ORIGINS OF THE FESTIVAL
The Three Choirs of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester have been meeting annually and at each city in turn since the early years of the 18th century. It is the longest-surviving non-competitive music festival in Europe, but until 1838 it was not styled as a 'Festival' but as a 'Music Meeting', a term that still survives: the Worcester Festival of 2008 will be the 281st Meeting of the Three Choirs. That number is arrived at by counting from the year 1715 and excluding only the years during the two World Wars, during which the festival was temporarily suspended. It was Sir Ivor Atkins, organist and master of the choristers at Worcester, who, charged with restarting the Festival in 1920, scoured the historical records in an attempt to find a definitive beginning. There are well documented meetings from 1719, but the publicity issued then shows that there were earlier gatherings. Atkins settled on 1715 as a probable year of inception.
So why did the Festival begin? 'It was', preached Thomas Bisse, Chancellor of Hereford Cathedral, in a 1729 sermon, 'a fortuitous and friendly proposal, between a few lovers of harmony and brethren of the correspondent choirs, to commence an anniversary visit, to be kept in turn; which voluntary instance of friendship and fraternity was quickly strengthened by social compact'. We know that the earliest meetings were of two days duration: extended matins with orchestral accompaniment in the cathedral each morning, and performances in various secular buildings each evening. Only music to accompany services was permitted in the cathedrals.
At Hereford, the College of Vicars Choral had its own well-established music club - a rarity in post-Restoration England. We can imagine these concerts, held in candle-lit rooms, and less than formal. After the concerts, the benches would be pushed back to the walls, the musicians would return to the platform, and the concert room would be given over to dancing. But might the Meetings have begun before 1715? We know that in 1709 the Hereford organist, Henry Hall, visited his counterpart and exact contemporary in Gloucester, William Hine. These were two young men in their early twenties of similar temperament and tastes. They decided to collaborate in the composition of a service: Hall and Hine in E flat, presumably for an occasion when their two choirs would sing together (and it is possible that the occasion might have been a visit to Worcester Cathedral by the Gloucester and Hereford choirs). And it is probably from this link that the earliest regular annual Music Meetings found their genesis, around 1711. By then, both Gloucester and Worcester could boast similar music clubs to that at Hereford.
By 1724 the Meetings were well established, and in that year Thomas Bisse proposed at the Gloucester Meeting that these annual gatherings should be held for a charitable purpose, i.e. the benefit of the orphans of the poorer clergy of the three dioceses of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford. The charity was later extended to include the widows of poorer clergy, and this cause remained the main raison d'etre for the Festival until the late 1980s.
Then, as now, the costs of mounting such an event steadily rose. Responsibility for underwriting any losses was borne at first by a single wealthy steward, but as the years passed this number steadily increased.