Despite what Henry Ford said, history isn’t ‘bunk’. Britain’s past attracts millions from across the world, raises huge amounts of revenue and generates local and civic pride for any place lucky enough to have links to important people or events.
Lincoln is no different. Mathematician George Boole, whose Boolean logic underpins today’s computing, grew up there. 617 Squadron (The Dambusters) were based at nearby Scampton and between 1563-72 it was home to William Byrd, a pivotal and influential figure in Britain’s music heritage and organist and choirmaster at Lincoln Cathedral. Byrd died on 4 July 1623; this year marked the 400th anniversary of his passing.
The Cathedral was naturally the focal point for celebrations. But if you thought the city and county councils would want to share this unique event with them and publicise it widely to bring visitors to the city, you would be wrong. They made no mention of it all.
This is strange. In 2015, the UK marked the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and the county council capitalised vigorously. They spent a £20 million grant from the Heritage Lottery fund to restore Lincoln Castle to create a bespoke home for the copy of the original Magna Carta they own, with a temperature controlled vault in which the document is proudly displayed.
Other events ran in conjunction. There was a film festival, themed around the struggle for democracy across the world. Art work, in the form of stylised barons, was commissioned and placed around the city. Special trains were laid on for the expected throng of visitors. No opportunity was wasted, no effort spared.
The local authorities also make much of a more modern historical association. Lincolnshire calls itself Bomber County, because it was home to so many World War II airfields. Aeroplane enthusiasts flock there, to visit the International Bomber Command Memorial and two important bases (RAF Coningsby, home to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and RAF Waddington, base for the Red Arrows display team).
Many will argue that Magna Carta and the Dambusters raid are of world importance and iconic moments in Britain’s history and should be commemorated loudly and proudly. In cultural terms, William Byrd is equally important, which makes the lack of interest from the local authorities all the more difficult to understand.
A composer of international importance
Byrd was a composer of international importance. He, along with Shakespeare, was a central figure in the English Renaissance, when music and theatre became central benchmarks of English culture. He bridged the transition from Catholicism to the Protestant faith after the Reformation and – a Catholic himself – managed not only to survive at a time when to be Catholic was against the law and punishable by heavy fines and even death, but to prosper too. He wrote almost 500 works for the voice, keyboards and string consorts.
Radio 3 dedicated a whole week to him, including one programme that was specifically about his years in Lincoln. His time there as organist and choirmaster at the Cathedral led to employment as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, effectively Queen Elizabeth I’s private choir.
To their great credit, the Cathedral celebrated this remarkable career with a series of concerts and recitals, a two-day conference involving lectures on his life, times and legacy from international musicologists.
On 4 July, the anniversary of Byrd’s death itself, the festival concluded with a magnificent set piece – a concert of his music in the Cathedral nave given by the choir and The Tallis Scholars, a choral group of world renown. Reasonably-priced tickets were available for all to buy. It was packed out, evidence enough that there were many city people determined to share the singular experience of hearing Byrd’s exquisite music in the very place for which it was written. It was a fitting conclusion to a unique event.
There were other opportunities – besides those organised by the Cathedral – to enjoy world class musicians (Tenebrae, The Gesualdo Six, Fretwork, the Rose Consort of Viols) performing the music of Byrd and his contemporaries. However, these were not so widely available.
A company called Martin Randall Travel had exclusive rights to them and the only way to share in this once-in-a-lifetime experience was to buy an expensive all-in package (tickets, hotel accommodation, travel). At a stroke, that excluded most of the locals. Why would people in Lincoln pay through the nose for a package that includes accommodation? In effect, this cultural experience had been privatised and Lincolnshire people missed out.
Why this matters
Why does this matter? To many, serious music is a niche taste, a minority interest for the well-off and well-educated. Why should we be bothered that some people were deprived of this cultural experience?
The answer lies in understanding the importance of culture. With the country in the doldrums, culture becomes essential. It brings people together in a shared experience. It enhances mental health and wellbeing. It’s educative, allowing us to enjoy and appreciate things we might not know about. It’s bad enough that ‘cancel culture’ exists; if people are priced out of cultural opportunities as well, everyone suffers.
It doesn’t have to be serious music – any soccer fan whose club has been taken over by businessmen with deep pockets and no ties to a community and has found the cost of following their favourite team skyrocket, will understand this point.
George Orwell said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
This government shows no understanding of why culture matters so it falls to others to fill that vacuum. If that doesn’t happen, will we see a new Dark Age?