PARRY, ELGAR AND THE 20TH CENTURY
Parry's Fourth Symphony, memorably included in the 1998 Gloucester Festival programme, was given its first performance in London in 1889 under the baton of Hans Richter. Seated in the audience was an unknown musician from Worcester - Edward Elgar. Parry's symphony contains the elegiac sound picture and rhythmic hesitation that were to become hallmarks of Elgar's nobilmente style, and in the following year, 1890, Elgar's music was heard at the Three Choirs for the first time when his Froissart Overture was performed at the Worcester Festival. Elgar was now and at once the first man of Three Choirs.
The three men who took the Festival from the 19th to the 20th century were George Sinclair at Hereford, Ivor Atkins at Worcester, and Herbert Brewer at Gloucester. All were closely associated with the Elgar years and with the championship of his music, even when Elgar was ignored elsewhere in Britain. Brewer invited Elgar to conduct 'The Prelude' and 'Angel's Farewell' from Gerontius at the 1901 Gloucester Festival but in 1902 Atkins invited Elgar to conduct the complete work, even though the text had to be censored. Elgar, whose mother had died a few days before the performance, conducted in mourning black. Another landmark, one of many in Three Choirs history, was the first performance of Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia at Gloucester in 1910.
Elgar championed the music of others with the Festival Committee, persuading Brewer, for instance, to commission works from Coleridge Taylor in 1898 and, in 1922, from Arthur Bliss (the Colour Symphony), Eugene Goossens (Silence), and Herbert Howells (Sine Nomine, which was repeated at Gloucester in 1992). Gustav Holst joined the great figures of English music to be associated with the Three Choirs Festival when he conducted his Hymn of Jesus at Hereford in 1921; the first performance of his Choral Fantasia was given at Gloucester under Holst's baton in 1931.
Elgar and Holst both died in 1934, as did Delius, who conducted his first Dance Rhapsody at Hereford in 1909. Ralph Vaughan Williams now became the first man in English music and a much-loved figure at the Festival. War intervened in the continuity of Three Choirs for a second time in 1939 - but the Festival restarted at Hereford in 1946 under the direction of Percy Hull, a Festival made most memorable by the inclusion, delayed from 1939, of Gerald Finzi's Dies Natalis. 1950 proved to be a vintage year at Gloucester, too, when Finzi's Intimations of Immortality and Howells's Hymnus Paradisi both received their first performances.
Since then, a vast range of British music has been given at the Festival, from Arnold to Williamson via Bax, Berkeley (father and son) and Britten, through Howard Ferguson, Michael Tippett, William Walton, Paul Patterson and many others, including several first performances. And every shade of non-British music has been heard too - from JS Bach to Hindemith and Penderecki.
A quotation from Thomas Bisse, speaking in 1729: 'Wherefore, let us this day rejoice together, that, from whatever we began, though walking at first with a staff, we are now become a great band; and greater we may yet grow.'