Boughton was a friend of Alice Mary Buckton, Edward William Elgar, John Galsworthy, John Arthur Goodchild, Eugene Aynsley Goossens (whose son Leon Goossens was a close friend of Yehudi Menuhin), the Rothschild family, William Sharp, George Bernard Shaw, Ethel Smyth, Wellesley Tudor Pole,
Rutland Boughton was the son of grocer William Boughton (1841-1905) whose shop occupied Buckingham Street in the town of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. From an early age he showed signs of exceptional talent for music although formal training opportunities did not immediately become available to him.
In 1892 he was apprenticed to a London concert agency and six years later his attention was attracted by several influential musicians including the Rothschild family that enabled him to raise sufficient monies to study at the RCM in London.
The amount raised, however, was only sufficient to maintain his studies for one year after which he left the RCM and took up ad-hoc work first in the pit of the Haymarket Theatre then as official accompanist to the baritone David Ffrangcon Davies (whose daughter, Gwen, later became associated with the Glastonbury Festivals in her famous role Etain in The Immortal Hour).
In 1903, he married former Aylesbury neighbour’s daughter, Florence Hobley, that he was to regret years later. It was in 1905 (the year he completed his first symphony “Oliver Cromwell”) that he was approached by Granville Bantock to become a member of staff at the Birmingham and Midland Institute of Music (now the Birmingham Conservatoire).
It was whilst at Birmingham (1905 to 1911) Boughton was presented with many new opportunities and made many friends. He proved an excellent teacher and an outstanding choral conductor which won him much recognition. He was drawn into the socialist ideas through the writings of John Ruskin, William Morris, Edward Carpenter and George Bernard Shaw, the latter with whom he developed a life-long relationship.
It was also during those years that he became attached to the young art student, Christina Walshe, who was later to become his partner and artistic “right-hand man” for his Glastonbury projects.
His friendship with George Bernard Shaw had begun when Boughton had been turned down from his invitation to collaborate on an opera. George Bernard Shaw initially refused to be associated with any of Boughton’s music but Boughton would not be sidelined and eventually George Bernard Shaw realised they had something in common that was to endure.
Out of his process of self-discovery and self-education, came the artistic aims that were to occupy Boughton for all his life. As a young man, he planned a fourteen-day cycle of dramas on the life of Christ in which the story would be enacted on a small stage in the middle of an orchestra while soloists and the chorus would comment on the action.
Although this did not come to anything, the idea remained with him and by 1907 Boughton’s discovery of the theories and practices of Wilhelm Richard Wagner, combined with his impression that the church’s vision of Christianity had somewhat failed, he turned to another subject – King Arthur.
Based upon the Ring Cycles at Bayreuth, and parallel to the ideas set about by the young poet Reginald Buckley in his book Arthur of Britain, Boughton set out to create a new form of opera which he later called “choral drama”. At this point, the three collaborators – Boughton, Reginald Buckley and Walshe – would set out to establish a national festival of drama.
Whilst London’s Covent Garden was ideal for the established operatic repertoire, it would not prove to be so for the plans set out by Boughton and Reginald Buckley and eventually they decided that they should build their own theatre and, using local talent set up a form of commune or cooperative.
At first Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire was deemed a suitable location for the project (the Arts and Crafts Movement was significant at that time) but they later turned to the Somerset town of Glastonbury, the alleged resting place of King Arthur and a place steeped in legend.
Meanwhile, Dan Godfrey and his Bournemouth orchestra had established a reputation for supporting new English music and it was here where Boughton’s first opera from the Arthurian cycle, The Birth of Arthur, actually received its first performance. (It was also at Bournemouth where Boughton’s 2nd Symphony got a first hearing and where The Queen of Cornwall was performed for the first time using an orchestra, and attended by Thomas Hardy himself).
By 1911, Rutland Boughton had resigned from Birmingham and moved to Glastonbury where, together with Walshe and Reginald Buckley, he began to focus on establishing the country’s first national annual summer school of music.
The first production was not in fact the project of the Arthurian Cycle but that of Boughton’s new choral-drama, The Immortal Hour, which he composed in 1912 which with a national appeal to raise funds was produced with the full backing of people such as Granville Bantock, Thomas Beecham, John Galsworthy, Eugene Aynsley Goossens, Holst, Ethel Smyth and George Bernard Shaw.
Edward William Elgar promised to lay the foundation stone and Thomas Beecham promised to lend his London orchestra. However, in August 1914, the month set for the opening of the first production, World War 1 had been declared and the full plans had to be postponed.
Boughton, however, was determined to proceed and the Festivals began and instead of Thomas Beecham‘s orchestra, he used a grand piano and instead of a theatre, he incorporated the local Assembly Rooms that were to remain the centre of activities until the end of the Festivals in 1926, by which time Boughton had mounted over 350 staged works; 100 chamber concerts; a number of exhibitions, and a series of lectures and recitals – something never previously been seen in England.
In 1922, Boughton’s Festival Players went on tour and became established at Bristol in the Folk Festival House (now demolished) and at Bournemouth.
Having been successful in Glastonbury and well received in Birmingham, the director of the then new Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Barry Vincent Jackson, decided to take the Glastonbury Festival Players production to London where it achieved the record breaking run of over 600 performances.
On its arrival at the Regent Theatre in 1922, it secured an initial run of over 200 consecutive performances and a further 160 in 1923, with a highly successful revival in 1932.
People came to see the opera on more than one occasion (including members of the Royal family) and especially to see and hear the young Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies whose portrayal as Etain began her professional acting career.
In addition to The Immortal Hour and Bethlehem, his other operas The Queen of Cornwall (1924) based on Thomas Hardy‘s play, and Alkestis (1922) based on the Greek play by Euripides (which reached Covent Garden in 1933), were also very well received.
These latter works have not been publicly heard since the mid-1960s when the original Rutland Boughton Trust, organised by Adolph Borsdorf, sponsored professional concert performances held in London and Street in Somerset.
The downfall of the Glastonbury Festivals came about when Boughton, sympathising with the General Strike and the miners lockout of 1926, insisted on staging his very popular Nativity opera Bethlehem (1915) at Church House, Westminster, London, with Jesus born in a miner’s cottage and Herod as the top-hatted capitalist, flanked by soldiers and police.
The event caused much embarrassment to the people of Glastonbury and they withdrew their support to Boughton causing the Festival Players to go into liquidation.
From 1927 until his death in 1960, Boughton lived at Kilcot, near Newent in Herefordshire where he completed the last two operas of his Arthurian cycle (Avalon and Galahad, which to this day have not been performed) and produced some of his finest works, the quality of these of which has only been realised within the past 20 years.
These include his 2nd and 3rd symphonies (the latter was first performed at the London Kingsway Theatre in 1939 in the presence of, among others, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Clarence Raybould and Alan Bush); a number of pieces for the oboe (including two concertos, one dedicated to his talented daughter Joy and the other to Leon Goossens); chamber music and a number of orchestral pieces.
In 1934 and 1935, Boughton attempted to repeat his earlier successes at Glastonbury with festivals commissioned at Stroud and Bath, and these saw the release of new works, The Lily Maid (the third opera in the Arthurian Cycle) and The Ever Young.
Boughton’s reputation was, however, affected by his political leanings towards Communism, and his music was subsequently neglected for the next 40 years. Boughton died at the home of his daughter, Joy, in Barnes, London, in 1960.
The Immortal Hour was first performed in 1916, starring Frederic Austin (member of the Frankfurt Group (in which Frederick Albert Theodore Delius sometimes appeared), and a close friend of Arnold Edward Trevor Bax and George Percy Grainger),