It was an item on BBC Radio 6 that reminded me of a plaque on the wall of the building in Glastonbury that was once home to the town’s Assembly Rooms. The plaque records that the building was the venue of the original Glastonbury festivals, organised by Rutland Boughton from 1914 until 1926.
From a modest background, Boughton was able to study at the Royal College of Music through the patronage of Ferdinand de Rothschild and was influenced in his political views by the works of William Morris, John Ruskin and George Bernard Shaw.
Boughton, along with friends Christina Walshe and Reginald Buckley, was attracted to Glastonbury by the legends of King Arthur. Inspired by Richard Wagner, Boughton hoped to establish a festival at Glastonbury similar to the festivals that Wagner had staged at Bayreuth. The Clark family, owners of the shoe factory in the neighbouring town of Street, supported Boughton in his efforts to create a summer school of music in the small Somerset town. Between 1914 and 1926, the Glastonbury festivals saw over 350 staged works, over 100 chamber concerts, and lectures and other cultural events.
Most of the hundreds of thousands of people who have attended Glastonbury festivals in their present incarnation since 1970 would probably regard Boughton as an establishment figure, as a man of traditional and conservative tastes. Many of them would see the orchestral music and the opera that he promoted as middle class, if not elitist. Younger people used to the musical genres of present-day Glastonbury festivals would probably not be listening to Boughton’s work and those who did so would probably regard it as removed from the reality of everyday life.
Boughton confounds such perceptions. He was a man far more radical than the organisers of the present Glastonbury festivals. Shaped by Christian socialist influences, he sought to promote a festival that was in accordance with his ideals. While Michael Eavis was once a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party of Tony Blair, politically, Rutland Boughton’s political thinking moved to a position that would now be described as “hard Left.” His sympathies with the miners in the 1926 strike prompted him to join the Communist Party of Great Britain. It was a decision that cost him the support of those who had previously funded his Glastonbury festivals and it brought the festivals to an end.
The young people who might have gathered at Worthy Farm on this weekend in June would have been no more than pale liberals when compared with deep red of the classical composer.