The Three Choirs Festival

  • 26 Oct 2020
  • Church Curiosities
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The Three Choirs Musical Festival is the oldest and most distinguished of its kind in the world. It started in 1715 as an itinerant music club, giving performances of church music. Later, concerts were given at the Shire-halls, and it was not until 1759 that oratorios were performed in the Cathedral.

The Festival was not regarded as of great prestige in the 18th century, but rather as part of the social entertainments that went with the Assize week and the races. In fact, the famous singer, Tenducci, was employed to sing in 1767, but when the Dean paid him, he refused to give a receipt, saying that if it became known that he had performed at the Festival, he would be sent for to sing 'at all the horse-races and cockfights in the kingdom'.

In the 1860's as the religious revival gathered strength, there was opposition to the entertainment part of the festivals, and further complaints that workmen interrupted services by hammering when erecting stages etc. There was also objections to the purchasing of tickets 'as to a public amusement', and to the engaging of singers from opera and the stage. Canon Barry preached a Charity Sermon at the end of the Gloucester Festival in 1874 and indicated that changes would be made the following year at Worcester, The message was ominious, and as if to emphasise it, the organist played the Dead March from Saul. 

The controversy and public indignation were tremendous. Pamphlets for and against were written. Public meetings were held in protest. Lord Hampton, at the Guildhall, led the attack on the Cathedral authorities, whom he regarded as Clergy of the Oxford Movement moving towards Roman Catholicism, and who were behind the changes. 'Beware of the men in petticoats'. he thundered. Lord Dudley, who had great influence and wealth, was in favour of the change, and offered a gift of £10,000 for the restoration of the Cathedral, and a guarantee to cover the income lost, if the old type of festival was stopped.

In 1875, the Dean and Chapter refused the use of the Cathedral for the Festival, in the teeth opposition from stewards, civic authorities, and especially from local tradesmen. The style of the meeting was modified, no orchestra or solo artist's were engaged, no platforms, no tickets of admission, no oratorios were permitted - not even the Messiah. The three day 'Black Festival', for tradespeople decked their windows in deep mourning, and cabbies tied mourning crepes around their whips.

The following year at Hereford, the old style Festival was resumed and the Civic Authorities jubilantly attended in state, It was said 'A public answer to the insulting behaviour of whether people are unable to behave themselves in the House of God unless they are preached to''. In 1895, Barry, then a Bishop, and all forgotten, preached at the Gloucester Festival in 'praise of higher music', and it was about that time, in 1899, that the Worcester Festival organiser's dispensed with the supplementary choirs from Cardiff, Leeds and Oxford.