The mission of the New Brunswick Competitive Festival of Music is to promote engagement, education and excellence in music and the performing arts through an annual festival.
In 1935 and 1936, the Halifax Conservatory held a competitive music festival which was open to all Maritime musicians. Apparently there were a few competitors from Sackville but, for the most part, it posed too many difficulties for New Brunswick students to participate.
Following the 1936 competition, Sir Ernest MacMillan of Toronto, who had been the adjudicator in Halifax, travelled to Saint John to meet with people about organizing a competitive festival in Saint John. He had previously contacted the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club who welcomed Sr. Ernest to a luncheon at the Admiral Beatteay Hotel. It is interesting to note that after Sir Ernest explained how to ‘start the ball rolling for a music festival…steps were then taken to get further details as to how British music festivals were conducted.” (Canadian were still looking to Europe i.e. Britain for ideas and direction even though there had been competitive music festivals in other parts of Canada for years. Specifically, the first such festival was held in Edmonton, Alberta in 1908).
Two months after the luncheon meeting, in July 1936, Maud Cowan Cormier, Mrs. J. Gordon Likely, Louise Knight and other officers of the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club met with Sir Hugh Roberton of Glasgow, Scotland who happened to be in Saint John at the time (probably visiting the family of his nephew, David Thomson, who was soon to found the Carriden Choir). Sir Hugh was an internationally-known composer, choir director and festival adjudicator. Interested citizens from Saint John were also invited to attend. Subsequently, there were meetings with Professor Harold Hamer of Mount Allison College and with Rotary, Kiwanis, and Gyro Clubs. The Rotary pledged financial support from the earliest meetings. On November 12, 1936, a meeting was held to form a festival organization, originally called “Competitive Festival of Music, New Brunswick” with Dr. C.W. MacMillan as president. A list of other officers may be found in the Appendix. Plans were made for a music festival with province-wide aims, to be held in Saint John annually, beginning in May, 1937. Judge Benjamin R. Guss drew up the first constitution. Miss Amelia Haley, chairman of music for the School Board, obtained the Board’s consent to use the High School and piano without charge.
There were 206 entries in the first festival, which was sponsored by the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club, the Saint John Rotary Club, who donated $300, and the Saint John Gyro Club. These organizations were vital to the creation and continuation of the festival not only for their financial contributions but by their individual members who filled Executive positions and Committees of the festival in the early years. The first festival was adjudicated by Reginald Stewart, a Scotsman who had come to Canada as a boy, had studied in Toronto and Europe, and was a famous pianist, conductor – both choral and symphonic – and festival adjudicators, based at the time, in Toronto.
As early as 1940 the Festival programme listed “local representatives” from Fredericton, Sackville, Moncton, Bathurst, Campbellton, St. Stephen, St. Andrews, Sussex and Woodstock. Thus, we see that the organization had gone beyond its original aim of sending the Syllabus to all parts of the province, and now had persons in several communities province-wide who represented (promoted) the Competitive Festival of Music in Saint John.
The first programme, in 1937, contained names of competitors from across the province: several from Campbellton, Newcastle, Fredericton, Edmundston, Sackville, Bathurst, for example.
In 1943, the festival became The New Brunswick Competitive Festival of Music, the name which has continued to the present day. Also, in that year, the constitution was revised by Judge Guss who, by this time, was the Treasurer and Chairman of the Scholarship committee. Incidentally, in 1941, there were 3 young musicians on scholarships from this festival, one of whom was Francis Chaplin, from Newcastle who studied at Mt. Allison, then Juilliard, eventually becoming one of Canada’s eminent violinists/teachers.
The 1940’s also saw such competitors as Kelsey Jones who later founded and conducted the Saint John Symphony Orchestra (among many other musical accomplishments); Corey Smith who was very active in the musical life of Moncton and was among the charter members of the N.B. Federation of Music Festivals in 1972; Frank, Edna and John Little of Campbellton, siblings of George Little, nationally known choir director, organist, educator and administrator who founded both the Montreal Bach Choir and CAMMAC, a bilingual summer camp and conference centre at Lake MacDonald, QC for amateur musicians (families and individuals).
From its beginnings in 1937, with 206 entries in violin, piano, brass, voice, school singing groups, the New Brunswick Competitive Festival of Music expanded year by year. It was able to carry on throughout the years of World War II when many other activities could not. An interesting anecdote linking this festival and the war was told to me by Gladys MacDonald of Campbellton: On VE day, May 8, 1945, Miss MacDonald was stranded in Saint John with 10 students from Campbellton. They were staying at the Victoria Hotel on King Street, but the hotel restaurant closed for the day, as did other restaurants, fearing they would be wrecked in the festivities celebrating the end of war. After searching for a place to eat, Miss MacDonald finally talked to a woman she knew who worked at the Royal Hotel. This woman gave them some fresh bread and tea for which they were very grateful.
By the late 1940’s, according to Miss MacDonald, who had taken her students from Campbellton to Saint John for several years to compete in the NB Competitive Festival, it was becoming very difficult to continue this practice. The Festival was now spread over several days, so students would have to miss more school to go to Saint John. As well, the expense of traveling there, staying somewhere, and eating away from home for many days, just got to be too much. Some parents who were well-off could take their children, but many could not go.
Probably that had something to do with some communities around the province starting their own competitive festivals even though many students would continue to compete at Saint John as well.
The NB Competitive Music Festival has carefully collected and preserved its historical documents (minutes of meetings, programmes, etc.) from its origin in 1936. These materials have been deposited in the Library Archives of the NB Museum and are available to researchers.