A History of the Portsmouth Music Festival

The Portsmouth Music Festival was founded in 1917 with the aim of improving the quality of life for the citizens of Portsmouth.

Records of the Festival prior to 1948 and a large number of the original trophies were destroyed during World War II because the Guildhall was badly bombed. However, some information is available in newspaper articles written during the years leading up to that date.

In 1920, the Portsmouth Welfare Association for the Young, presided over by Sir Thomas Bramsdon, the local MP, decided to add a musical competition festival to their range of activities that also included lectures, exhibitions of hobbies and boxing tournaments! Drama as well as music (especially choral music) was included in the Festival and scenery was provided by Peter Davey of the Theatre Royal.

In 1922 the Festival became affiliated to the British Federation of Festivals. Contemporary articles mention that there was to be an expansion of the event previously organised by the Portsmouth Welfare Association and it would be known as Musical Competition Festival for Portsmouth. An announcement was made in October 1922 that the first of these would take place in May 1923.

In 1923, there was a newspaper review publishing results of a festival for adult performers and choirs. Choirs are given pride of place, then solo singers and finally instrumentalists and chamber groups. At the time it was hoped that the event would become the Festival of the South of England and would boost the reputation of Southsea as a holiday resort. Harvey Grace, editor of the Musical Times, was the adjudicator that year and he suggested that it would be a good idea to combine this festival with the one run by the Portsmouth Welfare Association. However, it would appear that up to the Second World War the festival for young people was given a title which linked it to the Portsmouth Welfare Association, and adults performed in the Portsmouth Musical Competition Festival; the same people seemed to be on the committees for both events!

A highlight in 1924 was that one of the two adjudicators was none other than the composer and conductor Professor Granville Bantock M.A., Mus. Doc, whose most famous work perhaps is his Celtic Symphony.

During the years leading up to World War II, entries in the festival increased year on year and the classes on offer became more wide-ranging. In 1930 folk dancing, music, elocution and drama classes were featured and all took place in the Guildhall. There were nearly 500 entries in 59 different classes. Tickets were available at 6d (2.5p) or 1/- (5p) depending on where audience members chose to sit or, if they wanted to attend a number of classes, they could purchase a season ticket for 2/6 (12.5p).

The last report in the Portsmouth Evening News (now known as The News) appears in March 1939; although there is a later reference to the hobbies exhibition at the Guildhall in April of that year.

After the Festival was suspended during WWII, four people who had previously been members of the Festival Committee decided to re-start the event. They had only £15 in the bank but that was worth a great deal more than it is today. Their best attribute was their complete enthusiasm for the Festival. Florence Greaves, Margaret Ryan, Margaret Jewel and Mr. L. F. Glanville were chief among these enlightened people.

At the time of the Festival being re-started, it appears that the adult and youth festivals combined. References are now made in publications to Portsmouth Music Festival or Portsmouth Musical Competition Festival. Funding for the festival was now totally achieved through voluntary subscriptions and entry fees, as it is today.

In June 1949 and May 1950, two photos were published in the newspaper but there was no written report. It seems that the lack of the high profile support of the Festival, as previously given by the local MP, the Lord Mayor and the Education Authority, had diminished it in the eyes of the newspaper!

The reports of the Festival in the 1950s indicate that the format was closer to the one we are familiar with today. There were dance classes which included ballet, national, character and Greek, more music classes plus drama and elocution. During this time the reports in The Evening News are very detailed and every section is mentioned. Reporters took the time and trouble to find as much information as possible, even interviewing the adjudicators, who said exactly what they thought, in their comments. For example, in 1956 the adjudicator for dance, Claude Newman (founder member of Sadler's Wells) commented that the dancers who performed on the second day were "too mournful"; however, later in the week he stated, "Many of your classes at this festival are of a high standard, particularly among the younger age groups."

Many participants from the 1950s until the 1990s will remember Winnie Beer, a local junior school teacher, who had been a great help to Florence Greaves since 1946. Winnie took over the dance section with her considerable knowledge of folk dance and the many contacts she had in the Folk Dance Society of Great Britain.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the Festival continued to develop. By 1975 the classes on offer were similar to those today except that brass and woodwind were in one section, and there were additional classes in composition and with a greater range of folk and national dance.

Dan and Iris Bulger, Eric and Pauline Hunt and Olwen Cawthorne continued the valuable work with the Portsmouth Competitive Music Festival in the 1970's and 1980's following those enterprising people who had restarted the event. Dan and Eric were both Chairmen at different times, Olwen was Secretary and Iris and Pauline were both a very dedicated Heads of Speech and Drama who developed it from its small beginnings. Very soon though the Festival organisation began to falter and its financial condition caused great anxiety, so that its future looked very uncertain.

It was perhaps mainly thanks to Margaret Roberts, the current Vice-President, that the Festival survived. Throughout the 1980's, Margaret gave financial support to keep the event going and she quickly realised that the whole organisation needed modernising. The original methods of running an event of this size were no longer the easiest or the best. Margaret was invited to take over the chair on the retirement of Eric Hunt in 1990 having previously outlined the changes she wished to make. She worked tirelessly to secure sponsorship and ensure that the whole format was updated and computerised, and was greatly helped in this by the fact that her first year as Chair was the Festival's Diamond Anniversary.

In her 15 years as Chair, Margaret undertook every job there is to do on the Committee except for treasurer, which her husband, Chris, agreed to do with great effect. The Festival was restored very quickly to a safe financial footing. The syllabus for every section was overhauled, new classes were introduced and many special opportunities came our way.

By the end of the 1990's, the success of the new-style, re-named Portsmouth Music Festival (PMF) was underlined by offers from three major organisations in the city to forge a strong link with the PMF. Special opportunities were available now to a number of Festival participants: the Solent Symphony Orchestra offered an opportunity to play a concerto with the orchestra in one of their concerts (called The SSO Concerto Award), Milton Glee Club asked how they could create a link with the PMF and the sponsorship of a mid-teenage young performer was begun so that s/he could attend the European Summer School week in the summer holidays (the PMF also sponsors a young player so the two youngsters can go to the summer school together) and The Portsmouth Festivities, which began in the year 2000 and likes to shine a light on young talent, also offered the PMF two prizes - the Festivities Debut Recital Prize and a Masterclass for four or five young talented players to be given by a top class musician. All these special prizes are still being awarded each year and very many of the best young musicians in the city and surrounding areas who have entered the PMF over the years have benefitted from these opportunities.

From the success of Margaret's initial sponsorship agreements with local companies, the PMF was also able to widen the experience of its young participants in other ways too. In 1993, a large group of PMF performers visited the Conservatoire de la Musique in Caen. This was arranged through the Portsmouth-Caen Cultural Group in the city - primarily, Dan and Iris Bulger and Jo and Mary Stobseth-Brown. The PMF group was further sponsored on this trip by Brittany Ferries who waived the fares for everyone travelling to France. It was an exciting trip and certainly, the musicians in Caen were not expecting the English musicians to be as good as they were!

Another experience for the PMF performers came in 1994, a year when the Festival classes featured Swiss composers. Margaret contacted the Swiss Embassy in London and, sponsored by both the Embassy and Zurich Insurance, one of the PMF's main sponsors at that time, a well-known Swiss folk group came to visit the Festival. The folk group members, all highly regarded in Switzerland, were a family - father played the piano, one son played the clarinet, the other played the accordion, and their mother yodelled! They also brought with them a young 15 year old who played the Büchel, a relative of the Alphorn. A concert given by this group opened the Festival that year and they provided varied entertainments during the Festival as well as being invited to play in schools and for music clubs during their visit.

The reputation of the PMF was now extremely high - the British Federation of Festivals considered it to be one of the top three festivals in the UK. There were few changes to the Committee and everyone worked together extremely well. For many years the festival has been a platform for at least 4,000 performers each year. Together with the parents and supporters of the participants, a very large number of people have been touched by the benefits of performance and adjudication offered by the organisation.

The PMF has continued to succeed in these last years under the careful guidance of Gwenda Dearsley. Help in a number of ways is always needed and appreciated and we are sure that those people who originally nurtured this wonderful event would be amazed at how it has changed and grown, while keeping to its original concept of being a community event. While costs have risen enormously and money continues to have to be carefully spent, the standard of performance and the expectations of both the participants and the audiences alike have also risen and we hope the PMF would still make its founding fathers very proud.