Calne Festival, Wiltshire

In 1977, aged 23, I was invited to work at the Calne Festival in Wiiltshire, founded two years earlier by local schoolteacher David White. Last Thursday I was invited to open the 40th anniversary Festival , and… wait a moment, where did the last thirty-seven years disappear to?

Also missing last week was the giant Harris bacon factory which, when I last worked in Calne was an unmissable central feature of the town – it was demolished in 1984. Teaching in both primary and secondary schools during my 1977 visit, I soon learned that Calne, quite counter-intuitively for a small town nestling in the beautiful Wiltshire downs, was a solid working community more reminiscent of the industrial north, with 20% of the population employed at the local factory, lunchtime factory hooters, and the Calne Silver Band, which I conducted during my period of residence.

Visiting last week, the opening art exhibition was packed, as was the world premiere of a musical about Calne's past, being performed nearby. I tend to think of the last forty years as being increasingly strained for the arts, so it was great to see this home-grown event thriving even more than I could have imagined. They have clearly discovered that the key to a good festival is quality artistic events with a local handle. In my opening speech on Thursday I recalled that in 1977 we’d had a visit from a local composer – Sir Michael Tippett, who lived just a couple of miles out of town. He also conducted the Silver Band that year (who must have been doubly nonplussed by this succession of unusual guest conductors.)

I finally recalled writing a Fanfare for the 1977 Festival which was performed by local brass players before many of the festival events. At the end of my talk, a familiar looking man emerged from the audience – this was Calne-based sculptor Richard Cowdy, who’d played horn in the Fanfare thirty-seven years ago. That vast time gap slipped away as Richard and I discussed my brass composition and all the strange incidents that befell it (for instance – it preceded the town symphony orchestra’s performance of Haydn’s Creation, causing confusion as to whether this was the famous ‘Representation of Chaos’ listed in the programme.) Not for the first time, I reflected on one of music’s superpowers – the one which allows it to telescope huge lengths of time into an instant.

Thanks to Glenis Ansell, Carole Browne and all at Calne Music&Arts Festival; and to David and Judy White (my generous hosts in 1977).

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer

© Judith Weir, 2020