24th May, 2022 / 19:30
2nd June, 2016
The unifying theme of the British musical festival in the years between 1784 and 1838 was the culture of celebrity. As Pippa Drummond, Brian Pritchard and others have noted, festivals during this time shifted from small, local gatherings to national events: they featured star soloists famous throughout Britain and even the European Continent, were discussed in the national press, and required a great deal of time, money, and effort to execute. All elements of the festival were geared towards creating a sense of spectacle, be it the star singers’ lavish salaries, the increasing fragmentation of sacred music programs to feature excerpts instead of complete works (save, of course, for Handel’s Messiah), and an effort to both contextualize and historicize festivals via publishing lavish, detailed histories immediately after their completion. All of these elements were advantageous to the signer, and all of them stemmed directly from practices disseminated from festivals in London to the provinces.
Between 1784 and 1838, there were significant, if irregular festivals in London. Yet London is not usually a focus point for the study of the British musical festival. This is curious, since London festivals helped define how others in the provinces were organized, programmed, and even considered for the next fifty years. London festivals remained central to the infrastructure and the trends of the British festival in general, and presaged a number of debates about the purpose and place of the festival that would continue for the remainder of the Long Nineteenth Century. At one end, the Commemorations held in Westminster Abbey and the Pantheon between 1784 and 1791 began the vogue for “excerpting” that composers works to suit the growing power of singers’ celebrity – the so-called “Westminster Abbey Selections.” At the other, the festivals of the 1830s, whether given at Westminster Abbey or Exeter Hall, invigorated debates on the propriety of holding festivals in the grand churches of Britain, the place of the composer versus the singer at the festival, and even whether or not the British festival should remain nominally a state religion exercise. Examining contemporary programs, press reports, and theological tracts reveals that just as London created the festival as celebrity spectacle, it also brought the phenomenon to its close.