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Norwich is steeped in history, with reminders of its Viking, Norman and medieval past on streets and buildings across the city. But the city also plays host to one of the country’s oldest cultural gatherings – Norfolk & Norwich Festival.
Read on for a look at the history of the festival in this guest blog from Norfolk & Norwich Festival.
This year, the Festival celebrates its 250th anniversary. Only the Three Choirs Festival, a choral event rotating across Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester, can lay claim to be an older arts festival. Over the years, Norfolk & Norwich Festival has changed as the times have changed. Beginning as a philanthropic endeavour; evolving into a classical music goliath, and now a county-wide celebration of the arts. Throughout though, it has always had community at its heart.
When the first Norfolk and Norwich Hospital opened its doors in the summer of 1772, it was the fruits of more than a decade of labour. In 1758 Surgeon, Benjamin Gooch had been dispatched to London by the then Bishop of Norwich to investigate the latest thinking in hospital administration (it was still more than 150 years until the founding of the NHS). Gooch and philanthropist William Fellowes slowly evolved a plan which saw the hospital built on a site at St Stephen’s.
Even as the hospital opened, funding was in short supply. Only two-thirds of the 120 beds could be used and a second wing was postponed. Late that summer, the city brimming with visitors, a series of sermons were organised at Norwich Cathedral to raise the princely sum of £132 to support the hospital. The following year the sermons were repeated, this time with the addition of music. It was from these modest origins that the first Festivals were formed.
Over the years, the concept grew in its ambitions, its audiences and in the money it raised. In 1788 the first ‘Grand Music Festival’ was staged. Reliant on good will and volunteers, the early Festivals were a sporadic affair, occurring every few years and comprising a handful of concerts across St Andrew’s Hall, the Cathedral, St Peter Mancroft and the Theatre Royal. Still, they were largely successful events, bringing Norwich audiences a taste of culture rarely seen outside London.
An evolution took place in 1824 with the formation of the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival, establishing a regular three-yearly pattern to proceedings. The first Triennial was a major success, attracting audiences of 10,000 and a sum in excess of £2000 being donated to the hospital.
As the 19th century wore on, the Festival grew to a position of eminence on the national and international scene. Over the next 100 or more years, it attracted a host of famous conductors and Directors including Sir Henry Wood, ‘Founder of the Proms’ and Sir Thomas Beecham. Felix Mendelssohn was even courted at one stage. The Festival too showed impressive artistic ambition, commissioning new works from the likes of Louis Spohr, Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams (his 1936 commission – Five Tudor Portraits will be revisited at this year’s Festival).
The Festival wooed, though never succeeded in securing, superstar vocalist, Jenny Lind. Lind had a long association with the city, performing several times here in the mid-1800s. Proceeds from her concerts were also donated to the hospital and the children’s hospital still carries her name today. Negotiations between the Festival and her management never bore fruit, but her work and life will also be explored in Fairytales & Nightingales at 2022’s Festival.
The 1950 Festival was postponed for a year to coincide with the Festival of Britain. Designed as a post-war ‘tonic to the nation’, thousands across the city came together in celebration and a young Princess Elizabeth visited and opened the Colman Art Gallery in the Castle.
The 50s also saw the beginning of the evolution of the Festival into something much more than a classical music event, with theatre and visual arts included in the programme for the first time. By 1961 jazz and a wider music programme was beginning to emerge.
In 1989, after much deliberation, the Festival went annual and through the 90s blossomed into the multi-artform celebration we know today. A growing outreach programme brought opportunities to young people around the county and a free outdoor programme emerged, ensuring as many as possible could enjoy the Festival.
This year’s Festival will look back on the past 250 years with events, performances and exhibitions celebrating its history and role in Norwich life. Always evolving though, the Festival will look to the future too, with an ambitious programme woven through with work for younger audiences and from exciting emerging talent. Find out what’s in store for ‘Festival 250’ over at www.nnfestival.org.uk.