The modern music festival is a relatively new kind of event in Europe. Its origins seem to go back to church music. The charity service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was extended in the late 17th century to last several days, giving rise to a festival of music and choral singing named the Festival of the Songs of the Clergy.
The English were delighted with Handel’s oratorios. Choirs rehearsed them, and as much as three hundred singers and almost as many instrumentalists took part in the grand Handel festival at the end of the 18th century. Various choral societies were also set up on the Continent.
Switzerland evolved into a centre of choral singing. “The male voice chorus: a national strength”, declared Hans Georg Nägeli, a musician who had embraced the educational principles of Pestalozzi and believed, in the spirit of Enlightenment philosophy and the French Revolution, that choral music develops man’s best inclinations. At the time, the power of choral singing was aimed against Napoleon’s occupation force. In 1825, the German-speaking Swiss arranged the country’s first song festival, where patriotic feeling ran high. Physical military skills were honed with gymnastic exercises.
The first public song festival in Germany took place in Wurzburg in 1845. The political programme of the next event, in Lubeck in 1847, was no longer concealed, with participants openly demanding the secession of Schleswig-Holstein from Denmark. The Danes, however, put down the ensuing rebellion.
The historian Aimo Halila has traced back another fixture of the early music festivals: the celebrations of marksmen’s clubs, which were somewhat like trade guilds. The first Pan-German marksmen’s festival was held in Gotha in 1861. The programme included music, gymnastics and contest in the noble sport of singing.
The Nuremberg festival of 1861 marked the grand culmination for choral music. Within the space of a few decades, the repertoire had grown and diversified tremendously. Edifying speeches were an essential ingredient of the events, as were song and composition contests. An era began during which the battle of wits gradually came to be as highly appreciated as military prowess.