The Birmingham Triennial Musical Festivals

We have been looking at a collection of Birmingham Musical Festival programmes in our Conservatoire Archive.


The first Birmingham Musical Festival took place in 1768 and was performed at St. Phillip’s Church (now Birmingham Cathedral) to raise funds for the construction of a new General Hospital.  From 1784, it became the Birmingham Triennial Musical Festival, running performances every three years.  The aim of the festivals continued to be to raise funds for the Birmingham General Hospital.  Early Festivals were performed in St. Phillip’s Church or the Theatre Royal in New Street but due to popularity, soon outgrew these venues.


When Birmingham Town Hall was completed in 1834, the Birmingham Triennial Musical Festivals were then hosted there.  In fact the 1832 Festival was delayed for two years, eventually taking place in 1834 on completion of the new purpose-built music venue.

Some notable pieces of music were composed for the Triennial Musical Festivals.


Mendelssohn composed and conducted the premiere of his oratorio Elijah in 1846, commissioned by the Festival. The performance was a great success and 1846 was possibly the greatest year for the Birmingham Festivals. Due to its popularity, Elijah was performed at every subsequent festival.



The festivals also had a Royal connection. ‘Invocazione all’Armonia’ composed by Prince Albert was performed at the 1849 festival. This was the longest song composed by the Prince and set mostly to poems written in German and Italian by his brother Ernst. Prince Albert however, wrote the words for ‘Invocazione’.


For Elgar’s 1900 Festival commission, the text of Cardinal Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius was chosen. Cardinal Newman who founded the Birmingham Oratory in 1849, will be canonised in Rome by Pope Francis on 13 October 2019. His poem written in 1865, describes the prayer of a dying man and the journey of his soul to the judgment seat of God.

The first performance of The Dream of Gerontius did not go well.  The piece was insufficiently rehearsed and the choir could not sing the music adequately.  Despite this, some of the critics were able to see past the imperfect performance and the work has come to be generally regarded as Elgar’s finest choral composition.


The 1909 and 1912 festivals ran at a loss, with the General Hospital receiving no donations at all.  The onset of World War I marked the end of the Triennial Festivals.

If you would like to find out more about the Birmingham Music Festivals or are interested in viewing our Festival programmes, please get in touch and book a visit Records Management and Archives.


^Posted on behalf of the Records Management Team