiences.
In addition to The Immortal Hour and Bethlehem, his other operas The Queen of Cornwall (1924) based on Thomas Hardy’s play and Alkestis (1922) based on the Greek play by Euripides were also very well received.
Sadly, none of his latter works have had major public performances for half a century and certainly it is time we looked at bringing his and other communist, socialist and progressive British composers of opera, choral and classical music to a new, larger audience.
Here is my suggestion for a few other composers who should also be reintroduced to an audience that really doesn’t know what and who has been hidden from it.
Alan Bush was a British communist composer and pianist and his politics often provided central themes in his music. He composed four full-length operas, three children’s operas and many other works.
From 1925 to 1978 he taught at the Royal Academy of Music. His work in Berlin put him in contact with well-known socialist artists like Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler.
Bush was a Marxist and his music, including his operas Wat Tyler and Men of Blackmoor, reflected this. He composed the music for and conducted the choir at the massive 1934 TUC organised London Pageant of Labour at London’s Crystal Palace. A fellow conductor at the pageant was a young Michael Tippett.
In 1941 when he signed the communist People’s Convention all Bush’s work was banned by the BBC. When he heard of the ban fellow socialist composer Ralph Vaughan Williams refused to let the BBC broadcast one of his new works in protest.
Today many of Bush’s works deserve wider performance including his four Symphonies and his Variations on an English Sea-song.
In 1936 he co-founded of the Workers’ Music Association and became its president from 1938 until his death in 1995.
One of Bush’s music students was Dolly Collins, sister of folk singer Shirley. The sisters came from a communist family in Hastings. Dolly was an arranger and composer producing and performing work for early unusual instruments such as the portative organ.
Collins’s 1968 Anthems of Eden Suite was commissioned by the BBC and written for a six-piece early music concert. By the late 1970s she had stopped touring and giving live concerts but continued to compose.
Just before her death in 1995 she completed a cycle of WWI poems and a new mass written with the poet Maureen Duffy.
Today much of her work lies hidden in the BBC archives.
Ethel Smyth was another important composer whose radical, Suffragette actions have been used to cast an enormous shadow to hide her wonderful and important music.
She wrote six operas and an array of chamber, orchestral and vocal works. She still remains the only women composer to have had an opera performed at the New York Met.
She threw stones through the window of the Colonial Secretary and stormed 10 Downing Street itself to hammer out her Suffragette anthem The March of Women on prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith’s piano while the Cabinet was still in session.
These militant activities saw her with two hundred of her sister Suffragettes sentenced to two months in Holloway Prison.
Her most famous opera, The Wreckers, has been compared with Britten’s Peter Grimes but, like most of her other work, it is rarely performed. The last recording was made over 20 years ago.
There are many more candidates for such a revival of socialist and progressive music. Williams has already been mentioned, Gustav Holst was a lifelong socialist, Benjamin Britten, Tippett and many others embraced communist or socialist ideas at various times of their musical careers.
Is it not time that one of our major concert venues or national festivals, Aldeburgh perhaps, or even the Proms unlocked this treasure chest of banned and censored left-wing and socialist- inspired music and opera and gave it back to the people for whom it was first written.