The Three Choirs Festival: Recollections of a Chorus Member

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The Three Choirs Festival may well be the oldest music festival in the world. Its origins go back to 1715 when for the first time the cathedral choirs of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester assembled to make music together. The annual gathering takes place in turn in one of the three cities and this year it will be the turn of Hereford. This years’ festival will be “only” the 288 th , mainly because in the twentieth century some festivals were cancelled in wartime. Nonetheless this year’s gathering, marking the 300 th anniversary of that first meeting will be a cause for much celebration.

The Festival long ago stopped being the preserve of the cathedral choirs, though those choirs are still fully involved, not least in the singing of Evensong on most days during the festival week. However, the mainstay of the choral concerts has been for many years the Festival Chorus, which is comprised of local amateur singers. Many singers participate in the Three Choirs Festival year after year but one former member of the Festival Chorus has a record which is probably unsurpassed and which may never be beaten. Peter Hillier, a tenor from Gloucester, sang in fifty consecutive Three Choirs Festivals from 1953. In parallel with his membership of the Festival Chorus Peter sang with Gloucester Choral Society, serving as its chairman for many years.

It seemed to me that a good way of marking the Festival’s tercentenary would be to ask Peter to share some of his memories with Seen and Heard

John Quinn . Peter, I suppose the obvious first question is how did you get involved in the Festival Chorus?

Peter Hillier. Very simply, my wife, Grace, and I were always musical. I had been singing in a male voice choir and, of course, never got a chance to sing with my wife. And one day she said: ”There’s auditions coming up for the Festival; do you think we ought to try?” That was in 1953 and that was the start of it. It was just the fact that she thought we ought to do something together and be together instead of going our separate musical ways. In my audition Dr Sumsion [Herbert Sumsion (1899-1995), Organist of Gloucester Cathedral, 1928-1967] said to me: “That’s OK, but watch those high notes. I’m sure you’ll get over it later on.” So we got in and 1953 was the start of a lifetime of music.

JQ. So you got in to sing in the Festival before you were a member of Gloucester Choral rather than the other way round?

PH Yes. When in fact the festival was over and the [Gloucester] Choral auditions started we went along to the auditions and Dr Sumsion said: “What are you two doing here?” And when I said we were here to audition he said: “Well, you’ve already auditioned for the Festival so go away.”

JQ. Well, that was all right. So your first festival was in Coronation year. And in those days the festival was still held in early September

PH. Yes.

JQ. So what do you remember most about that first Festival?

PH. The first festival was memorable. It was memorable firstly because I didn’t realise how little I knew of some of the music. And secondly, I suppose, it was seeing some of the people who I had only ever heard about: Herbert Howells; Gerald Finzi; and Vaughan Williams. They were all there that year and certainly Vaughan Williams was conducting. We had the pleasure of him conducting us; we couldn’t believe it. At least, I couldn’t believe it; some of the others were used to it. And the same with Gerald Finzi: he was there and we did Intimations [ of Immortality ]. I remember that he put some comments on the notice board afterwards, suggesting we were a little bit flat towards the end; but that was probably tongue in cheek.

JQ And do you remember what works were sung in your first Festival?

PH. Yes, I can. The very first work we sang was on the Tuesday morning: we sang the whole of Israel in Egypt and that was something to remember because it’s a big sing with double choruses everywhere. If I remember rightly we sang part of it before lunch and we finished it off after lunch.

JQ. And you did a new Walton piece, didn’t you?

PH. We did indeed. That was the Te Deum and we were very privileged to be singing that. We did a lot of work on it, naturally, and when Festival came around we knew it back to front. We did it twice during that Festival because it was done first of all at the opening service and it was very successfully received. So Dr, Sumsion decided we would stick it in a programme later that week and we did it again on the Thursday night.

JQ And that had been written for the Coronation [of Queen Elizabeth II], which was in June, I think.

PH. In June and we were rehearsing it in the April. The copies came to us and they were pristine. And I think on the actual packaging it said “Not to leave this cathedral”. And when we’d finished rehearsing the copies had to be monitored to make sure they had the right ones all back in the box until after the Coronation. But it was rather interesting listening to the Coronation broadcast and actually listening to the Te Deum which we’d been rehearsing and got together long before that.

JQ. Wonderful. Now, singing in the Festival Chorus must have involved a tremendous commitment of time. What was the rehearsal schedule like?

PH. The rehearsal schedule was pretty dramatic really, from our point of view. It’s changed somewhat now but in my first couple of festivals we always had in festival week a ‘Black Monday’. We didn’t have anything on ‘Black Monday’ except rehearsals – morning, afternoon and evening. And by the time evening came we were absolutely sung out so how we managed to get through the rest of the week after that I really don’t know. But rehearsals were rushed in those days….

JQ. How long before the festivals did they start?

PH. Oh, we started them fairly early. We started them usually when the Choral [Society] season finished, after Easter and we would have them then from April onwards, twice a week. So we did quite a bit beforehand. But, of course, when we got near to the festival we had a holiday! We were away for a month and then we came back again to have the main rehearsals for the festival but, of course, a lot of people had forgotten what they’d learned in the previous months. So that was a little bit, shall we say, difficult to say the least. But that didn’t happen for too long. About three festivals later Meredith Davies [(1922-2005), Organist of Hereford Cathedral, 1949-1956] said: “We’ve got to do something about this. We’ll have rehearsals nearer to the performances – every day.” Revolutionary, but that, I think, was a turning point in the festivals.

JQ. So just to be clear about ‘Black Monday’; the festival had already started and it went on pause?

PH. It went on pause. It had already started on the Sunday. Never a concert in the evening in those days, by the way. Once you’d had the Opening Service that was it. Then you came in on Monday morning and you sang all day, which covered the week’s programme. You could imagine if the BBC had known how little rehearsal we had they would never have come in and done some live broadcasts, which they did in those days.

[Note. Anthony Boden confirms Peter’s recollection in his Book Three Choirs: A History of the Festival (1992) . Boden lists in full the schedule for ‘Black Monday’, 1953. Rehearsals began at 10.00am. No less than 12 works were rehearsed – clearly on no more than a “top and tail” basis – ending with the Brahms Alto Rhapsody at 4.50pm. The bigger pieces – Dona Nobis Pacem and Job (Vaughan Williams), Israel in Egypt, The Dream of Gerontius and Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus – were each allotted about forty minutes. A one-hour lunch interval and two short 15-minute breaks were also squeezed in.]

JQ. This is something that interests me. Listening to old recordings I get the distinct impression that over the last forty or fifty years standards of choral singing have increased out of all recognition. Would you agree with that?

PH. I agree with that entirely. In fact I was aware of that more readily, I suppose, when I became Choral Superintendent [for Gloucester festivals] a good number of years after I’d started and realised what went on in the background. And, of course, then it was the advent of professional conductors coming in to the festivals – by “professional” I mean orchestral conductors – and they asked for and got additional rehearsals to get it right. Now, in the early days it was just the three [cathedral] organists who, by and large, were good conductors but, probably, less used to working with orchestras. Coming from local church choirs, or whatever, and coming to the Three Choirs we thought it sounded great but it wasn’t as great as we always thought it was.

JQ Well, I’d like to come on to the question of guest conductors in a moment but there’s one other thing that I’m keen to ask you about. Although in some quarters the Festival has a reputation for being very conservative in fact there have been a lot of new pieces that have been first performed at Three Choirs. You must have sung in quite a lot of premières. What first performances particularly stand out for you?

PH. The first one would have been the Walton but the next year was at Worcester and there were a couple of wonderful first performances. The one which has stood the test of time was the Vaughan Williams Hodie , which VW himself conducted. And we also had in that year Herbert Howells’ Missa Sabrinensis ….

JQ …which is fiendishly difficult

PH. which was difficult then and it’s still difficult now. But the Vaughan Williams Hodie was a very attractive work. He conducted it but those who know it will know that the opening few bars are quite difficult – they were in those days anyway – and Vaughan Williams was then in his eighties. He was a good conductor, yes, but it was obvious that he hadn’t quite got the idea of his opening bars. Unknown to him, Dr. Sumsion and David Willcocks [(b. 1919), Organist of Worcester Cathedral, 1950-57] got together and agreed each to go on one side and asked the chorus to look at them rather than Vaughan Williams for those two or three pages so it would be OK. And, in fact, that’s what happened; it went off like a dream and no one – well, apart from the chorus – knew that. And I did actually mention that to Ursula Vaughan Williams some time later and I said we’d been a bit worried. She said to me: “You were worried, were you? Well, I was standing at the side of the platform with some tablets ready in case he didn’t make it!”

JQ. And there have been other big premieres like, for example, Malcolm Williamson’s Mass of Christ the King [1978]

PH. Yes, that’s a never-to-be-forgotten one, of course. How it managed to get through and be performed for the first time I’ll never know. But we were lucky that we had at the time John Sanders [(1933-2003), Organist of Gloucester Cathedral, 1967-94]. He had a knack of pouring oil, as you might say, on troubled waters and there was a lot of troubled water leading up to that one. I know there were a lot of problems behind the scenes. Also the music came through in dribs and drabs and the final lot of music arrived, I think, the same week as the festival.

JQ. Good Lord!

PH. But we were fortunate that we were able to do a complete performance of it a bit later on in Westminster Cathedral in front of the Queen Mother

JQ. Which was broadcast, I remember

PH which was broadcast. Yes, we’d done it and it was complete at last.

JQ. I’m not sure how often it’s been performed since

PH. It has been performed in public a couple of times since, I think. It’s deserving of rather more performances than it’s actually had. But it depends on the public, I suppose, and how many will come along and make a performance viable. That’s the same with the Howells Missa Sabrinensis. It’s a pity.

JQ You’ve mentioned some of the cathedral organists already. Quite a few of them, after they left Gloucester, Hereford or Worcester, went on to have distinguished careers elsewhere. Which of them particularly stand out for you?

PH. I suppose, although I didn’t sing for him as much as I would have liked, I have to mention Sir David Willocks. He left Worcester in the late 1950s to go to King’s College. Meredith Davies went on to do a lot of orchestral conducting for a good number of years. Then there was Christopher Robinson [(b. 1936). Organist of Worcester Cathedral 1963-74. ] Christopher had the groundings at Worcester because when he came to Worcester he was a bit inexperienced in big performances. I think being at the sharp end at Worcester festivals helped him a lot and before he left you could think that probably this was one of the conductors that one would have to watch for the future which, of course, happened to him. One thing I remember about Christopher was that he did Belshazzar’s Feast in Gloucester. He went through it with a toothcomb and come the final rehearsal he was very worried and we were concerned that it might translate to us as well but it didn’t and it all went off very well. And at the end of that performance there was an isolated clap in the cathedral – and one or two more claps. And everyone went “sshhhh”. But that was the end of silence at the cathedral; next festival people applauded as they felt fit.

JQ. It must have been astonishing to perform a work that ends like Belshazzar’s Feast and then to have silence.

PH. Well, exactly; and it was almost impossible for the audience no t to applaud. Anyway, from that day onwards applause seemed to be the order of the day.

JQ. And a good thing, too! So that was one major change that came in during your time. Another concerned conductors. I think I’m right in saying that with the exception of composers such as Elgar and Vaughan Williams, who conducted their own works, there had been no guest conductors until perhaps the 1960s.

PH. No there hadn’t. I suppose one of the first guest conductors would have been Charles Groves, maybe. He certainly came and conducted one or two big works and he was very much liked by the chorus because he had a knack of relating to us, which we were surprised about because we thought he was normally an orchestral conductor. We also had someone else who has just come to my mind: Sir Arthur Bliss. Not all composers are necessarily good conductors of their own works but we did have two or three occasions when we sang under Bliss. When he stood up to speak before he conducted us for the first time, he said: “Do you know, I feel honoured to be here, conducting you in one of my works.” We thought that was rather nice. But he was a pretty good conductor. He knew his works, not like some of the others, who didn’t. Going back to the Missa Sabrinensis , when Herbert Howells took the baton up at the first rehearsal he said: “Now, I count on you to get it right because you know it better than I do.”

JQ. Oh, he conducted the first performance, did he? I thought it was Willcocks

PH. No, I’m pretty sure it was him. But Bliss was a pretty good conductor and we did a couple of his big pieces: Morning Heroes [to be revived at this year’s Festival] and The Beatitudes, which was written for the opening of Coventry Cathedral but was then done in a theatre in Coventry…

JQ. It was.

PH. And when it was done in the cathedral in Gloucester it was done as Sir Arthur had hoped it would be done, with a proper organ and the acoustics of a cathedral.

JQ. That was a few months after the first performance, wasn’t it; I think it was the second performance, in fact.

PH. Correct. We also had Paul Patterson’s Mass of the Sea . He didn’t conduct that but it was the first performance [1983] and it had several more performances after. Another conductor we had was Leonard Slatkin and he came to conduct Elgar’s The Kingdom

JQ. He recorded The Kingdom , didn’t he?

PH . Yes, he did. I had a word with him before the performance and I asked him about Elgar. He said: “I love Elgar. I was driving my car across the plains in America with the radio on and I heard The Kingdom playing and I thought it was great music and I must get to know it.” And he did. So he came and conducted and I found he was pretty good. Except that some of the Elgar enthusiasts felt it was sacrilege to have an American conductor doing The Kingdom.

JQ And one name you haven’t mentioned, though I recall going to a few Three Choirs concerts that he conducted, is Richard Hickox.

PH. Richard Hickox was quite a favourite of mine because he specialised in works that we liked: the Elgar and Vaughan Williams pieces. When he came he felt one of us and in rehearsals he became one of us, rather than someone coming in from the outside. We always felt that with Richard at the helm nothing would go wrong; and it very rarely did.

JQ. He had a background as a choral conductor…

PH. He did indeed

JQ. He really came to prominence as the Director of the LSO Chorus

PH. That’s right. I think we did some Dyson with him

JQ You did Apostles with him .

PH . Yes, we did; and there was another big work – Mass of Life . He was always a welcome visitor and it was a tragedy that he was cut short in his career.

JQ. Now you’ve been sitting on the side lines, as it were, for ten years or so. What’s your assessment of the shape the Three Choirs Festival is in nowaday s?

PH . Well, it’s completely different now to when I started in 1953. I watched the progression over those years, slowly at first, but I suppose in the last 10 years or so it’s rushed ahead and I would suggest that probably the Festival and the Chorus – which is what I was mostly concerned with – is now probably up there with the best you can hear, That genuinely couldn’t be said forty or fifty years ago. We thought it was, but it really wasn’t. That was down to insufficient rehearsals mainly.

JQ. And are you looking forward to this year’s festival?

PH. Yes, I am. And I’m also looking forward to next year’s festival [in Gloucester ] because it’s rather an attractive programme though I can’t say too much about it as it hasn’t been announced yet.

JQ. That will happen during this year’s festival, won’t it?

PH. Yes that’s right.

JQ. And this year’s programme is appealing also; there’s a good blend, ranging from the tried and trusted Dream of Gerontius right the way through to Messiaen.

PH. Yes, well Messiaen wouldn’t even have been considered in the early days. And, in fact, the punters probably wouldn’t have come. But I think nowadays the cathedral audiences are much more sophisticated and you can put virtually whatever you want in the programmes and there will always be a core of people who will come, irrespective, because they’re not as hidebound as the earlier festival goers were.

JQ Well certainly I’ve had the impression over the last few years that the programmes have mixed tradition with novelty, if you like: spicing things up

PH. Yes, they have done. Because, you see, when I started there were still the remnants of post-War festivals which were dominated by the English music of Elgar, of Parry, of Vaughan Williams and Finzi as well as regular things like Messiah , Elijah , the B minor Mass, all of which had to be included somewhere. And the criticism, of course, was always levelled at the Festival, even before the War and certainly after the War, by commentators who were critical because of its lack of novelties. The change has taken a long time to come but it has come.

JQ. Yes, I think it’s a much broader-based festival nowadays. So the impression I have from the outside is that the Three Choirs Festival is in good shape and going on robustly after 300 years.

PH. I think so. And I think it’s gone back to where it used to be, I remember, going back to, I think, my first festival, how important it was. I remember having a copy of Radio Times and on the front cover was a big picture of the [Gloucester] cathedral and “This is Three Choirs Week” – on the front of Radio Times !

JQ. Really? You wouldn’t get that these days.

PH. You wouldn’t, but that was the importance it had back then. But I think that during the 1950s and the early 1960s it started not going downhill, but going downhill as far as the London elite were concerned. I believe we’re now coming back to the time when the Festival is back on par with most of the musical events that take place in this country, thankfully. That’s due to the fact that the Music Directors now are of a different calibre – perhaps that’s not fair on the older conductors – but a different calibre in that they realise what is needed to make a chorus blend. And, of course, rehearsal time; there’s got to be sufficient rehearsal. Sadly, in the early days it was expected that you knew the music, but you didn’t know it.

JQ. Well, it’s lasted for 300 years and I think it’s good for a few more yet, don’t you?

PH . Oh, I’m sure of it. I think the only thing that will stop it is finance but there’s all sorts of plans afoot to ensure that the financial state of the Festival is in good shape for the foreseeable future

JQ Let’s hope it flourishes for many years to come. Thank you, Peter, for sharing your memories of the Three Choirs Festival with us .

The 2015 Three Choirs Festival takes place in Hereford, running from 25 July to 1 August. Full details of the festival programme can be found on the Three Choirs Festival website <> . Telephone bookings can be made on 0845 652 1823. On line booking is also available. Details of how to book can be found here <> .

John Quinn

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