This document is a personal selection of highlights revealed by the minutes of the managing committees.
The festival arose from a proposal from the East Anglian Association of Musical Societies, although there is also a passing reference in 1927 to the “Henniker Competitions” launched in 1897. It was known as the Suffolk County Musical Competition Festival. The first meeting was held 28Jul1923. The first festival was on Fri 15 and Sat 16 May 1924 at the Public Hall, Westgate St, Ipswich; St Lawrence Hall, St Stephen’s Lane, Ipswich; and the Boys’ Secondary School, Tower Ramparts, Ipswich, culminating in a Saturday evening concert in the Public Hall. (The Public hall was in Westgate Street, about where Mothercare was by the 1990s, and burnt down.) Until 1937 inclusive the festival occupied two days each year. The first civic recognition was given in the form of an official opening of the 1930 festival by the mayor of Ipswich.
As early as 18 Apr1925 it was resolved that the “Broadcasting Company” be invited to send a representative to the festival to make a selection from the vocal classes for broadcasting.
In 1930, patrons subscribed £51, entrance fees amounted to £62, admission charges raised £52, the concert admission charges raised £27, syllabus and programme sales raised £23, and advertising revenue was £22. These together almost met total expenditure of £245. A separate charge of 6d was made for marksheets until 1930, after which the charge was absorbed into the entrance fee.
Early syllabuses and programmes were sprinkled with literary quotations. Syllabuses were titled “Forecast and Syllabus” until 1955. The previous year’s class winners were listed in one or both. The contents were progressively weeded in the mid to late 1930s. From 1967 to 1972 they were titled “Competitive Festival” with the name of the assn in smaller print across the top. Until at least 1948 they bore a cover price, but in 1948, and probably always in practice, the secretaries were given power to give free copies at their discretion. Youth day syllabuses were often separate and free. The syllabuses were officially free from 1967.
In the early days, there were arrangements with rail and Eastern Counties bus companies to issue return tickets at the price of a single on production of a ticket of admission to the festival. By 1934 this had shrunk to railway only, and it disappeared with the war.
Bronze plaques were awarded to winners of certain classes (presumably to keep) until 1930, when they were dropped as too expensive. The cttee resolved 20Jun1931 to reinstate them. Challenge Banners (up to 13) were also awarded, to be returned for the following festival. Other trophies such as cups and shields were slow to appear. In 1935 a “Prize of Music to the value of one guinea” was offered by a cttee member for piano repertoire, and the first medal was presented by Oliver Lusher. In 1938 a scholarship taking the form of a year’s tuition was awarded by the cttee, guided by adjudicators’ reports, to a Suffolk student unable to pay. Cttee 10Apr1958 resolved that plaques be not presented this year. Medals were re-introduced in 1997 for winners of solo junior speech and music classes.
OAs were not available for rehearsal, and there seems to have been no provision for booking them in advance; they were simply “in attendance” on the day, and therefore presumably free. However, a fee was introduced for 1948. By 1949 they had to be reserved at entry time and would not be available for rehearsal during the festival. In Sep 1960 Council decided that an official accompanist was not now required (as from the 1961 Ipswich festival) as at the 1959 festival only twelve of five hundred entries needed one! The post was, however, restored by the 1965 festival, in which the OA was made compulsory for the voice, aria and vocal championship classes.
Until 1937 inclusive, and later for some, several classes had two sections, giving a choice of set pieces, and competitors could enter either or both sections. In the pgm the sections were usually separated by another class.
The competition was restricted, with specific exceptions, to amateurs who lived in Suffolk, belonged to a Suffolk musical association, or were taught in Suffolk. The last restriction (inhabitants), which by then did not apply to open classes, was dropped from 1963.
There was an altercation with the Customs & Excise Commissioners over entertainments tax in respect of some classes. By appealing through the MP for Ipswich (Sir John Ganzoni, a patron), the festival eventually obtained an indefinite exemption in 1932.
The town of solo competitors was shown in the programme from 1933 (or at least that was resolved by cttee on 25Mar1933).
The cttee on 20Oct1934 resolved to affiliate to the Federation of Music Festivals. About five years before that they had disaffiliated as a desperate cost-cutting measure.
There was a general shake-up of classes in 1936. Folk Dancing became Country Dancing. Evening sessions were introduced.
The 16th festival was in May 1939, then there was a break during the second world war until the 17th festival in May 1946, although a one-day “informal competition festival” was held under festival auspices in May 1941, restricted to BSE area and excluding adult solo and masses children’s classes. The minutes of the last pre-war cttee mtg (1Jul1939) give no hint of disruption by war, and even report provisional dates for the 1940 festival. The next cttee mtg was not until 16May40, at which the chairman’s decision to cancel the 1940 festival was reported and approved. Trophies were to be entrusted to the care of their current holders.
On 11Sep1943 the cttee “agreed that, if possible, a festival should be held in BSE in 1945 and , in the meantime, to give every possible encouragement to the local wartime festivals being held in various centres of the county”. No 1945 festival occurred. The 1946 festival was purely musical (no dancing or elocution, as resolved at cttee 26May1945), and was the last under the original name: from 1947 it was the Suffolk Musical Festival, and from 1955 the Suffolk Music Festival.
Also at 26May1945 it was agreed to run with a main cttee, representing all county organisations interested in music, and three subcttees: executive; music; and schools. At the first main cttee mtg (29Sep1945) the main cttee was renamed to Council.
From 1946 the choral section was non-competitive and so were classes for groups, but as cups appeared their classes became competitive and by 1962 the whole choral section was competitive again.
The 1947 festival was postponed at a late stage to June as a result of various difficulties, notably the rapid turnover of Secretaries: there were three in the course of the year.
The 1949 festival was held at Felixstowe because the Corn Exchange (probably at Ipswich) was unavailable on suitable dates except at a prohibitive price.
At the council mtg 12Jul1952, the treasurer was keeping a number of cups and banners which had gone out of use with the conversion of their classes to non-competitive. Resolved to offer the cups back to their donors where traceable, and to use the banners to decorate the halls during the festival. Three such cups remained at 25Oct1952. At exec cttee 14Nov1953, Mr Balaam reported ten trophies not in use:- “Mrs John Greene Cup; Cup for School Choirs – donor unknown; Orpen Cup; Pettiward Cup – Folk Dancing award; Lady Jervis – Folk Dancing; Wayman Cup; Mrs Hildersley; Mrs Dudley Hervey; Christine Podd – Percussion Bands; Mrs Vernon Wentworth – Village Choirs”, and the cttee decided which 8 classes to reallocate those cups to, but left it to the secretaries to decide the order, and in the event the “donor unknown” (presumably the Dorothy Fagge) and Jervis remained unallocated for 1954 and the Hildesley, though eventually allocated to to the eighth class, does not appear in the syll for 1954. In 1954 several trophies were restored and one or two more added. At the 9Oct1954 Council mtg it was pointed out that many cups had fallen into disuse owing to non-competitive classes, and agreed that the matter be considered. The subcttee on trophies (chaired by Mr Balaam) reported and handed over correspondence dealing with the donors’ wishes, and new allocations were approved for the Jervis White Jervis, Hildesley, Dorothy Fagge, Ganzoni and Ross Taylor. At exec cttee 26Nov1954 Miss Prigg lists the “Hildersley Cup, Lady Jervis White Jervis Cup, and a small Cup originally awarded for School Choirs” as not assigned to classes last year. At exec cttee 24Feb1955 recommended assignmt of JWJ to lieder, Hildesley (spelling corrected in minutes by deleting “r”) to vocal ensemble, and “Cup (formerly given to school choirs)” to “Open Piano Duet”. Council mtg 2Apr1955 approved the recommended allocations with modifications, as noted in the exec cttee 1Jun55 minutes. At the 9Jul1955 AGM, the Secretary reported that all the cups and shields had been collected, examined, re-engraved with the names of the new classes to which they had recently been allocated, valued at over £268, insured and photographed.
Youth Days were run largely autonomously, having their own subcommittee, secretary, dates, venues, syllabuses (usually) and concerts. It seems they filled a gap in provision. They were discontinued from 1967 on the grounds that schools could now be better served by the education authorities, who had recently appointed music advisors and raised school music activity.
At an extraordinary GM of the Council on 1Sep1954 it was resolved to change the name to Suffolk Music Festival. At the 9Oct1954 Council mtg, Miss March was to be asked to draw up a constitution. At the next Council mtg (2Apr1955) a draft constitution was adopted after amendment, to take effect in July 1955. The Suffolk Music Festival Association was duly formed in 1955 to consolidate the help given by subscribers, and its first AGM was 9Jul1955 in BSE. At that AGM, the Secretary reported that the new constitution “preserved the special Suffolk characteristic of a Council, which is not a usual feature”.
On 6Oct1962 the Council accepted committee recommendations to exclude professionals, to remove the Suffolk residence requirement, to standardise phrasing of age bands, and to drop the practice of guest artists at concerts.
Elocution was reintroduced in 1962, renamed verse speaking in 1963, broadened to speech by 1966.
The festival was moved from May to October in 1967, largely because of greatly increased school exam activity in spring.
There is some evidence that the 1969 festival was not recorded as well as it should have been. No executive committee minutes survive. The next surviving minutes state that minutes of the previous meeting were not available, and that the committee did not know where the cups were.
The 1971 festival was cancelled on the grounds that a long postal strike had made it impossible to engage enough adjudicators and to set all music in time for a syllabus to be published.
There was an attempt in 1972 to push the local authorities into instituting an ambitious annual county-wide festival of the arts, but the effort was shelved in view of the impending local government reorganisation and not revived.
The Council was abolished at the 28Oct1972 AGM.
The move to Stowmarket in 1974 was inspired partly by the merging of the previously separate counties of East and West Suffolk, but it was also promoted as a single stable venue in which the entire festival could be held under one roof, in contrast to the variety of halls in each of Ipswich and Bury.
Until 1975, the Vocal Championship was a playoff between the Voice class winners. From 1976 a wider formula was adopted instead.
Cash prizes disappeared in 1978, the last one having been for composition, but reappeared for a short while in the 1990s.
The biggest entry for any one class was probably the 66 in 1979 for descant recorder solo with piano (11 years and under).
The present Dance section started in 1980, as one way of making the 50th festival special.
Ipswich CE offered us free accommodation in 1982 for their centenary year, and we accepted. Drama and film sections were immediately introduced, at the wish of the Ipswich Corn Exchange, but the new sections were not detailed in the syllabus. Aerobics flooring was bought for the dance section, its cost being shared with the Corn Exchange. Film quietly disappeared after only one year, except that the EADT trophy remains in the syllabus! Drama was found to be financially unviable (cttee 6Nov1984) and transferred wef 1987 to the Ipswich Arts Association (cttee 4Nov1986).
From 1991 the festival purported to be the Suffolk Festival of Music, Dance and Speech, to harmonise with the recent change of name of the Federation. However, the change of name was not formally ratified until a new constitution was adopted at the 1992 AGM.