British Music was deemed to be an important part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. There were a series of eight concerts devoted to the music of Henry Purcell alongside recitals of English Song, ranging from the lutenists to contemporary composers. Alongside this British music a vast range of works were played from the standard international repertoire.
However, a special feature of the Festival of Britain was the Arts Council decision to commission a number of new works. In many ways this brave attempt did not go entirely to plan. Arthur Bliss was approached to write a major choral work, however it did not materialise. Nothing came of Arnold Bax’s attempt at writing a 'Festival Overture'. John Ireland was also approached, but nothing appeared.
However a number of important works were presented in the concert hall. These included William Alwyn’s Festival March, the Festival Te Deum by Edmund Rubbra, Gordon Jacob’s Festival Suite for Military Band and Alan Rawsthorne’s Second Piano Concerto. Other works included were a unison ‘Song for a Festival’ by Sir George Dyson, and Thomas Wood’s large scale The Rainbow: A Tale of Dunkirk for tenor, baritone, male chorus and brass band.
A competition was held for a work from young composers. This was won by Peter Racine Fricker with his Concerto for Violin and small orchestra Op.11. He also composed the score Canterbury Tales for the Ballet Rambert. Richard Arnell produced the score for Harlequin in April which was choreographed by John Cranko and Constant Lambert wrote the music for Tiresias for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet.
Other works were commissioned by organisations supported by the Arts Council. They included the new Ralph Vaughan Williams work The Sons of Light for the Schools Music Association. The Riddick String Orchestra produced Gordon Jacob’s Horn Concerto, Elisabeth Lutyens’ Nativity and Cyril Scott’s Irish Serenade.
Reflecting on these commissions some sixty years after they were first performed is a sad business. Virtually none of these works found a place in the concert hall repertoire in succeeding decades. Fortunately, a few are available on CD or MP3, however these tend to be single performances. In the case of Thomas Wood, Cyril Scott, Elisabeth Lutyens, Edmund Rubbra and George Dyson we still await a recorded performance.
Finally the stories of how Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd did not receive a performance at the Festival of Britain, of the endeavours of the composers 'Squirrel', 'Dudley Underwood', 'Stagestruck' and 'Charles Francis' to win a prize for an opera, and George Lloyd’s John Socman are perhaps material for a future post.