HANDEL'S MESSIAH AND THE 18TH CENTURY
By 1736, the music of Handel began to dominate at the Meetings, and at Gloucester in 1757 Messiah was heard at Three Choirs for the first time. As a secular work, Messiah was not permitted to be given in the cathedrals until 1759 at Hereford. There were no women's voices in the chorus until 1772 when the Three Choirs were joined by the 'celebrated ladies from the North'.
In 1788 King George III patronised the Worcester Music Meeting, bringing with him His Majesty's Royal Band to accompany a performance of Messiah, which was attended by almost three thousand souls. Until 1834, all the perfomances were given in the choirs of the cathedrals, so in 1788 the choir at Worcester was 'packed to suffocation', as well as a capacity audience in the nave. After 1788, Messiah was performed either whole or in part at every Music Meeting and Festival until 1963 - and has been included in many Festivals since then.
HAYDN'S CREATION AND THE 19TH CENTURY
During the 18th century, the popularity of Messiah remained unmatched by any other work. However, in 1800 Haydn's Creation was published, was performed in London in that March; and was heard for only the third time in England at the Worcester Music Meeting in that year. It could be said, therefore, that The Creation heralded the 19th century.
Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837, and in the following year the Music Meetings were restyled as the Three Choirs Festival. However, the 19th century found the Festival sailing in choppy waters, assailed by those who, affronted that the cathedrals should be used as concert halls and opera houses, as they saw it, sought to have the Festival banned altogether; and they might well have succeeded if the bishops had not become so very dependent upon the substantial sums raised by the Festival charity towards the maintenance of clergy widows and orphans in the three dioceses. Then there was the problem of censorship. Evangelicalism - the 'call to seriousness' - established itself in the century up to 1830. It was challenged in the 1830s and 40s, under the impetus of the Oxford Movement, by a reawakening of the catholic spirit within the Anglican communion under the banner of Tractarianism. The clergy were divided, and programming the Festival became difficult. For instance, evangelicals would not tolerate the words of the Latin Mass, so a work such as Mozart's Requiem had to be performed with an alternative text under the title The Redemption.
Charles Ellicott, Bishop of Bristol and Gloucester for over 40 years from
1863 was famously antagonistic towards the Festival. During the Gloucester festival of 1865, for instance, he took himself off to the continent, and crossed from Lauterbrunnen over the Tscingel Glacier to Kandersteg.
The 19th century was also a time when fabulous soloists were paid fabulous sums to appear at the Festival. Great singers like the legendary Emma Albani could easily command a fee of 250 guineas, and when Jenny Lind, the 'Swedish Nightingale', was offered 500 guineas to sing at Worcester in 1848, she turned the offer down. If one looks at the Festival records to compare fees in 1848 to those in 1948, for instance, one finds that by 1948 artists such as Isobel Baillie, Heddle Nash and Roy Henderson were receiving fees of 25 guineas - so what made the difference? The invention of the gramophone and then the radio. If you wished to hear Jenny Lind or Emma Albani, you had to attend a live concert and pay a high price for your ticket.
Amongst the cathedral organists who were responsible for the musical direction of the Three Choirs in the first 75 years of the 19th century, none has a greater claim to fame than S S Wesley. He was at Hereford from 1832-35 and at Gloucester from 1865 until his death in 1876. He fought staunchly against the indifference of the Anglican Church in an effort to raise the standard of English Cathedral music; he was a composer and organist of great distinction; and he was an innovator at the Festival, broadening the repertoire and persuading the dean and chapter at Hereford that the performances should be held in the nave.
The Victorian era saw a great outpouring of choral works, many of which are now totally forgotten and which, even 100 years ago, fell inevitably under the shadow of one man's work in particular; Mendelssohn's Elijah was given its triumphant first performance at the Birmingham Festival on 26 August 1846 under the composer's own direction. One year later, in the year of Mendelssohn's untimely death, it was heard at the Gloucester Festival, where it was an immediate hit. Elijah was then heard at every Festival until 1929, and at several thereafter.
Secular concerts at the Festival tended to be more occasions for society display than for serious concentration until the latter part of the 19th century. Their programmes often contained a potpourri of musical frivolities, but in 1861 George Townshend Smith at Hereford introduced concerts of chamber music, thus starting a tradition that continues to this day. And, of course, Three Choirs programmes always include a broad range of instrumental and orchestral music in addition to the large-scale choral repertoire.
In the last thirty years of the 19th century, the British composers whose works were popular at Three Choirs and elsewhere included Mackenzie, Stainer, Stanford and Sullivan. In 1880, the name of Hubert Parry was added to the list when his scenes from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound were given their first performance at Gloucester; an event hailed by the eminent musicologist Sir Henry Hadow as the birth of modern English music. Parry's Jerusalem has, of course, almost become a second national anthem, and his music is still heard often at Three Choirs.