Fests Share Long History of Musical Celebrations

May 30, 2014

Summer may not be officially upon us yet in the UK, but that just means we have a bit more time to make all our summer music festival plans. According to Bournemouth University, there were some 450 music festivals scheduled in the UK alone during 2012. An Oxford Economics study completed for Visit Britain the following year revealed that, all told, these events attract 6.5 million festival goers, offer 24,000 jobs and bring in £2.2 billion for the UK economy.

With the recession still in full swing it might be your civic duty to brave a muddy mosh pit or two and help boost our financials for 2014. If you’ve never enjoyed the (slightly) contained mania of a music fest, you can rest assured knowing that you’ll become part of a grand UK summer tradition with roots in the ancient world.

Glastonbury By jaswooduk from UK (Glastonbury 2011) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


 By jaswooduk from UK (Glastonbury 2011) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It can be easy to forget how recent inventions changed the face of music. Before radio signals were used to transmit music, there was no way for songs to be heard by many people unless they were performed at festivals. Ancient Egyptians included live music in their celebrations and thousands of years later when the Pythian Games of Greece began in 582 B.C., their only contests were those of musical performances. Many European music festivals during the Middle Ages were competitions.

Author Pippa Drummond, writer of The Provincial Music Festival in England, 1784-1914, believes that the origins of music festivals in the UK can be traced to several sources, such as annual celebrations in London to commemorate St Cecilia’s Day, named for the patron saint of music, which began around 1683.

Thousands attend Glastonbury every year. Sharon Loxton [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Thousands attend Glastonbury every year.

Sharon Loxton [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The programme for these performances, which featured a morning church service with sermon, singing and full orchestra accompaniment, and a secular afternoon concert was mimicked by later festivals. Drummond also notes that when the cathedral city of Salisbury decided to stretch their celebrations over two days in 1748 it essentially became a festival. In 1750 it was even billed as the Musical Festival of St Cecilia.

The beginning of the 1700s saw many provincial centers play host to music societies which would hold “music meetings.” The Three Choirs Festival, which showcases choral music, began as such a meeting and has the distinction of being one of the world’s oldest music festivals, with gatherings occurring almost annually since about 1715. The festival model took hold in Edinburgh with the first one being held in 1813, and in Dublin with their first recorded festival coming in 1831.

The Tea Stop serves tea and refreshments at the Beautiful Days music festival. Andy F [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Tea Stop serves tea and refreshments at the Beautiful Days music festival.

Andy F [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

After the Handel Commemoration concerts of 1784, festivals saw an uptick in popularity, with long established festivals such as Three Choirs, York, Winchester and Bristol being joined by the Royal Musical Festival of 1834 and the triennial Handel festivals held at the Crystal Palace from 1859 to 1926.

While many provincial festivals still exist in the UK, a pivotal change began in the early 1960s that saw music festivals embrace the music of the times and become bigger and louder than one would have previously thought possible.

Jazz was once the wild child of the music scene, but by 1961, when the London suburb of Richmond hosted the National Jazz Festival, it had become mostly mainstream. Change dominated the festival for the next decade. Festival noise and crowds were a constant irritant for locals, so the event was held in three different cities during the 1960s. The event began to accept blues and rock artists into its lineup as the decade progressed, with attendance reaching around 30,000.

Ten years later the festival had found a permanent home in Reading and was billing itself as The National Jazz, Blues and Rock Festival, with rock music dominating the lineup and drawing the most people to the show. In 1976, with crowds of about 70,000, all pretense was dropped and the festival that would come to be known simply as Reading Festival cemented its focus on rock music.

The counterculture movement of the late 1960s greatly influenced many festivals of the time. The Isle of Wight Festival began as such an event in 1968, and two years later festival attendance outpaced that at Woodstock with an estimated gathering of over 600,000 watching over 50 acts such as The Who, Miles Davis, The Doors, Chicago and Jethro Tull perform. That event led to Parliament passing the Isle of Wight Act, which prohibits more than 5,000 people from attending any one event on the island without a special license.

Even though we now have more ways than ever of discovering and appreciating music, large-scale music festivals still provide an outlet for music lovers, and have gone on to dominate the UK entertainment landscape. Glastonbury, another musical celebration with counterculture roots, began as the Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival in 1970 and now sees around 175,000 attendees per day. Reading, which gained a second festival site at Leeds in 1999, has roughly 75,000 daily participants. Even newer festivals can bring in exceptional crowds. Download, started in 2003, and Wireless, which opened in 2005, have daily numbers at around 37,000 and 15,000 to 20,000 respectively.

And, lest you think that rock is the only way we roll, we also have festivals for dance and electronic music, bluegrass, folk, ethnic sounds, jazz, pop, tribute acts, cross-genre festivals and old school classical and opera music. With hundreds of choices across the UK in several different musical disciplines, there’s no reason your dancing feet should have to stay at home this year.

Which festivals do you plan to attend this year? Find your perfect fest with the help of this list.

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