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Hereford Cathedral

The Three Choirs Festival celebrates its 300th anniversary this year, and on Monday next week I’ll be celebrating by fulfilling a long-held ambition and attending my first ever Three Choirs concert as an audience member – a rare chance to hear Bliss’s wonderful choral symphony Morning Heroes. The 300th Festival, as it happens, takes place in Hereford, and I’m actually quite looking forward to the westward drive out over the Malverns as well.

Like much that happens outside the magic circle of the M25, the Three Choirs is much misunderstood in some quarters – to read some coverage you’d think that it was nothing more than an Elgar-obsessed rural nostalgia-fest. That’s nonsense, of course – when I took the CBSO Youth Orchestra to the Festival in 2008 (Worcester that year) they didn’t bat so much as an eyelid at our programme of Arvo Part and Ligeti. The Festival has a list of major premieres (dating from long before, and long after, Sir Edward) that puts Aldeburgh and Cheltenham to shame. Here’s a short article I wrote for the CBSO about one of the more remarkable instances, in 1913.

1913: Luonnotar in Gloucester

When Elgar commented that “the living centre of music in Great Britain is not London, but somewhere further north” he was stating a generally acknowledged fact. No-one in September 1913 would have considered it remarkable that the world premiere of Sibelius’s Luonnotar should be given in the Shire Hall, Gloucester during the Three Choirs Festival; or that the conductor should be the cathedral organist, Herbert Brewer.

Brewer’s commitment to new music was widely-known. A composer himself, he was on friendly terms with Elgar and Parry, and at one point had both Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells in his choir. For the 1910 Festival, Brewer had commissioned Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia. And as early as 1909, he’d asked Sibelius – through their mutual friend (and later co-founder of the CBSO) Granville Bantock – to write something for the Festival.

So the premiere attracted attention across the UK. It was “probably [Sibelius’s] very latest work” reported The Times; “at any rate, when asked for the score and parts a fortnight ago, he replied to the Festival authorities that it was ‘still in his head’”. In fact, Sibelius had rehearsed Luonnotar with its dedicatee Aino Ackté before her departure for England. Billed as “New scena for soprano and orchestra”, Luonnotar was premiered on the evening of 10th September. Ackté received six curtain calls.

But the biggest ovation that night went to the Festival’s guest of honour: the 78-year old Camille Saint-Säens, who’d gamely agreed to perform a Mozart piano concerto. By all accounts, Saint-Säens was in ebullient mood, regaling colleagues with his celebrated impression of Cosima Wagner and posing for photographs with Elgar. He was up early the next morning to conduct the premiere of his oratorio The Promised Land, part of a marathon concert that also included new choral works by Stanford and Parry, and Elgar’s Symphony No.2 – then barely two years old.

Parry took the Frenchman to one side, quietly warning him not to expect unreserved enthusiasm from an English cathedral audience. And seated on chilly pews before their breakfast kedgeree had settled, the Gloucester audience might understandably have been a little subdued. But their willingness to turn out on a September morning to hear three solid hours of contemporary music shows that regional English audiences, then as now, took their music intensely seriously. Elgar had a point.