Faà di Bruno, Giovanni Matteo [Horatio, Orazio] 83

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A generic term, derived from the Latin festivitas, for a social gathering convened for the purpose of celebration or thanksgiving. Such occasions were originally of a ritual nature and were associated with mythological, religious and ethnic traditions. From the earliest times festivals have been distinguished by their use of music, often in association with drama. In modern times the music festival, frequently embracing other forms of art, has flourished as an independent cultural enterprise, but it is still often possible to discover some vestige of ancient ritual in its celebration of town or nation, political or religious philosophy, living or historical person. The competitive music festival has also retained combative features reminiscent of festival events of former times.

The present article is concerned with the evolution of the musical festival in Western Europe and North America, and with developments elsewhere in the world that have sprung from these traditions; discussions of individual festivals may also be found in the articles on the relevant towns and cities.

1. Ritual origins.

2. Court festivals of state, c1350–c1800.

3. Choral festivals in England, Germany and Austria, c1650–c1900.

4. Commemorative festivals, c1750–c1900.

5. North American festivals, c1850–c1900.

6. The 20th century.

7. List.




1. Ritual origins.

The earliest festivals were held to celebrate important points within the annual cycle of seasons, as well as family or tribal events. Their main purpose was to stimulate the unseen forces considered to be the arbiters of human destiny to give good crops and protection against natural disaster. The most famous early example of festival ritual was the Olympic Games, held on the plain of Olympus in Greece in honour of Zeus. These combined athletic competitions and religious observances with music and dancing, and were held at the time of the summer solstice. From 776 bc the games took place every fourth year until, in their original form, they were abolished at the end of the 4th century. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88; chap.15) Edward Gibbon gave a succinct account of the character of festivals, ‘artfully framed and disposed throughout the year’, that distinguished Roman civilization. In due course their influence coalesced with that of various Middle Eastern traditions subsumed in Hebraic culture to provide a foundation for the religious feasts of European Christianity. Lang (1884) pointed out, for example, that ‘in Catholic countries, to this day, we may watch, in Holy Week, the Adonis feast described by Theocritus (Idyll XV), and the procession and entombment of the old god of spring’.

Among the British people who withdrew into Wales under the impact of post-Roman invasions the art forms of the Druidic bards were retained in the Eisteddfod, a competition in poetry and music. The first for which there is reliable documentary evidence was in 1176, but an eisteddfod supervised by the famous bard Taliesin is reputed to have taken place as early as 517 at Ystum Llwdiarth in South Wales, and another about 20 years later near Conway in North Wales. Since the 12th century the institution has played an important role within the concept of Welsh nationhood. In the 16th century the highly competitive nature of the eisteddfod was emphasized by the presentation of silver models of bardic chair, tongue, harp and crwth to those who performed best in the main sections. The modern Royal National Eisteddfod is held each year in a different place in Wales and, being conducted entirely in Welsh, it has contributed much to the development of Welsh political consciousness as well as to Welsh culture. Since the late 19th century eisteddfods have been held among Welsh communities in the USA, Canada and Australia, and in 1947 an International Eisteddfod was inaugurated at Llangollen in North Wales.

In Ireland pagan and Christian practices met traditionally on St Bridget’s Day (the first day of spring), St Patrick’s Day (the first day of sowing), May Day, St John’s Eve, All Hallows Day and many more. The term ‘feis’, associated in the first place with an ancient gathering at Tara described in the 12th-century Book of Leinster, is now used to denote a cultural festival. The Feis Ceoil, inaugurated in Dublin in 1897 by the Irish National Literary Society and the Gaelic League, is, like the Welsh eisteddfod, intensely nationalist in content. Also in 1897 a purely Gaelic cultural festival, ’Oireachtas, was instituted under the presidency of Douglas Hyde.

An institution similar to the eisteddfod was the Puy, a competitive festival held from the 12th century to the early 17th in northern France by the literary–musical societies also known as puys. Around 1575 a musical puy dedicated to St Cecelia was established in Evreux; Giullaume Costeley was among its founders, and Orlande de Lassus among the prizewinners.

During the medieval period the festival absorbed elements of chivalry, popular dumb-shows, religious theatre and allegory. Its principal element was the procession with its religious overtones, mute pageants or tableaux vivants, and mystery plays. Depending on the context, a distinction was made between musical ensembles of loud and soft instruments; vocal music was either sung unaccompanied or combined with the latter.


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