Birmingham Conservatoire has promoted many glittering festivals in the past and about to join that roster is the forthcoming week-long celebration of English composers including the music of Frederick Delius and John Ireland.

An amazing array of Conservatoire staff and students will be contributing to the proceedings, not only a showcase for these two composers, but also for the international panoply of performers, both tutors and pupils, who form part of the busy population of Birmingham City University’s Faculty of Music.

Various anniversaries give momentum to the festival: last year’s sesquicentenary of Delius’ birth and the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s death; this year’s centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, the 60th anniversary of the death of Sir Arnold Bax, and the 25th anniversary of the death of the great Coventry-born pianist Denis Matthews.

One of the highlights of the festival will be the premiere of Chaos and Cosmos, a tone-poem for full symphony orchestra written by Britten when he was just 13 years old.

Dr Lucy Walker, director of learning and development at the Britten-Pears Foundation in Aldeburgh, says: “We always knew of the existence of Chaos and Cosmos, in fact Britten referred to it in a talk he gave in 1946, but it had never been typeset before.

“It was a complete score rather than a series of sketches – in fact there isn’t even any draft material relating to it.

“Britten seems to have written it straight out; and the typeset score we have made is a direct copy. That in itself is remarkable: if there was much in the way of sketch material, he would almost definitely have kept it. Britten gave the manuscript score to his parents for their 26th wedding anniversary in 1927.”

All of this has arisen through the work of Michael Harris (former Conservatoire head of woodwind) and Birmingham Conservatoire students in reviving and recording music Britten composed during his formative years.

“This all came about when I was over at the Britten/Pears library working on my own research project, looking at Britten’s conducting scores of Mozart,” Michael explains. “Lucy Walker came in with several boxes of manuscripts of early schoolboy orchestral works by Britten and asked if we might be interested in recording excerpts of them with our students in Birmingham.

“This would be for the on-line thematic catalogue of his work which I think will be up and running sometime this year. So we set up the Adrian Boult Hall and spent a week with Lionel Friend doing rehearse/record sessions of more than 50 short tracks including this tone poem Chaos and Cosmos.

“As a thank-you, Colin Matthews suggested we gave a premiere performance, so here we are!”

Music by Britten, Delius, Ireland and others features in this generous sequence of concerts, recitals, talks and competitions. John Thwaites, head of keyboard studies at Birmingham Conservatoire, tells me how the festival came about.

Young Benjamin Britten
Young Benjamin Britten

“Our keyboard department is full of recording/festival artists who are very aware of the British music scene, and of anniversaries. With such artists working in one’s department, it would hardly be possible NOT to have a Festival of British Music!”

And John pays tribute to the galvanising input of Conservatoire piano tutor Mark Bebbington, who has become one of this country’s greatest exponents of John Ireland’s piano music.

“Mark, with his knowledge of this repertoire and passion for it, has been central to this event.

He begins the festival on Monday. His students are playing much of the music, and he has worked in master classes across the department (as has John Lenehan, another great advocate of this repertoire who has been helping to prepare our students),” he says.

The Britten premiere will be the highlight of the festival’s concluding concert when the Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra and Chorus cross Chamberlain Square to the magnificent elegance of Birmingham Town Hall. Conductor Emeritus Lionel Friend’s programme will also include Praeludium for Brass, Bells and Percussion by Sir Michael Tippett and will end with Delius’ Walt Whitman-inspired Sea Drift.

The Town Hall concert on June 21 is dedicated to the memory of Frank Shaw, former chairman of the Conservatoire’s Board of Governors and a great friend and supporter of Birmingham Conservatoire.

* The Birmingham Conservatoire’s Delius/Ireland Festival will take place from June 17 until June 21. For more details, tel: 0121 245 4455.

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