History of the Festival

The Taunton and Somerset Music and Drama Festival is affiliated to the British and International Federation of Festivals. We are proud of our beginnings and hope that the following notes may be of interest.

There are records of amateur music festivals, run in much the same way as they are today, taking place in this country as long ago as 1872.

1904 saw an “Association of Competition Festivals” being formed and by 1907 there were in the region of 70 festivals affiliated. Names like Arthur Somervell and Henry Wood showed interest as also did Ralph Vaughan Williams when he formed the Leith Hill Musical Festival, in 1905.

This Association led to the formation of The British Federation of Festivals in 1921 when names like Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Adrian Boult, Gustav Holst, Sir Granville Bantock, C Armstrong Gibbs lent their support.

The first Taunton Festival was held on one day, 19 May 1913, under the title of ‘Taunton and Somerset Musical Competitions Festival’. Poetry and drama classes were added after the 2nd World War and the title was amended accordingly.

The first adjudicators in 1913 were Cecil Sharp, the eminent folk song collector, and Hubert Hunt, organist of Bristol Cathedral. As a point of interest, Cecil Sharp related that it was whilst staying as a guest at Hambridge Vicarage in Somerset, in the summer of 1903, that he heard his host’s gardener singing ‘The Seeds of Love’, a tune which started him on his life’s work of collecting the folk songs of England. It is acknowledged that his work greatly influenced the compositions of his friends, Holst and Vaughan Williams.

Music adjudicators over the years have included names like Sir David Willcocks, Isobel Baillie, Dr Herbert Sumsion (Conductor of the Three Choirs Festival), Frederick Grinke, Michael Head, Olive Groves, Marcus Dodds, Harvey Allen, Vivian Langrish, Lady Barbarolli, James Lockhart and David Johnston.

Sir David Willcox must have been very impressed with the skills of the then secretary, Miss Keynes Wyatt, since he awarded her a certificate recording 100% marks in the organisation class! It is also interesting to note that Taunton’s famous Castle Hotel generously insisted on providing accommodation for Lady Barbarolli as their guest.

On 2 November 1963 the Festival celebrated its Golden Jubilee by presenting a performance of Haydn’s ‘Creation’ with guest conductor, Meredith Davies. It took place in St Mary’s Church, Taunton. A choir of 200 was assembled from all parts of Somerset and area and central rehearsals were held in association with the Somerset County Orchestra. In order to fund this concert the Patrons’ Fund was established and this fund has proved invaluable over the years. A series of celebrity organ recitals was also arranged.

In 1973 the Festival celebrated its 60th Anniversary. That year a Reception was held in Bishop Fox’s School attended by the Mayor of Taunton. This included a short recital by Diana Rees (who is the current President of the Festival). A Festival Orchestra was also formed that year and a concert took place on St Cecilia’s Day, Thursday 22 November, conducted by the music directors of King‘s College and Richard Huish School, Timothy Harrison and Ronald Tickner. The first part of the concert included items with several prize winners acting as soloists. The second half included the combined choirs of Huish’s Grammar School, St Audries School, Taunton School, King’s College and the Minehead Save the Children Choir, who were joined by many local soloists.

More recently, on 12 April 2003, the Festival celebrated it’s 90th Anniversary at a Lunchtime Reception in the Old Municipal Building. The Mayor & Mayoress of Taunton Deane attended, and were entertained in great style again by some of the previous year’s prize winners.

In June of that year, thanks to the generosity of two sponsors, a weekend of drama workshops was organised for Taunton school children with coaching by two excellent adjudicators. On 15 November 2004, a similar music workshop for junior vocal students took place at Queen’s College, with Professor Dorothy Richardson.

2003 also saw the introduction of ‘non-competitive’ classes and the re-introduction of the Festival’s Show Case concerts.

In 2007 a new competition was launched under the guidance of Mavis Kettlewell, to find the Taunton Young Musician of the Year. This initially included both instrumentalists and vocalists and was sponsored by the Rotary Clubs of Taunton. The winner is invited to take part in the Rotary District Music Competition. In 2013 Taunton Young Singer evolved as a separate competition and Taunton Junior Young Musician was launched as an integral part of the original but developed into a separate competition in 2015.

In 2012 a Dance Festival was re-established as part of the annual activities of the Festival after a period of absence and has become firmly established.

2013 marked the Festival’s Centenary and was celebrated with a series of events throughout the year including a competition for Young Composers and one for Young Organists, a Singing Day for Church Choirs, a Festival Service, a performance of Alice (through the century) especially commissioned for primary schools, a performance of Vaughan Williams opera Pilgrim’s Progress and culminating in a Centenary Festival Lunch at the Somerset County Cricket Ground.

Also in 2013 the Somerset Song Prize took place for the first time . This is a competition for young singers from 18 to 26 and drew applicants from all the schools of music in the country. The competition was successfully repeated in 2015.

In 2014 the Music and Drama Festivals relocated from November to February and March the following year.

In 2015 the Taunton Young Music Theatre Singer competition was introduced and in the Drama Festival the inaugural Taunton Young Theatre Performer took place. In addition a Film Festival was established for the first time. During the summer of that year in conjunction with GoCreate , a creative arts organisation , Taunton Live 2015 took place with many events organised in different venues including a series of Coffee Concerts in the Castle Hotel, a Gala Concert of the music of Gerald Finzi with world renowned singer Elizabeth Watts, a celebration of The Organ in Concert with international concert organist Margaret Phillips and the visit of Lincoln College, Oxford Chapel Choir who sang in a number of events and services as Choir in Residence.

2016 will see the launch of the Taunton Junior Young Singer competition to complete the range of the Festival’s music competitions for young people.

Due to the great development of the Festival since 2007 and the introduction of all these events, the name Taunton and Somerset Music and Drama Festival was changed to Taunton Festival of the Arts to reflect its extended range of activity.