A History of the Festival
Stour Music was founded in 1962 by my father, the counter-tenor Alfred Deller, principally as a festival devoted to early music, but in the initial years it also included exhibitions of paintings, organised by the distinguished painter John Ward. It was John who introduced Alfred to the remarkable ‘pilgrim’ church at Boughton Aluph, which was to become the inspiration for the festival, and where it now takes place over the last two weekends of June each year.
Set in the heart of the Garden of England, the festival takes its name from the River Stour, which runs along the valley between Ashford and Canterbury. The early festivals were held in a number of venues along the Stour valley, including the parish churches of Ashford, Wye, Chilham and Boughton Aluph, Canterbury Cathedral and Chapter House, and the impressive country house of Olantigh near Wye. Alfred was then at the height of his international career and was able to call upon numerous luminaries of the early music scene to come and perform at the festival, so that regular participants included such people as August Wensinger and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brueggen, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus , Collegium Aureum from Köln, David Munrow, and of course Alfred’s own group The Deller Consort as a sort of resident ensemble. In fact Stour was the platform for the first appearances in this country of Harnoncourt and the Concentus, and was amongst the first pioneers to promote performances of works like Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, King Arthur, The Indian Queen, Bach’s Mass in B minor, and many of the Handel oratorios, using ‘original’ instruments.
The first festival, held in the summer of 1963, was just one day and consisted of an illustrated talk on early instruments in Chilham Castle, given by that inspirational and wonderfully eccentric musician Francis Baines; a Bach concert (Cantata 106, Brandenburg 4 and the Magnificat) with the Kalmar Chamber Orchestra and the specially formed Festival Choir in Chilham Church, and a concert of 16th & 17th century music given at Olantigh by The Deller Consort, The Jaye Consort of Viols and the Kalmar Chamber Orchestra. Needless to say it was all done on a shoestring, and I remember the ad hoc committee, meeting in my parents house after the festival to ‘count the cost’, discovering that the deficit was 8s 6d, whereupon my father put his old garden cap on the floor and we all threw in our loose change!
The success of that first festival was sufficiently encouraging for Alfred and the committee to embark on a three day festival for 1964, which included amongst other things the first performance of a new work by Edmund Rubbra, and a recital of music by Michael Tippett, introduced by the composer. It also featured the first modern day performance of Arne’s The Masque of Alfred, at the end of which John Ward’s wife was memorably ‘revealed’ as Britannia. 1965 saw another first performance, this time of a work by Wilfred Mellers, and also a performance (broadcast by the BBC) of Vecchi’s L’Amfiparnaso, which was to be repeated some 40 years later at Stour in a brilliantly staged version by the ensemble I Fagiolini.
The abiding success of Stour Music can be divided quite conveniently into two chapters in its history. Until 1974, under Alfred’s direction, the festival continued to promote its concerts in venues all along the Stour Valley, and those at Olantigh House somehow typified the whole ethos of the venture. The poet Christopher Hassall, in his introduction to the first festival, spoke of
The shared experience … a communion between listener and performer … impossible in a great assembly … (which) means the restoration of a large body of music to the private salon or to the church where it originally belonged. With the appropriate setting and a perceptive audience of proportionate size, the work will not only sound, but feel right.
To hear the Concentus Musicus, for example, or for that matter the Deller Consort, in the intimate surroundings of Olantigh was something very special. But – and here’s the rub – to make such an experience available to such a relatively small number of people was not only economically precarious, but, even in the climate of the mid 1970s, ran the risk of being considered elitist.
Fortuitously, two events occurred which forced our hand. The owners of Olantigh, after thirteen years of having their house turned upside down and taken over by hoards of musicians, decided that enough was enough; and then just 3 years later Alfred died. I had already taken over the reins of the festival in 1975, but the wonderful hospitality afforded the visiting artists, by Alfred and his wife Peggy in the garden of their Elizabethan house nearby, had continued to lure musicians from around the globe. In an attempt not only to retain the loyal patrons of the Olantigh experience, but also recreate something of the warmth of artist hospitality previously provided by my parents, I took the decision in to focus the whole festival on Boughton Aluph Church, and at the same time provide hospitality facilities (in the fields of rural Kent!) for both performers and audience. Marquees and portaloos were erected, and audience capacity for the concerts was increased to 450. It proved an instant success, and with the tremendous support of more than 70 volunteers each year, the festival has gone from strength to strength.
Today, as I begin to think about plans for our 50th anniversary in 2012 (coincidentally the centenary of Alfred’s birth) I recall some of the individuals from years past, who made such an impact on me and on the development of the festival – Leonhardt, Harnoncourt, Brueggen and my Dad for sure – Julian Bream, Esther Lamandier, David Munrow, and the two Deller Consort lutenists, Desmond Dupre and Robert Spencer – singing Britten Canticles with Peter Pears – Kent Opera’s premiere of The Burning Fiery Furnace – Lynne Dawson singing almost anything – and just this year, Mark Padmore singing Dowland songs in a Late Night candlelit concert. Pure magic. The ‘old man’ would have been thrilled to bits.