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This book is the latest in a series published by Ashgate under the collective title Music in 19th-Century Britain. Like its predecessors it confirms that during that period, far from being ‘a land without music’, this country teemed with musical activity. Outside London, much of the best music-making came from the many city festivals that evolved during those years and which are the subject of this survey. Prompted perhaps by the Westminster Abbey Handel Commemoration concerts of 1784, the growth of similar events away from the capital was remarkable. Initially planned as charity events for neighbouring hospitals, these festivals were frequently supported by the local cathedral, but by the second half of the century their activities had become more often centered on the new town halls which were the pride of so many northern cities and their corporations.

The book is in two sections. Part 1 is a chronological survey where the author skilfully draws together a number of significant sources to form a coherent narrative. The individual topics discussed in Part 2 include aspects of performance, finance and programming, where the proud tradition of commissioning new works such as Elijah and The Dream of Gerontius – a tradition which still provides opportunities for young composers today – is highlighted.

For choral directors, the chapters on the festival orchestra and choir make interesting reading. Throughout the period under discussion the chorus remained the foundation of every festival. Initially based on male singers from the cathedrals, female voices were gradually introduced as the number of choral societies grew and the works performed required larger forces. For the 1858 Leeds festival, there were 64 sopranos (replacing the boy trebles) and a core of 36 male altos supported by 16 female contraltos, as well as a balanced number of tenors and basses. Since the singers were all amateurs, membership was generally a privilege earned by audition, and with non-attendance penalised by fines. Choral directors often ‘stiffened’ their forces by inviting individuals and local choirs to participate. Most notable of these was a group of six ladies, affectionately known as the ‘Lancashire witches’, who acted as expert choral leaders throughout the country for more than 30 years.

Music festivals continue to flourish up to the present day, and many still follow the structural patterns described in this useful and informative survey. The book should have wide appeal, most notably perhaps for readers interested in the historic and cultural aspects of English musical life.

DENIS MCCALDIN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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