Did you know the first Glastonbury Festival took place in 1914?

Forget the tents, mud and rock acts. Over a century ago, the Somerset town of Glastonbury was host to a music festival of a very different kind, says Michael Scott Rohan

Published: June 22, 2022 at 2:21 pm

In summer 2004, the Glastonbury Festival raised eyebrows when, alongside headline acts such as Paul McCartney, Muse and Oasis, it also staged English National Opera’s production of Wagner’s The Valkyrie. The unlikely performance went down a treat, though how many of those present realised it was actually echoing another, earlier Glastonbury – one that was just as charismatic?

Advertisement

Who were Buckley and Boughton, the founders of the original Glastonbury Festival?

The original Glastonbury festival was largely the creation of one remarkable man, now almost forgotten. The composer Rutland Boughton often resembled his hero Richard Wagner: a small, spare, dynamic man, idealistic, unconventional, charming, but also self-centred, arrogant and contentious, and with an even more complex love-life. He might have fitted into the new festival’s original hippie ethos very well.

Sheer natural talent and drive had already brought him far. The son of an Aylesbury grocer with no musical background, he was sent to the Royal College of Music by aristocratic patrons, alongside Holst, Vaughan Williams and others. Eventually he became accompanist to the great Welsh baritone David Ffrancon-Davies and tutor to his daughter Gwen, and in 1905 the influential composer Granville Bantock offered him a post at the Birmingham Institute of Music.

With Reginald Buckley, an aspiring poet, Boughton produced a cheekily Wagnerian manifesto, Music Drama of the Future. Both were romantic Socialists, young intellectuals excited by contemporary trends, Buckley by George Bernard Shaw’s and Marie Stopes’s interests in sexual liberation and, less happily, human eugenics. Together they proposed building a festival theatre along Bayreuth lines, which would stage Boughton’s own music-drama cycle about King Arthur, to Buckley’s libretti. It was a fashionable ambition among composers, but Boughton and Buckley had the determination and the contacts to launch the project. At first they considered the socially experimental Letchworth Garden City, but then an acquaintance mentioned Glastonbury.

Why Glastonbury?

This attractive little Somerset town, with its high green Tor and the mystical ambience which makes it a modern ‘New Age’ capital, caught Boughton’s imagination. Legend claims that Joseph of Arimathea and even Jesus Christ himself visited here. Appropriately, 11th-century monks claimed to have found King Arthur’s grave ‘in the island of Avalon’. It seemed ideal for Boughton’s dream of a festival based on a communal farm, worked by the artists.

Boughton boldly quit his post, and in 1912 he and Buckley approached the town’s rather baffled citizens. Mild Edwardian misgivings were aroused: after his unstable wife refused a divorce, Boughton was now living with the talented artist Christina Walshe, who became the Festival’s third moving spirit. However, an imposing list of artistic celebrities offered moral and financial support, including Holst, Parry, Vaughan Williams, Grainger, John Galsworthy, Henry Wood and Gordon Craig – almost everyone who was anyone, in fact, including Shaw, with whom Boughton enjoyed an amiably vituperative correspondence. Elgar promised to lay the new theatre’s foundation stone. But though funds were raised, even with the First World War looming, there wasn’t enough to build. The three forged ahead nonetheless, eagerly involving locals alongside professional artists, both enhancing their populist vision and saving money.

When was the first Glastonbury Festival?

In August 1914 they launched the first festival programme, offering plays, ballets, children’s operas and concerts, but only excerpts from the uncompleted Arthurian operas. Instead, Boughton premiered what would prove his most significant music-drama, The Immortal Hour. Lacking the theatre, they held performances in Glastonbury’s small Assembly Rooms, with a grand piano instead of an orchestra and a chorus and staff drawn mostly from locals. Walshe designed striking costumes but, unable to afford sets, she created a concept which attracted widespread attention, using the chorus as ‘living scenery’, miming and dancing images such as waves breaking on castle walls. Despite hitches – not least Boughton’s affair with Irene Lemon, singing the heroine Etain, and having to replace one singer himself – the Festival was a success.

Over the next few years, despite war constraints and eternal fundraising, an even more ambitious programme developed, with Easter festivals, summer schools, celebrity lectures, offshoots in Bristol and London and provincial touring performances. Neither theatre nor commune ever materialised, but the Festival acquired a small orchestra and a resident quartet, and produced a startling range of works, from operas by Edgar Bainton and Clarence Raybould to Gluck and Wagner. Dance, by Isadora Duncan disciples Margaret Morris and Penelope Spencer, also featured, and dramas poetic and otherwise. Boughton contributed everything from his Arthurian operas to settings of Marie Stopes’s Japanese Noh play translations, (foreshadowing Britten and Curlew River), songs, choral works, and the mystery-play Bethlehem.

There was nothing else like it in Britain, and never really had been – a vivid, exciting experimental nexus to compete with European institutions. Performances were reported in national papers. Audiences made pilgrimages from London and all over the country. Shaw compared it favourably to Bayreuth. Many supporters, though, like Vaughan Williams and Holst, still felt it was too amateurish. Certainly conditions were rough and ready: many outdoor performances, then as now, foundered in rain and mud; productions were rather hit and miss, as when Christina designed some masks which nearly asphyxiated the exhausted chorus, much to Shaw’s amusement; Gwen Ffrancon-Davies, now a leading singer-actress, remembered being awarded the only solo dressing-room – a tiny understairs broom cupboard, candlelit because the Assembly Rooms had no electricity.

Other tensions rapidly developed. Local playwright Alice Buckton tried to start her own festival. Boughton, dissatisfied with Buckley, drew closer to Shaw, who despised Buckley; he died tragically young at war’s end. Boughton began yet another affair, this time with teenage pupil Kathleen Davis, causing tremendous distress to Christina and their friends. In 1917, at 38, he was called up for two years, becoming the new-born RAF’s first bandmaster, while Christina kept the Festival going. But it was about to launch a startling success.

The Immortal Hour, the epitome of ‘Celtic Twilight’, had come to embody Glastonbury’s idealistic, quasi-mystical ambience. Elgar called it ‘a work of genius’; Dame Ethel Smyth was ‘enchanted by it’, and Shaw and any
number of other musical luminaries praised it. Vaughan Williams said that in any other country ‘it would have been in the repertoire years ago’. From a play by one ‘Fiona Macleod’ (actually a rather weird Glasgow critic called William Sharp) it retells an old Gaelic legend of the Sidhe – beautiful but perilous superhumans, the model for Tolkien’s elves. Deluded by Dalua, god of dreams and madness, the poet-king Eochaid marries the mysterious waif Etain. She, though, is the lost wife of the Sidhe lord Midir, who draws her back, to Eochaid’s ruin, with ardent singing: the famous (and misnamed) ‘Faerie Song’. This Pelléas-like story inspired Boughton to his finest atmospheric and melodic music, influenced, like Bantock, by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser’s Hebridean song collections. In 1921 the great actor-manager Sir Barry Jackson mounted the Hour in Birmingham and then London, with Gwen Ffrancon-Davies as Etain. Unexpectedly it became a runaway success, casting a Tolkienesque spell that drew people back to see it again and again. The Hour still holds the record for continuous opera performances – 221, with 160 the next year – as well as touring, and aroused interest abroad; the ‘Faerie Song’ was performed everywhere. It made Boughton a national celebrity, relatively prosperous, and put Glastonbury firmly on the map. Characteristically, its upper-class popularity appalled him.

Success spurred Boughton to produce still more Glastonbury operas, continuing the Arthurian cycle and adding The Queen of Cornwall, by Thomas Hardy no less, and Alkestis, which was successfully taken up by Covent Garden. Many featured Kathleen, for whom, after contemplating a ménage à trois, he eventually broke with Christina, alienating backers such as the shoe-manufacturing Clark family. Nevertheless Christina remained at Glastonbury. By 1926, though always financially straitened, it had mounted over 350 staged works, over 100 concerts and recitals, and many other events. So how could something so alive disappear so thoroughly?

What happened to the original Glastonbury Festival?

Boughton, unfortunately, was growing touchy at what he saw as his own exploitation, even somewhat paranoid. Like many contemporaries, he became naively attracted by the Soviet revolution. In 1926 the Glastonbury company staged vital fund-raising London performances of Bethlehem. Without consulting his fellow directors Boughton produced it with Joseph and Mary as striking miners and Herod as a caricature top-hatted capitalist. The concept, endorsed by GK Chesterton and others, was harmless enough – except that Boughton also depicted British bobbies and British troops marching off to massacre the Innocents. So soon after the First World War this caused enormous offence even with liberal London audiences. And so Bethlehem made a disastrous loss. The other directors duly resigned; the Glastonbury townsfolk withdrew their support. The Festival was abandoned.

Boughton, with his now extensive family, retired unrepentant to a Gloucestershire smallholding bought for him by a female admirer, where he lived on, still compulsively composing, writing and proposing new festivals, until his death in 1960. But although his symphonies and other works were supported by Vaughan Williams, Arthur Bliss and others, he was increasingly forgotten. The Immortal Hour became relegated to wretched amateur performances, its ‘Faerie Song’ to twee popular tenors and schoolgirls. Boughton’s politics are sometimes blamed; he remained fanatically pro-Soviet until painfully disillusioned by the 1956 Hungarian revolt. However, many other fellow-travellers fared better. His prickliness didn’t help. In the words of his biographer Michael Hurd, he ‘had dug his own grave, and would devote the next few years to pulling in the earth on top of himself’, antagonising even those well disposed to him, until it became easy to forget his Glastonbury accomplishments and write him off as a crank. Eventually, in great need, he was awarded a modest Civil List pension. His children became accomplished musicians, including the famous oboist Joy Boughton.

Advertisement

Ultimately, it was Glastonbury’s whole fey-folksiness which came to seem impossibly quaint, parochial and old-fashioned in the post-war era. Not altogether unfairly; some of its music is remarkably vapid. Nevertheless recent Boughton recordings, including songs, symphonies and Bethlehem, make a striking impression. Above all, The Immortal Hour, static and stylised as it seems, still conjures up something of that original, long-forgotten excitement: the authentic Glastonbury magic.

Sponsored content