Winchester and County Music Festival past, present and future
Reflections on the first 100 years
The Winchester and County Music Festival established by a committee which met at Winchester’s Guildhall on 20 September 1921. The committee included Noel Hanbury (chairman) of St Cross Grange, Mr Arthur Hoare of Ovington Park, Rev George Sampson (former vicar of Petersfield), Dr Prendergast (Cathedral organist), Dr Sweeting (College music staff), Sir Hugh Allen (Director of the RCM), conductor Adrian Boult and professional singer Steuart Wilson. There were to be two adult Divisions – for town and for village choirs, all meeting at the Guildhall. It was to be modelled on the Petersfield and Leith Hill Festivals of 1901 and 1906.
Winchester and County Music Festival (founded 1921) to foster the love of music in town, village and school by affording small choirs the means of raising their standards of singing and musical appreciation through competition or other forms of adjudication and combined public performance.
[WCMF Constitution as revised in 1969]
The first Festival took place on 31 May and 1 June 1922. Compton and Shawford choir sang that year and in every subsequent Festival! The first divisional winners were Brockenhurst and Basingstoke. Within the decade four Divisions were created (distinguished by the size and make-up of individual choirs) and school days added. St John’s Rooms were further requisitioned and Dr Adrian Boult, who conducted final concerts in the first three Festivals, was soon joined in 1925 by Dr Malcolm Sargent. Ralph Vaughan Williams was an early adjudicator and nominal member of both the General and Selection Committees.
The Festival has taken a strong and unprecedented hold in the county and is striking its roots deep down into the musical soil of Hampshire.
[Hampshire Chronicle, 21 March 1925]
After competitive mixed and single voice classes during the day choral singers combined in pre-rehearsed items for evening concerts with professional soloists and orchestras. Shorter classical choruses were chosen for the early concert programmes, such as an act from Gluck’s opera Orpheus or Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet.
Instrumental works featured leading national soloists of the day, like pianist Myra Hess, oboist Leon Goossens and cellist Beatrice Harrison. Amateur orchestral string players had professional section leaders in these events to which whole professional wind ensembles were gradually added. When Dr George Dyson came to Winchester College in 1924 he formed a complete local orchestra to support the Music Club, which he founded, and also WCMF concerts which he regularly conducted.
In the early years, Dr Boult wasn’t too impressed when certain singers ‘of county rank’ ordered teas to be brought to them mid-rehearsal. He once had to ask for the clicking of knitting needles to cease! But even by 1925 around 1200 adults and 500 children were participating in the Festival. In 1927, for Boult’s last appearance with WCMF, there was a record number of 45 separate adult choir entries together with nearly 30 school and Women’s Institute choirs.
A woman’s work is never done…….but my wife was always proud to find an evening regularly for the singing at the Women’s Institute of which she was a member.
[Geoffrey Shaw, early Festival adjudicator]
A fascinating view of past cultural behaviour is revealed by Festival records for 1929. On 11 March Dr. Malcolm Sargent conducted a Bach cantata, on the 12th he directed Act 1 of Wagner’s Lohengrin, on the 13th Oxford professor Sir Hugh Allen was in charge of Handel’s Samson, and on the 14th Dr. George Dyson included Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony in a Guildhall programme. The Festival welcomed many famous guest conductors in its early years, including Boult, Sargent and Vaughan Williams. Sir Henry Wood conducted three times starting in 1930. A year later George Dyson from Winchester College directed his own Canterbury Pilgrims written specially for the Festival. He left Winchester to take charge of the RCM in 1937.
The last pre-war Festival (1939), with 21 adult and 29 children’s choirs, included rather poignantly Bach’s cantata God’s time is the best time and Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem.
The competitive element was suspended during the war years and concerts moved from March to later post-‘blackout’ summer dates. Mozart’s Requiem (in Latin for the first time) was prepared for the 1940 concert. Then Dean Selwyn invited the choirs to move to the Cathedral in 1942 for a performance of Elijah with 245 voices. Nearly 1000 children still took part in the 1945 Festival. All the war-time Festival activities benefited from the musical leadership of the College’s Dr Sydney Watson and the Cathedral’s Dr. Harold Rhodes.
By February 1940 it was clear that this country was not to be attacked by sea or air, for some time at any rate, and it was wisely decided to carry on with the Festival in a modified form. The war-time Festivals did much to brighten life
for those able to take part…….
[Alan Rannie: A History of the WCMF 1970]
Despite a post-war decline in the number of men’s voices – and the loss of some conductors – 300 voices sang Judas Maccabaeus in the Cathedral in May 1946. Competitions resumed in 1947 and sight-reading tests re-emerged from 1950! The College’s Henry Havergal was ‘Festival Conductor’ during these years before he became Director of the Scottish Academy of Music & Drama in 1953. Guest conductors and adjudicators then included Herbert Howells, Herbert Sumsion, Reginald Jacques, David Willcocks and Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. From 1949 the Cathedral organist Alwyn Surplice accepted the function of ‘Musical Director’, part planner, adjudicator, accompanist and occasional conductor.
Musical Director for 17 years was Christopher Cowan who succeeded Dr Havergal at the College in 1953. Performances took place in the Cathedral every third year with the Guildhall used at other times. School classes ceased after 1966 when their musical activities were expanded by the County Council. Subsequently youth choirs and some school choirs have been invited to sing in special programmes. In 1970 eight such choirs sang Creation under Arthur Reckless.
The congregation is asked to remain seated while a Collection is made for
the Festival Funds, which have to meet heavy expenses and are dependent
on voluntary contributions.
[Programme note for 20 March 1957]
The above notice – so true today – refers to the Interval during Bach’s Christmas Oratorio conducted by Sir George Dyson with a long-time participant in Festival concerts and future WCMF President, Julian Smith, as bass soloist.
The 50th anniversary of WCMF was marked on Thursday 18 March 1971. Competitions stopped for that year and instead workmen erected scaffolding in the Cathedral for a mass performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion given by 350 voices. The guest conductor was Mr (later Sir) David Willcocks, director of the Bach Choir. The choirs taking part were: Boxford, Botley, Kingsclere, Overton, Kings Worthy, Easton and Martyr Worthy, Compton and Shawford, Sarisbury and Hamble and Winchester City. Robert Tear was the Evangelist and Christopher Keyte was Christus. The guest solo quartet was: Sheila Armstrong, Helen Watts, Ian Partridge and John Carol Case, alongside Cathedral lay-clerk Donald Sweeney and (former) WCMF secretary Kathleen Hearley in the minor roles. Francis Wells led the orchestra, which included Leon Goossens, oboe, and Alwyn Surplice, organ. Dr Surplice took the combined rehearsals of the Passion.
As late as 1975 performances took place over two consecutive days in the Cathedral but from 1977 concerts were shared between the Cathedral and Romsey Abbey. Francis Wells began conducting the choral events at that time and subsequently succeeded Raymond Humphrey, who had become the Festival’s Musical Director in 1972.
Thank you……for the memorable concert you gave us. I think we all felt that we got tremendous value for our money!
[Andrew Neill, former chairman of the national Elgar Society which gave WCMF
a £1000 grant for the composer’s 150th anniversary concert given in 2007.]
The competitions ceased finally in the 1980s and over its last quarter century the Festival’s annual pattern has been to divide constituent choirs between the Abbey and Cathedral venues. They still perform with professional soloists and are accompanied by the Festival Orchestra comprising mainly professional instrumentalists and very experienced amateurs, mostly from mid-Hampshire. The concert conductors each take three combined rehearsals with piano during the two months leading up to the May events. These are now preceded by a so-called Taster Day in which one choir director introduces the season’s repertoire either in a live session or via on-line platforms. The Autumn term has featured vocal workshops with guest specialists or ‘Come and Sing’ charity events (including support for the Voices for Hospices initiative).
If the number of participating choirs has reduced from the early days the present cohort includes much larger bodies – pre-Covid(!) – and all have shown a remarkable loyalty to the Festival and its tenets. Of the seven choirs Compton and Shawford sang in the 1922 concerts, Winchester City and Easton and Martyr Worthy (now the Itchen Valley Choir) joined in 1923 and Botley and Overton became involved from 1925. Sarisbury sang in the 50th anniversary and Twyford Singers (formed in 1974 by Alwyn Surplice) joined soon afterwards. It is a credit to their enthusiasm and energy and to the patience and expertise of their individual conductors that such a wide repertoire has been so successfully undertaken by largely un-auditioned voices.
After an impressively celebratory Messiah given in 2022 by all seven choirs to mark the WCMF Centenary, the Festival now looks to the future. Re-named the Hampshire Choral Festival (HCF), we hope that the spirit of the 1925 members highlighted in the Hampshire Chronicle reported above will carry on for the next 100 years.
Derek Beck, WCMF chairman and former Musical Director