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An echo of the spheres in the shires

22 July 2016

The 301st Three Choirs Festival, in Gloucester, starts tomorrow. Jonathan Arnold, a former participant, explores the festival’s influence on the English musical tradition

 Chris Poole/Alamy

Roadshow: a Philharmonia Orchestra lorry outside Hereford Cathedral, 2015

Roadshow: a Philharmonia Orchestra lorry outside Hereford Cathedral, 2015

YOU cannot be schooled in Hereford, as I was, and not be aware of the Three Choirs Festival — the 300-year-old tradition that brings together the cathedral choirs of Hereford, Gloucester, and Worces­ter, the Festival Chorus, and world-class orchestras, as well recitalists and fringe events, for a week of musical and liturgical festivity.

But my first proper introduction to the festival came when I joined Hereford Cathedral Choir as a “supernumerary lay clerk” (choral scholar) in my gap year. For the Gloucester Festival of 1989 my ac­­com­modation was basic — a tent in a field — but the music-making (liturgical or otherwise) was grand and inspiring. The Hereford con­tingent of the chorus had spent many an evening rehearsing under the direction of the exacting Dr Roy Massey, whose memorable quips to errant singers I have never for­gotten: “He who never made a mistake, never made anything,” or simply: “Sort yourself out!”

Thus, like many a singer before me, the Three Choirs Festival be­­came an inspiring part of my musical education, and I was delighted to return, years later, as a soloist.

In my youth, I was entranced by the music and the atmosphere, but largely unaware of the rich and long history of the festival, nor indeed of how influential it has been on the British and global musical land­scape, not only in championing English choral music — from Purcell and Handel to Elgar, Parry, Vaughan Williams, Howells, and Finzi — but also, throughout its history, as a significant promoter of new music.

Through commissions and brave programming, it has been increas­ingly at the heart of advances in contemporary choral and orchestral music, and many of today’s estab­lished composers cut their teeth composing for the festival.


DANIEL LYSONS’s early 19th-­century festival history (republished in 1865 by the Gloucester Cathedral organist John Amott), together with more recent accounts by Watkins Shaw (1954), Anthony Boden (1992), and Barbara Young (2000), attests that the medieval choral foundations had long been con­nected. For instance, the “master composer” Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) was organist at Worcester (c.1596), hav­ing been a boy chorister at Glouces­ter, where his father had been Pre­centor.

The origins of the annual “Music Meetings” were outlined in a 1729 sermon preached by Thomas Bisse, the Chancellor of Hereford Cath­ed­ral. They sprang, he said, from “a fortuitous and friendly proposal, between a few lovers of harmony and brethren of the correspondent choirs . . . tendering to the furtherance of God’s glory, in the exaltation of His holy worship, to the improvement of our choirs, the credit of our founda­tions. . .”.

Bisse had also suggested that the meetings should benefit “the widows and orphans” of poor clergy within the three counties.


FROM the earliest days, new com­positions were written for the morn­ing and evening services, the music being, as Amott wrote, “in wonder­ful harmony with the associations and architectural char­ac­­teristics of our ancient hallowed Cathedrals”. Pur­cell’s Te Deum and Jubilate cant­icles were sung litur­gically almost annual­ly for the first 40 years.

Later, however, Amott opined “it is not, perhaps, too much to say, had it not been for the Music Festivals, the people generally would never have become acquainted with the highest form of musical com­posi­tion, the Oratorio.” With the rise of this new musical form, objections were made concerning the per­form­ance of oratorios in “sacred edifices”, and to the hiring of pro­fessional singers, “some of them fresh from the applause of the theatre; as though the Cathedral were profaned both by the per­formance and the perform­ers”.

In fact, since they “were associated with secular music”, the first oratorios at the festival were per­formed in secular buildings. But, Amott suggested, the sacred texts and the musical settings of these large choral works were best suited to the sacred space of a cathedral. A work such as Handel’s Messiah, performed in a town hall, he argued, “is but grand music; in a cathedral, it is a noble exponent of the religious feelings suggested by the daily uses of the edifice. From a mere com­position it is elevated into a fitting expression of that worship which has been offered up daily within the same walls for a thousand years, and is pouring forth of the deepest aspirations of the devout soul.” Messiah was sung at every festival, bar two, for more than 200 years (from 1757 to 1963).

After the introduction of female singers in 1772, the classical reper­toire expanded to include such works as Haydn’s The Creation (1800), with a typical morning con­cert programme of 1812 incor­porating recitatives and choruses from The Creation, Israel in Egypt, and other oratorios. No single oratorio was performed complete in these renditions, but rather extracts. Similarly, a programme of 1821 con­tained overtures, recitatives, arias, and choruses from larger pieces by Handel, Jommelli, Haydn, Mozart, Pergolesi, and Attwood.

When Samuel Sebastian Wesley became organist at Hereford Cath­ed­ral in 1832, he had written scathingly of provincial music: “Painful and dangerous is the position of a young musician who, after acquiring great knowledge of his art in the metropolis, joins a country cathedral. He can scarcely believe that the mass of error and inferiority in which he has to participate is habitual and irre­mediable.”

Nevertheless, over the next three years, Wesley achieved great things. The first meeting to be given the name “Three Choirs Festival” was in 1838, and, in the following years, chamber recitals were intro­duced, and performances of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Bach’s St Matthew Passion were given, under Wesley’s direction.


THE advent of the railways dra­matic­ally increased attendance, and the late-Victorian period gave the festival its distinctive reputation for many years to come. The influence of Sir Edward Elgar can hardly be overestimated. Having first played in the festival orchestra in 1878, he went on to conduct the first per­form­ance of his Overture Froissart, the première of The Light of Life (Lux Christi), and, of course, his Enigma Variations.

In the early 20th century, he conducted Caractacus (Scene III), his Cockaigne overture, and the first complete performance at the Three Choirs Festival of The Dream of Gerontius. Over the next 30 years, Elgar regularly directed his own works at the festival, including The Apostles, his overture In the South, The Kingdom, and his Violin Con­certo, the latter with Fritz Kreisler as the soloist.

Likewise, Sir Hubert Parry’s in­­fluence was profound. In 1880, he conducted the première of his Scenes from Shelley’s “Prometheus Un­­bound” ­— a work hailed by Sir Henry Hadow as the birth of modern English music — following it in subsequent years with his ora­torio Judith, his Ode on St Cecilia’s Day, the première of his De Pro­fundis, and his Song of Darkness and Light.

Other British composers asso­ciated with the festival, such as Sir John Stainer, Frederick Delius, and, of course, Ralph Vaughan Williams, made a huge impact on the direction of English music, both choral and orchestral. Vaughan Williams con­ducted the premières of his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Mag­nificat, Hodie, Five Mystical Songs, and many other works.


THE World Wars interrupted the festival twice. After the first res­ump­tion (after the First World War), the musical landscape was dominated by such composers as Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bliss, Howells, and Bax, with contri­butions from Dame Ethel Smyth, Dyson, Kodály, Bantock, and Walton.

After the Second World War, there was a shortage of lay clerks, prompting The Times, in 1955, to report that the cathedrals’ choral tradition had been “sadly mutil­ated”. Numbers revived, however, and the significant compositions that followed included works by Finzi, E. J. Moeran, Dyson, and Rubbra, as well as continued output from Vaughan Williams.

Although the repertoire in the ’50s and ’60s included Ravel, Stravinsky, Britten, Shostakovich, Paul Huber, Hindemith, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Frank Martin, and Howard Ferguson, in 1967 there was a call by William Mann in The Times for more radical musical compositions: “Do we have to admit that an existence of 240 years inevitably induces some sort of senile decay and that, in its present form, the Three Choirs Festival need to be retired or replaced for the musical health of the country?”

Whether or not in direct res­ponse to this criticism, the reper­toire in 1969 was noticeably more adven­turous, including the première of Jonathan Harvey’s Ludus Amoris, the first Three Choirs performance of Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass; Eliza­beth Maconchy’s And Death Shall Have No Dominion; Luigi Dallapiccola’s Due Liriche di Anacreonte, Quattro Liriche di Antonio Machado, and Canti di Prigionia; as well as Peter Maxwell Davies’s Five Carols for Boys’ Voices. In addition, at the Opening Service, William Mathias’s setting of Psalm 150 was heard for the first time.

Also in 1969, the first applause after a performance was recorded (for the National Youth Orchestra) — a practice that had been “dis­couraged and deplored in previous years” (Alan Charters). In the ’70s, new compositions abounded from John McCabe, Alun Hoddinott, John Joubert, Lennox Berkeley, and Geoffrey Burgon.

In a letter of 1977, the Gloucester Cathedral organist and Festival Dir­ector, John Sanders, set out his vision for com­­mis­sion­ing works: “One obviously wants to choose a com­poser who is go­­ing to be sym­­pa­thetic to the Fest­ival audience and also to the ability of the chorus . . . Had it not been for the Three Choirs Festival, very few modern English choral works would have seen the light of day! . . . In the past the Festival tended to concentrate on a few composers e.g. Handel 17th century, Elgar at the end of the 19th century, and Vaughan Williams very recently. Nowadays it is our policy to make the programme more rep­resentative of the international music scene.”

Thus, for the 250th anniversary of the festival in 1977, works were commissioned from Harrison Birt­wistle, Maxwell Davies, Rory Boyle, Ronald Tremain, and Tony Hewitt-Jones, along with the Mass of Christ the King by Malcolm Williamson, then Master of the Queen’s Music. All did not go smoothly, however, as Williamson failed to finish the piece on time, and attempted to complete the score in Gloucester on the day of the performance.

The conductor, Sanders, met William­son before the concert, and, despite Williamson’s fury, went ahead without the Gloria, Credo, or tenor solo psalm, and with the Agnus Dei accompanied by the organ only. The rest of the pro­gramme was hastily revised to include some Howells and Handel, although the Church Times reported that “Sanders had to achieve a viable performance of an incomplete work from an incomplete score, while that composer offered to copy out parts for the unfinished sections on the day, and seriously expected the orchestra and choir to perform from these, sight unseen. Sanders gently vetoed this, and performed what was ready to score.” He saved the day.

The work was eventually com­pleted, and performed in West­minster Cathedral in 1978. William­son later praised Sanders for his actions: “You behaved with the patience of a saint and with a profes­sionalism that I appreciate deeply. I see by hindsight the quandary in which I placed you.”


THROUGH the ’80s and ’90s, new works by ground-breaking com­posers, such as Jonathan Harvey’s Resurrection, Paul Trepte’s God’s Grandeur, and Pierre Villette’s Messe en Français, were performed side by side with British and Continental classics, such as Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

Of the British composers, Paul Patterson, Francis Pott, William Mathias, John Joubert, Michael Berkeley, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Paul Spicer were often evident in the programme. Highlights of new music in the 21st century to date have been premières of Sun-Dogs by James MacMillan, Three Preludes & Fugues: Hommage à Marcel Dupré (2009) by David Briggs; and world premières: John McCabe’s Songs of the Garden, John Joubert’s An English Requiem, and Cheryl Frances­­-Hoad’s Songs and Dances.

Other notable commissions have been Jackson Hill’s Still, in Remem­brance, Ian King’s A Worces­tershire Song Cycle, Nicholas Brown’s On the Operations of the Sun, Dobrinka Tabakova’s Centuries of Meditation, James d’Angelo’s Venite, John O’Hara’s The Bargee’s Wife, and Torsten Rasch’s A Foreign Field, which commemorated events in the First and Second World Wars.

Thus, throughout its 300-year life, the festival has been responsible for an enormous output of crea­tivity, and has played a vastly significant part in British music history. It may seem a far cry from the simple gatherings of the 18th-
century cathedral choirs that, in this year’s festival in Gloucester, we can expect Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand amongst a panoply of world-class music and artists; but, at its heart, the ethos remains the same: it is a week for “lovers of harmony” .


The Revd Dr Jonathan Arnold is Dean of Divinity and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, a former member of The Sixteen, and author of Sacred Music in Secular Society. www.3choirs.org

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