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Mad about England’s music

"An English music festival?! Impossible, dear girl! No-one can put on just English music on such a scale and make it work – impossible! Mind you, if anyone is mad enough to try – or tenacious enough to succeed – it’s you!" So replied the conductor Hilary Davan Wetton to a letter of mine six years ago, in which I told him I had set my heart on trying to restore English music to its rightful place in the classical repertoire.

In the early years of the twentieth century this country experienced a remarkable phenomenon – an explosion of composers who poured forth original works that were brilliantly crafted, powerful, evocative, forward-looking and often strikingly beautiful. Many of them became extremely popular and could be heard regularly abroad as well as in London’s main concert halls (Stanford’s third symphony was chosen to open the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and his fourth was premiered in Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall; Sullivan’s Golden Legend was the second most popular work in England after Handel’s Messiah!). Yet in the 1950s and ’60s, when atonal music became the vogue, and we began to be ashamed of our national culture and heritage – perhaps for fear of being seen as imperialistic if we promoted it – English music faded into obscurity and neglect. Concert promoters abandoned it as unfashionable and turned increasingly to a small clique of popular composers who they felt would bring in the crowds or attract funding. Although the tide is now turning, and record companies and radio stations are rediscovering the appeal of these gorgeous works, English music has still not yet broken into the mainstream concert repertoire. I was determined to rectify this; to bring these unjustly overlooked pieces to live audiences.

My insanity and tenacity appear to have paid off, as in October this year, the charming Oxfordshire village of Dorchester-on-Thames hosted the first English Music Festival. It was an artistic triumph – members of the audience were left euphoric, reeling from the power of the music and the beauty of the interpretations. The Festival opened at Dorchester’s mediaeval abbey with the first ever professional concert performance of Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture, performed by David Lloyd-Jones and the BBC Concert Orchestra. The concert also featured Julian Lloyd Webber (above) playing (more passionately than I have ever heard him before) Bridge’s deeply moving Oration, and Holst’s Invocation. Sullivan’s Irish Symphony concluded proceedings, and the concert was broadcast the following evening on BBC Radio 3. Other highlights included a stunning performance of York Bowen’s virtuosic Viola Concerto, with Paul Silverthorne (Ronald Corp conducted the New London Orchestra), and James Gilchrist as the soloist in Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality on the last night (followed by an impromptu speech by Festival President Boris Johnson). Perhaps the greatest moment for me, though, was Jeremy Irons narrating Vaughan Williams’ Oxford Elegy, with Hilary Davan Wetton conducting the Milton Keynes City Orchestra and City of London Choir. Not only was Dorchester Abbey the perfect setting for this work, but in the final lines, that great actor demonstrated his tremendous talents by throwing his heart and soul into a "Roam on!" of such electricity and power that it surely sent a shiver down the back of everyone present. I turned around at the end to see half the audience moved to tears.

Music featured throughout the Festival ranged from early music (with the acclaimed countertenor Michael Chance singing works by Dowland, Campion and Purcell, the Dufay Collective presenting a programme of music from Shakespeare’s London, early English Guittar (sic) music and Tonus Peregrinus performing, amongst other works, an English St Matthew Passion) to the present day with an EMF commission entitled Prayerbook. The world première performance of this work went down a treat with audiences in a double bill with the complete Britten Canticles.

Charles Daniels, Michael Chance and David Owen Norris in Britten's Canticles

Works by rarely-heard composers such as Algernon Ashton, Dale, W H Reed, Armstrong Gibbs and Foulds complemented pieces by the slightly better-known names of Bax, Moeran, Elgar, Lambert, Delius, Rutter and Wesley. Morning, afternoon and late-evening recitals were held at All Saints in Sutton Courtenay – a tiny gem of a church a few miles from Dorchester, and in the Silk Hall at Radley College – which also hosted the joint schools concert, a precursor to the EMF proper, in which children from local schools delighted audiences with wonderfully accomplished performances of a huge range of English music.

With up to four concerts and a talk every day, it was a fairly intensive five days for all who stayed, but I was gratified by one couple who commented that it was "the most wonderful week we have ever had in our lives!" Personally, I was overwhelmed by the outstanding quality of every event - the performers seemed to pull out all the stops and surpassed themselves. There have been some excellent reviews in both national newspapers (the Daily Telegraph and the Independent both gave us excellent write-ups) and the local press (Oxford Times), and the opening night’s broadcast was well received.

The reaction to the Festival has been so enthusiastic and positive – from both audience and artists – that I am already planning the next Festival. Meanwhile, we need help with fundraising to ensure that future festivals are as successful in financial terms as this year was artistically. We have a current introductory offer of a minimum donation of £25 to join our flourishing and much-valued Friends Scheme and would exhort anyone interested to sign up and help us in our crucial work to bring this amazing music back to national recognition. This year has proved, at least, that there are some stunning unknown works out there, that audiences love the pieces and will travel a long way to hear them, and that an English Music Festival can work fantastically well!


Em Marshall

Managing and Artistic Director,

The English Music Festival






Boris Johnson closing the Festival







see also review English Music Festival: Elgar Piano Music, David Owen Norris (piano), English Music Festival, Silk Hall, Radley College, Oxfordshire, 22.10.2006 (PCW)

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