1951 Festival of Britain: a dip into the concert programme collection

May 2011, the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, cannot be allowed to pass without a quick look in the concert programmes collections here at the University Library.

Skylon (public domain)

Gerald Barry, Festival Director, described it as “a tonic to the nation” and King George VI in his opening address on the steps of St. Paul’s on 3 May 1951 said: “In this Festival, we look back with pride and forward with resolution“. Indeed. The Festival’s iconic logo was designed by Abram Games who had been an official war poster designer. More detail can be found in the Illustrated London News special edition no. 5847 of May 12 1951 celebrating the opening of the Festival.

Although the Festival site on the South Bank was quickly cleared of its famous Skylon and Dome of Discovery, the enduring legacy of the Festival still remains: The Royal Festival Hall, now one of the world’s leading concert venues. There is a copy of the Festival Hall souvenir programme – an elegant piece of design and typography – for the opening week in the programme collections.

Royal Festival Hall souvenir programme

The Ceremonial Opening of the Hall on 3 May was attended by the King and Queen and included the unveiling of a commemorative tablet by the King, a dedication by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a concert of British music (Parry, Arne, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Purcell and the honorary Englishman Handel). This was followed by a week of concerts given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Mozart Players and the London Symphony Orchestra. The first of these included a performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. As the review of the concert in the Times of 5 May says: “Once the new concert hall had been baptized with the music of its own land, there could be no further inauguration more immediately proper than to perform Beethoven’s choral symphony in it.”

In the Hans Keller archive, there is a copy of the programme of eight concerts of Purcell’s music organised by the Purcell Society and the Arts Council under the direction of Anthony Lewis at the Victoria and Albert Museum. A series of scholarly essays on aspects of Purcell’s music precedes the programme details.  Each concert featured a large-scale work as the second half and presented a selection of smaller pieces in the first. “A national Festival without some celebration of Purcell would be a monument of national ineptitude” – so says the Times (May 9 1951) in its review of the first of these concerts. A borrowable copy of this programme book is also available.

Henry Purcell

As a complete contrast, Hans Keller was also at a concert, again in the V&A, on 31 May given by the Jacques Orchestra at which Aaron Copland conducted his clarinet concerto (written in response to a commission from Benny Goodman) and John Pritchard conducted Bach Brandenburg Concerto no. 2, the Bartok Divertimento for strings and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro

In Cambridge, the Festival was celebrated as part of the 1951 Cambridge Festival in July and August of that year and a description of the pageant that took place at St. John’s College will be the subject of a blog post later this year.


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2 Responses to 1951 Festival of Britain: a dip into the concert programme collection

  1. Pingback: Rain (almost) stopped play: Cambridge and the 1951 Festival of Britain | MusiCB3 Blog

  2. Nigel Lewis says:

    I have been trying to substantiate whether the tenor Richard Lewis sang at the inaugural concert at the Royal Festival Hall and I see you have the programme. Did he sing at it? Thanks.


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