The Three Choirs Festival, HerefordshireThe rather more famous Edinburgh Festival is a mere upstart compared to the Three Choirs Festival held annually in rotation in the cities of Hereford , Gloucester and Worcester . The earliest incarnation for which documentary proof remains is for 1719, though evidence points to a similar gathering existing in 1715 (the date from which the organisers number the festivals), 1709, or even in the preceding century.
In its earliest form the festival consisted of music clubs from the three centres gathering to celebrate their artistic love, and it remained a rather local affair for many years, a social occasion as well as musical, with horse-racing and other entertainments organised in parallel; when the railway age dawned, however, easier access brought musical aficionados from further afield in Britain; today guests from around the world make for that particular year’s host city in August.
The focus of the event for much of its existence has been sacred choral music, eventually widened to include orchestral and chamber works, though the late Victorian period saw a reversion to the early religious and strictly choral basis for a time.
As may be expected of an event held in archetypal English places like Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester, the music performed over the years has had a decidedly English flavour. Purcell ’s works featured heavily in the 18th century, then honorary Englishman Handel joined him as a firm favourite, Messiah one of the most frequently performed oratorios (though such supposedly non-church music was only included in the cathedral concerts long after the composers Te Deums for example had been introduced). Its existence may be said to have influenced generation of British composers, particularly since pieces have been commissioned specially for performance there.
In more recent times three suitably ‘provincial’ English composers have occupied central roles in many programmes: of the three Lowestoft-born Benjamin Britten is the non-regional interloper; Edward Elgar was born and died in Worcester; and Ralph Vaughan Williams came from near Cirencester in Gloucestershire.
Performances in the great cathedrals are still the focal point of each year’s event, but subsidiary happenings create a fuller programme for the many visitors attending: chamber music concerts; exhibitions; readings and presentations. And of course the cities have a multitude of other attractions of a non-musical kind on offer: the agrarian three counties have a shared brewing ( cider and beer) history in addition to their musical heritage, another source of sensual pleasure; the countryside beyond – the Malvern Hills for example – is another great draw; and the cities themselves have a wealth of architectural gems and historical associations.
The Three Choirs Festival then is a gateway to a very civilised version of England: where culture and history combine to pleasurable effect, in a rather gentle and genteel way, our enduring love for sacred choral music whether we believe or no given a glorious outlet.
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