Rain (almost) stopped play: Cambridge and the 1951 Festival of Britain

In a previous post, I wrote a little about the Festival of Britain and the Festival Hall. This follow-on post looks at the musical celebrations for the Festival in Cambridge which took place in late July and early August of 1951.

The Festival programme

Celebrations were sponsored by the Arts Theatre Trust and the Programme of Festivities reveals a rich variety of recitals, concerts, opera, drama and – of course – the ubiquitous Singing on the River which opened the Festival. Peter Tranchell, writing in the Cambridge Review (Vol. LXXIII No.1769) reports that: “The [University Madrigal] Society sang as never before, the weather held fine and visitors were presented with one of the ten lovliest experiences that Cambridge can provide.”

Sadly, the weather soon took a turn for the worse and many of the planned outdoor events were beset by rain and had to be re-convened hastily under cover. One such was the concert by the bands 0f the Royal Horse Guards and the Scots Guards, scheduled to take place on King’s Great Lawn but transferred to the Guildhall.  Where, according to Tranchell’s review: “So great was the impact, that after the first number, Bliss’s Fanfare for a Dignified Occasion, the whole house remained spellbound in silence.”

Opening of The Mayor of Casterbridge © Cambridge University Library

Tranchell’s own opera The Mayor of Casterbridge, one of the submissions to the Arts Council opera competition for the Festival of Britain was given its first performance on 30 July at the Arts Theatre. Raymond Leppard, who reviewed the work remarked on its “tremendous emotional drive and unfailing dramatic timing”.  The manuscript of the opera forms part of the Tranchell Archive now held at the University Library.

Undoubtedly the most colourful of the events was the Historical Pageant of British Music which was staged by CUMS on the lawns at the front of St. John’s College New Court.  Once again, the rain intervened and the two afternoon performances were transferred indoors.  Happily, the evening performance by torchlight, which must have been very atmospheric, went ahead as planned complete with horses and processions. The Pageant depicted historical scenes from 1200 to 1682 with music to match from the 13th-century Sumer is icumen in to Purcell.

Purcell: The Summer's Absence Unconcerned we Bear. (Z.337)

There were two scenes of direct relevance to Cambridge: the first depicting the visit of Queen Elizabeth I to St John’s College in 1564 (with one F. Hoyle cast as the Mayor) and being entertained with music by the foremost composers of the time, and the second Charles II’s journey back to London from one of his regular visits to Newmarket as he passed through Cambridge in 1682. Music by Purcell provides the musical backdrop including A Welcome Song for His Majesty on his return from Newmarket.  The review of the Pageant in The Times of 7th August 1951 comments that: “…a sense of the continuity and vividness of history was transmitted…the music, directed by Mr. Boris Ord and Mr. John Stevens, came easily to life…”.

Despite the plethora of world-renowned musicians, much of the Festival was provided by home-grown talent, demonstrating – as indeed it continues to do today – just what musical richness is on offer here.

Finally, this year’s Summer Music Festival begins on July 15 and runs for three weeks.


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