Why begin with the British musical festival? The musical festival was the most important means of concert music production in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Through such festivals, the middle classes ultimately became arbiters of musical taste, and festival infrastructure was largely responsible for the growth of an internationally-recognized group of indigenous composers, including Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Benjamin Britten. Musical festivals introduced individuals outside of London to music by contemporary composers, both foreign and domestic, and shaped the genres (predominantly choral, including oratorios and dramatic cantatas) desired and celebrated by the British. Such festivals shifted the progression of musicians from a servant class, regarded as morally suspect because of their associations with decadent aristocratic genres like opera, to a respectable middle-class profession. The charitable associations of the festivals encouraged the British to stop thinking of music as a pleasurable pastime, viewing it instead as a didactic and edifying force. Consequently, study of the British musical festival between 1695 and 1940 is a study not just of infrastructure, or genre, or individual composers and musicians, but a holistic view of the shift of beliefs about the importance and place of culture in British society from aristocracycontrolled taste to taste controlled by the rising middle classes.
Between 1695 and 1940, there were approximately 1,500 musical festivals presented in Great Britain in more than 40 towns, villages, and cities. During the course of research for my monograph The British Musical Festival, I have collected programs for hundreds of them. Many of these programs contain a wealth of information: the compositions performed, the names of the solo singers and instrumentalists, the identities of the conductors, as well as instrumental ensemble and choral forces used. For musicologists and social historians, this information is invaluable. It allows one to see, for instance, the creation of the musical canon that we know today – but more importantly, it shows just how malleable that canon has always been. One could use it to help partially trace the importance or exposure of a particular composer, conductor, or soloist, as well as seeing myriad possibilities of how performances occurred throughout the period. By creating a data set from this material, one would ultimately be able to.