The Three Choirs Festival – A History
A book by Anthony Boden and Paul Hedley
Published by Boydell Press
We all know of the regular music festivals, such as Glastonbury, Leeds, Isle of Wight, Big Chill, etc, etc, many of which have been going for decades, and which many of us have enjoyed attending too, but how many people actually attend, regularly, possibly ’the’ oldest music festival ever – The Three Choirs Festival? Well, from it’s very humble and basic beginnings in the heart of England, and established by the enthusiasm of music loving folk in the three counties of Hereford, Gloucester, and Worcester, this festival has actually run for 300 years, what, I hear you gasp, or hope you have! Yep, truly 300 years, give or take a few years, halting only during the horrors of two world wars, it has held concerts of music continuously throughout this period. Well, a new book has been published to celebrate this fact. The festival, as you’ll read if you get yourself a copy, developed, yes, from the clergy of the cathedral’s and a few amateur and professional musicians to bring music to the middle of England provinces. Although originally, the programme of music was mainly classical music, and centred around the cathedrals and town halls, over the last 100 years the festival has opened up to a wide variety of venues and a matching wide variety of musical genres, which provides a stunning yearly festival of musical delights, bringing together some of the greatest Jazz, Folk, Rock and Classical musicians from around the world to these beautiful cities, and sharing with us a real eclectic atmosphere of musical creativity every summer. So I’ll share a few words here on the new edition to our music book library, and it’s a pretty cool book too.
From the front cover of this book, with the backdrop of a the large stained glass windows of Hereford cathedral and musicians in mid-performance of Dream of Gerontius by Elgar, it immediately, draws the reader through eyesight expectation alone, not, what will entice our cerebral thoughts inside. As a composer myself, I have always been fascinated about the origins of any festival, but also being an enthusiast of British music, the Three Choirs Festival has, and still is, in my mind when I think about important music festivals. As a regular visitor to each of the three counties, I have come to know each of the cities involved here, pretty well, over the years. So imagine my delight, when I got the chance to read and review such a great book. This new book by Anthony Boden and Paul Hedley is actually a revised edition of the book published by Alan Sutton in 1992. Never to let things like this put me off, another edition was inevitable anyway, really, wasn’t it, as the festival has grown extensively over the last 25 years,and continues to do so, as does research, assessment of previous detailed information, etc, etc, thus we have to have an up to date edition to really appreciate everything about such an amazing festival. When the parcel arrived on my doorstep, I thought, blimey, this will take some reading, it’s a large , thick book, and, with equal to appearance, a weight to hold. But no way was i ever going to let this hinder my devouring of such a volume, about one of my favourite subjects! Yes, a large book, you can obviously see that by number of pages, but how on earth could you write about something, so important, such as the biggest, and to me, the greatest, music festival in Britain, without using a lot of paper. So, enthusiastically, so I found the first of opportunity to sit down, and devour the book from beginning to end – mind you, it did take me a while, as I’ll now explain.
The details contained within each of it’s 26 chapters, are overwhelming, and as so much detail is included, to read in one reading, so to speak, is near impossible, as I found myself re-reading certain paragraphs and chapters, to make sure I didn’t miss anything. This is so well written however, with each chapter having clearly defined parameters, that you can’t help but be drawn into Boden and Hedley’s world and enthusiasm for their subject.
We learn the origins of the festival, how it grew from the initial slight, enthusiasm of the clergy, and organists/choir masters, from the three cathedrals Worcester, Hereford, and Gloucester, in the 18th century and looking how they approached the difficulty of bringing together, of not only themselves, sharing the choral services, but the problems of taking the choirs and musicians from county to county. Obviously, not everyone was that keen, so it seems, at the beginning, so obstacles needed to be overcome, from both church and county politics – but from the tiniest of acorns, certainly springs to mind here! Over the next three centuries, the festival has been developing into what we now know as ’The Three Choirs’ the authors take us on the journey from these very humble beginnings, to the huge, world renown, and artistic success it is today. Whilst not being afraid to ‘tell it as it is’ when showing behind the scenes, so to speak, using official papers, letters, etc, the controversial proposals with programming, secular, non secular issues, artists demands, so many problems, as in all life, become apparent, but it totally reflects the society of the times, including the 20th and 21st century. We read about financial problems of funding each of the performances, lists of costs, how to keep them down, whilst keeping quality of both artists and programme. Even arguments of venue choice, one city not wanting to be out done, as it were, by another, as again, this is all true for the hour and day you read this revue, in anything in the world, sometimes, politics can get in the way, especially the arts. We are taken through political changes, wars, etc, etc, but the belief of the local people who showed and continue to show, enthusiastic resolve and determination, to bring music and great art to the three county cities. For this, we are so grateful to everyone involved in the festival, as it continues to strive and keep it’s artistic excellence, so it continues to be one of the best festivals in the world. Reading through the programmes for many of the festivals, we realise, how many composers and performers were given their first chance to share their voices to the wider world, this continues to today – obviously, we all know of Elgar and his rise as a composer in Worcester, but many, many others too! In fact, over the more recent festivals, indeed, the last few decades, music of so many different genres has joined the yearly programme, and venues are many and varied, not just the cathedrals, or choral works, thus bringing a wider musical arts festival to many different audiences, whilst maintaining the highest quality of musical performance – totally excellent, as music, is music, and giving the opportunity for not only audiences to experience a variety of music, but also giving musicians themselves the unique chance to experience the same, and meet other artists, in a totally relaxed and open artistic enviroment. The lists of performers, is actually quite astounding really, we are able to see the development of musical artists, and composers, following their career paths and rise to prominence too. All being said then, this book, it makes a fascinating read, and, as we all like a bit of controversy, don’t we, particularly when the people involved, from the early years, clergy, aristocracy, famous artists. I can’t write as much as I would like to here, as it would take me days to discuss the fine detail of each chapter. However, suffice to say, it is a truly tremendous book, for not only musicians, music lovers, festival attendees, three county locals, but anyone really interested in the musical arts of Britain. So much detail is included in this fascinating book, about the problems, and delights involved in bringing this festival to fruition, you can’t help yourself, but to keep dipping into it, and like I mentioned earlier, to re-read, certain chapters, clears a lot of confusion, well, for me. As I’ve already said it is an extremely well written tome of a book, because, as you can imagine, there is so much fantastic informed, research detail within these pages, so much musical information too, about the choice of music, who decided what to programme, I can’t help myself, but to share my enthusiasm for both it and the two excellent authors – thank you Anthony Boden and Paul Hedley for bringing us such a memorable book! I certainly hope the readers of this review will try and seek out a copy of the book, and hopefully, enjoy as much as I did, and take away thoughts about the origins, and future of such a fine festival – and of course, check the festival website out and dip your musical toes, so to speak, into the musical waters a multi genre experience!!!