The very first branch of the Women’s Institute in the United Kingdom was formed 104 years ago this week in a small village with a very long name, Llanfair PG, on Anglesey. Originally formed in Canada in 1897, the WI arrived in the UK in the middle of the First World War, where it came under the auspices of the Board of Agriculture, as the movement was seen essentially as a way of getting women in rural areas to engage in providing more food for the wartime table. Post-war it swiftly moved away from its roots in the Board, federations began to be set up, and in 1919, it essentially became the movement that we know today.
A few years ago, a local branch of the WI came to the University Library to have a look at some of our collections, and I was involved in finding music items of interest to show our visitors. As well as our usual musical suspects (guaranteed to delight just about anybody!), I had a look for Women’s Institute related items, and was surprised to find the important part that music had played, particularly in the early days of the movement.
From an early stage music was an important part of meetings, with the emphasis on communal music making. There was much discussion in the WI’s regular bulletin, as to which songs were acceptable at meetings – could they use the Community Song Book? The answer was probably no, as most of the songs were deemed to be second-rate. Some members were musically rather more ambitious, and appealed for instruments to play Haydn’s (now generally considered to be Leopold Mozart’s) Toy Symphony.
Which song book to use continued to pose a problem, not least because many popular community song books of the day contained at least a small proportion of hymns, and the Women’s Institute was determinedly non-sectarian from its inception.
In 1923, a sub-committee dedicated to music (and later dance and drama) was formed, and it was probably not unrelated to this, that shortly afterwards the first Women’s Institute Song Book was published. Perhaps not surprisingly, as it was only distributed in-house, there are few copies of this to be found in the United Kingdom. We don’t even have a copy here at Cambridge University Library (an example of how items can be missed on Legal Deposit). In the late 1950s, the Women’s Institute published, in collaboration with Oxford University Press, Singing for Pleasure, edited for female voices, by Imogen Holst (Item no. 7 in volume M280.b.95.21). Unlike the earlier volumes, these were aimed at a general market including schools. It stays firmly within the remit set in the ’20s – folk songs from Britain and the Appalachian Mountains, songs from The Beggar’s opera and Purcell, rounds for up to 8 voices, and for a range of ability levels, and 2-4 part works from Gluck, Bach, Lully, and more.
The sub-committee also began to run summer schools dedicated to music making. Appropriately, considering its UK roots in a small village in North Wales, the first Summer School was led by Welsh composer, Walford Davies, then a Professor of Music at Aberystwyth, and a popular composer of the period.
It was hoped that the ladies of the WI with support from the wider organization would be able to take over much of the music education and leadership within their home towns, though I suspect that in practice, the success of this plan was probably more down to the personality and musical ability of individuals.
Still it was an astonishingly brave move, at a time when women were still virtually non-existent within professional orchestras, and even fewer composed professionally, let alone thought about conducting. By the early ’30s the Women’s Institute was involved with the School for Conductors that took place in London annually. Although this was not confined to women, many members of the Institute took part in the course, learning from such eminent names as Adrian Boult, Geoffrey Shaw, and Armstrong Gibbs.
In view of changing tastes, it may seem a little odd that Imogen Holst’s volume was weighted so heavily towards folk music. There had already been complaints from some members, robustly expressed through the WI’s monthly magazine, Home and Country :
The complete fatuity of the Social Half Hour [the period in a WI meeting in which music was usually featured] has to be experienced to be believed. In these days  it is pathetic that busy women should be expected to waste their time singing infantile nursery rhymes, tinkling triangles, and shaking bell sticks.
In the light of this attitude, it seems even more extraordinary that in 1950, the WI’s first commission of a musical work, was by Ralph Vaughan Williams, his cantata Folk Songs of the Four Seasons (item no. 2 in volume M260.b.95.7) premiered at the Women’s Institute First National Singing Festival, which took place at the Royal Albert Hall, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.
Their next commission was to be rather more daring, the Second National Music Festival was in 1969, and this time Malcolm Williamson was commissioned to write an operatic sequence, The Brilliant and the Dark. With a libretto by Ursula Vaughan Williams, the work followed the lives of women through history, though female historical figures were notably lacking, featuring only Edith Swan-Neck, lover of Harold II, and Florence Nightingale. It seemed a curiously conservative view of women’s lives, from an organization which 45 years earlier had been introducing women to the masculine world of conducting.
It is also odd that there seems to have been no great attempt at a national level to commission a work from a female composer. Benjamin Britten was the first choice, but turned down the commission. Following this, Elizabeths Lutyens and Poston were both suggested, as were Phyllis Tate, and Imogen Holst; but, for largely unknown reasons (cost, allegedly in Poston’s case), none were pursued further.
The Brilliant and the Dark had a brief moment of fame, but has had an unusual afterlife. Radically revived and revised in 2010 by 24-girl choir, Gaggle, the work was brought up to date, with all the impact that was missing from the original. It can be viewed here (please be aware that there may be some flashing images in the video).
Today, the Women’s Institute continues to encourage music making. Many Institutes have choirs, who have a number of concerts a year often raising money for local causes. There are also national events. While Denman College, the WI’s residential school, established in 1948, continues to run courses on everything from medieval music to ukulele workshops. It’s not just Jerusalem!
For an in depth account of the Women’s Institute’s musical connections see Beyond Jerusalem: Music in the Women’s Institute, 1919-1969 / Lorna Gibson (M495.c.200.19)