My visit to the Calne Festival in Wiltshire bought me to John Bentley School, which I last visited in 1977, when it was a grammar school transitioning with some difficulty, on two sites, into the extensive, well-equipped comprehensive (academy) it is today. Looking back to those early years, I now see what a strained time it was, with major social change in the secondary education system mandated by the government but placed in the hands of teachers to accomplish. Coincidentally, just as I write this, the present government seems to have re-commenced the expansion of grammar school places.
Inside the school hall, I was in time to hear the massed primary school singers of Calne in an energising programme of songs with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein, and the composers with whom he worked, created songs which are so central to musical memory (Oh what a beautiful morning, The hills are alive) that they make the rest of ‘twentieth century music’ (Stravinsky, Britten et al) look distinctly fringe-y. When the cast of hundreds burst into ‘Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain’, they could have been singing about the outlook from the school campus onto the Wiltshire Downs (pictured). Peter Grant, JBS assistant head, a GSMD-trained professional singer, had taken it upon himself, in the massively busy first weeks of term, to voyage round Calne teaching these wonderful songs in every primary school. For me this was a great example of the value of any intense musical experience for a primary school child; which they will always recall and can build on later if they’re interested. Peter conversely worries that the outstanding musicals from which these songs come are being forgotten, as they are never now seen in the extended runs in big theatres which they need to remain in public consciousness.
With the theme of memory and forgetfulness in the air, I was greatly cheered by the Festival’s evening show – presented by Festival founder David White (also a former JBS Head of Music) with huge elan and warmth. David left Calne 25 years ago, but incredibly was able to assemble his former choir The Circle Singers, who sang a few numbers including my own My Guardian Angel and a terrific The Silver Swan. Recollections flowed out of the audience, proving that it really worth lodging a bit of music in your brain as early as possible – it will pay remarkable mental and social dividends later on.