History of the Festival

Source: ‘Song of the Music Makers’ by John M Jennings, 1989, University of Canterbury


  • George Martin, a teacher at St Alban’s School, approached the Canterbury Education Board and the North Canterbury Headmasters’ Association in late 1938 and received support for a Christchurch Schools’ Music Festival. George was appointed Musical Director and over 10-12th August, 1939, the first Festival was staged in the Civic Theatre. It was made up from twenty-five participating school choirs.
  • The first Festival was comprised of three evening concerts and two matinee performances.
  • Programme: First half was comprised of items from various school choirs; second half was comprised of items by massed choirs and instrumental items by guest soloists and/or ensembles.
  • One of the principal objectives of the Festival was to help schools to foster school singing and music.

1941 – 1944

  • Because of the World War, the Festival was in recess. This was due to a number of issues including a shortage of trained music teachers, rationing of resources, limitation of transport and fuel rationing. As he was a conscientious objector, the North Canterbury Headmaster’s Association required the resignation of George Martin .


  • Festival was recommenced at the Civic Theatre over 4th – 6th October with Hugh Findlay as Musical Director. The Festival was now an annual event.


  • Venue for the Festival was the Civic Theatre and Canterbury Court.


  • A decision made to separate the School of Instrumental Music (CSIM) from the Music Festival Association as, up to this time, both groups were combined. CSIM became a duly registered separate entity.
  • The Festival was held in the Canterbury Court in October with fifty schools participating.
  • 6th November, Christchurch Schools’ Music Festival became an Incorporated Society.

1965 – 1971

  • The Festival continued to be in the Civic Theatre until 1971.
  • 1971 was the last Festival with the old format of individual school choirs and instrumental groups performing.


  • Doug Kelly, District Adviser on School Music, presented a detailed proposal for the formation of representative groups: senior and junior choirs, orchestras, bands and creative music and percussion groups were instituted where children from all schools were auditioned and children achieved places on merit. A 3-day holiday course was commenced for these groups.
  • Doug Kelly had been to Australia and brought back the idea of the representative groups from there. His recommendation that the Association adopt this model was accepted.


  • A new venture, initiated in 1977 for the 1978 Festival, was the occasional competition for an original composition. Winning entries were performed in the Festival. This was initiated because of a call for more New Zealand content.
  • The same year, a competition for the design of a poster for use in advertising was instituted attracting some attractive and creative designs.


  • An 6.3 magnitude earthquake on 22 February wrecked the Town hall and forced the Festival to transfer to the Horncastle Arena and to shorten the season to three nights.


  • The use of a large-format video display of the performers set above and behind the stage was used for the first time.
  • The Recorder Ensemble was taken out of the programme due to time considerations.


  • An earlier start (7.00pm) was introduced
  • The order was slightly changed so that the Concert Band accompained the opening bracket and was the first Special Group to play
  • The number of Massed Choir songs was reduced to ten.


  • Sharyn Hay was elected as President of the CSMFA, the first woman to hold the position since the Association’s inception.