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CAMBRIDGE FESTIVAL MUSIC, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, Volume LXXIII, 13 October 1951

Quietly, cosily, we in Cambridge, while everyone else went abroad to Edinburgh or Perugia, we had our usual Summer Festival with its usual summer festival fare: some Marlowe or Shakespeare, some Purcell, a visiting symphony orchestra, and some poetry read in the Senate House by our favourite voice.

But this year the activities of the so-called amateurs reached an unwonted peak, and while the incursions into our courts of hired artistes may be welcome as a magic talisman or china egg to give our ventures an air of impending success, this article will rightly focus on amateur achievements, for it was these this year that stole the thunder, and maintained the tradition that has given Cambridge its artistic reputation.

A person wishing to hear, say, Brahms’ First Symphony, which was played at us in the Guildhall, might do so practically anywhere in the world, but in Cambridge, works are performed and entertainments staged that could not even be contemplated save in Cambridge. It would be well if committees for purveying culture in Cambridge remember this. When we have local talent which can reach such high standards of performance with such paucity of preparation, there is no need to import our art. The Festival began on a Saturday with Madrigals under the bridge at King’s. The Society sang as never before, the weather held fine, and visitors were presented with one of the ten loveliest experiences that Cambridge can provide, at its best; a fair opening to the orgy of intellectualism that followed.

Meanwhile the Sadler’s Wells Ballet at the end of a week’s sojourn in the Arts Theatre were doubtless surprised to find that suddenly their last performance was labelled “Festival.” But as they had sold out weeks in advance, this probably made little difference, except that the bourgeoisie of the town spent all their pocket money here, and had nothing left to support the things that were to come.

On Sunday we heard the Monteverdi Vespers in King’s Chapel. Thereafter things went with a swing—in the Arts Theatre, the first performances of Mr Peter Tranchell’s opera, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and in New Court, St John’s, the Historical Pageant of British Music produced by Mrs Camille Prior. It is incredible to think that these two monster productions both opened in the same week, but more is said of them elsewhere.

The Chapels of St John’s and King’s vied with each other in friendly rivalry, each giving programmes of sacred music and organ recitals. Mr. David Willcocks in King’s and Mr. George Guest in St John’s, while Dr Sidney Campbell came over from Ely to join battle on the organ at Trinity. Yet another belligerent, Gonville and Caius College Music Society, furthered the fray conducted by Professor Patrick Hadley in the College Hall.

For those who like their silences between musical items to he filled with the sound of other people reciting, there were afternoons of “poetry and music” in the Senate House, the first of which was honoured by the attendance of H.R.H. the Duke of Gloucester. It was a pity that more of the crowd assembled in the road outside to catch a glimpse of royalty did not seize the opportunity to enter and get a glimpse of eternity as well.

On Sunday, August 5, in Nevile’s Court, Trinity, there was a “serenade concert,” the first of two. Sir Adrian Boult conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra. One is tempted to wonder whether the idea of using Nevile’s Court is to take advantage of the acoustics of the cloister, or to provide a dead open-air concert-hall which is not devoid of shelter in case of rain, or in fact to give the audience (sitting with its back to the library) distractingly beautiful surroundings. If the cloistered echo was desired, the orchestra should play in the cloister and not on the open grass. If the open-air effect was sought, then music suitable to such a setting should be chosen. Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which was one of the items, certainly does not gain anything by the admixture of oxygen.

However, the elements wisely frowned upon the second serenade, and some 45 minutes behind schedule a bewildered mob representing only a portion of the original audience was admitted to a hitherto barred and bolted Guildhall to witness a disgruntled London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dr Josef Krips. Never before can Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony have sounded more pluvial. It seemed we were at a funeral. However, with Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia the orchestra rallied and we were treated to indescribably exquisite playing, and the Brahms First Symphony which followed was so exciting that thunderous applause broke out almost before the last note had died away.

It is a continual mystery to me how the orchestra followed the conductor, for his language of signs was extraordinary. I got the impression that the players took his upbeat as the preceding downbeat, but not consistently. At any rate their attack was perfect, and once steam was raised, they certainly gave of their best.

The Guildhall was the scene of two further occasions. First the Choral and Orchestral Concert of the Philharmonic Society. Mr Frederick Rimmer took the rostrum for two pieces of Handel and Parry, while Dr Herbert Howells guided the chorus and orchestra through his Hymnus Paradisi, a moving work, charged with an atmosphere of subaqueous luminosity, now and then breaking surface in sudden outbursts of savagery, or diving into cool dark depths of other-worldly beauty. It is most creditable that the Society coped not only with this difficult programme, but also performed Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in King’s Chapel some days later. No mean feat, considering the little spare time at everyone’s disposal.

The second concert in the Guildhall was that given by the combined bands of the Royal Horse Guards and the Scots Guards. The sight of some four or five dozen assorted guardsmen playing with incredible precision was a spectacle not to be missed, and the sound was thrilling. The concert had been billed for King’s Great Lawn, but Jupiter Pluvius (nay, Fluvius) again had intervened. In the open the sound would have been merely stirring; indoors, in a confined space (at a distance of a few feet from us of the front row)—it was electrifying. So great indeed was the impact that after the first number, Bliss’s short Fanfare for a Dignified Occasion, the whole house remained spellbound in silence.

The special work of the evening was Dr Gordon Jacob’s Festival Suite. A brilliant piece of writing brilliantly played, but here and there just deficient in interest for those who have already suffered an hour of continual auricular bombardment. When the eleventh movement was done, the composer came and bowed in answer to a well-merited ovation. The Lady Margaret Singers gave a Choral Recital in St John’s Chapel conducted by Mr George Guest. This was perhaps the most remarkable concert of choral singing in the whole festival. The programme included the Missa O Bone Jesu by Robert Fayrfax, Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia, and a Festival Te Deum specially composed by Mr Robin Orr.

The Fayrfax is not only hard work for a listener unsteeped in the music of the fifteenth century, but presents considerable difficulties to the singers; each of the five voices being so rhythmically independent as almost to defy concert. Under Mr Guest’s guidance the result was little short of a miracle. The conductor’s deft touch was again felt in the Britten where amongst many delicious moments one was left completely breathless by the speed and aery suppleness of the section “I cannot grow; I have no shadow. . . .”

Mr Orr’s Te Deum was most stirring. It had it marked lyrical quality not abundant in the composer’s other works. The beginning and end were quiet, which is a change for a Te Deum, and the concluding notes were something of a surprise, forming a common chord. One would scarcely believe that a common chord could be made to convey so much of mystery, questioning, and perhaps even hell-fire, as it did here.

The final week of the Festival was graced by a production of the Dryden-Davenant version of The Tempest with Purcell’s music, about which more is to be said below. [In The Anatomy of Musicology]

All in all, the Arts Theatre Trust is to be congratulated on bearing the burden of all that took place, and on providing the driving force behind the industry and enterprise which has made this year’s season a most outstanding artistic success, and this in spite of inclement weather and manifold obstacles of time and money.

Peter Tranchell