50 Years with the Festival Chorus

Martin Loveless recounts his experiences of the festival and music-making throughout his life.

Martin singing in the chorus in Hereford in 2015 (fourth row from top, third from right)

They do a photograph of the chorus every year. And I’m in there in 1963 as the youngest member of the chorus, apart from the choristers – that was my first Three Choirs. I was a sixth former at King’s Worcester. I’d sung with the Choral Society in Worcester for a couple of years, and I used to wonder why aren’t any of my peers here?  They don’t know what they’re missing!

And we still have that problem.  I sing now with a number of choirs: the Cathedral Voluntary Choir in Hereford, the Choral Society, and Academia Musica Choral Scholars in the Sixth Form College. We do Evensong every Wednesday and various other things. I think the plan is for them all to be encouraged to join the choral society in Hereford, so there will be certainly some younger members hopefully in the chorus. We’ve only got two or three people who are under twenty in the choral society.

The reason, I think, is very simple: there’s this commitment to rehearsal, and they’ve got all these other demands on their time. They’ve got coursework, and they’ve got their exams coming up, and I think they just find it very difficult. And I suppose I’m the proof, you know, that if you spend all your time singing you don’t get your A Levels – unless it’s music A Level! I didn’t do music A Level though – although I actually went on to teach music. My wife taught music as well, that’s how we met. We’ve always sung in choirs together, but we both agree that in all the choirs we’ve sung in, we’ve never sung with such amazing musical directors and people like Geraint Bowen and Peter Dyke. I’m always pinching myself, thinking that we’re incredibly privileged to be able to do that – and when it comes to Three Choirs it includes Adrian Partington and Peter Nardone. It really is something that so many people would give their right arm to be able to do.

And, we all know that if you sing, it’s enormously good for you. I don’t just sing, I’m also a runner: I ran my first London marathon in 2010. I suppose they are quite similar, really, because it’s a commitment to practising and both have physical demands as well.  When you’re singing, you have to think about your posture, the sound you’re producing, consonants, dynamic markings, listening to everybody else et cetera, and you’re thinking about all these different things at the same time. And in running, it’s all that technique and so on: am I keeping upright and am I breathing properly and so on. I’m in the over 65 category. And of course, there are fewer people in that category and so you can say “I came 30th in my group!” and I was last, actually!

I think my friends think I’m bonkers, but I want to keep doing it and see how long I can keep going. And you get that with singing, where it’s the challenge to be able to produce a really amazing performance. We’ve got that challenge with Hereford Choral Society – the real test comes next Saturday when we’re performing The Dream of Gerontius.  Most of us have sung Gerontius many times, so you’d wonder what Geraint is going to do with these rehearsals. But he’s this master of being able to always find new things – you can never stop rehearsing. This performance next week is going to be quite stunning. It will be very interesting to hear what people are going to be saying afterwards, because they should be absolutely amazed by it.

As a piece I think it’s wonderful, it’s unusual, and an interesting work – what an idea, to take the words of Newman like that. When it first appeared, people in places like cathedrals struggled with the theology, and the fact that it was about purgatory. We all seem quite happy with the theology now. I’m a priest by profession so I find it fascinating the way people who aren’t Catholics reconcile with it. But this is it, isn’t it? Music is one of those things where you can stretch the bounds, because it transcends religion. Yes, it’s an enormously moving work. We’ll see how many people are weeping at the end!

I’m an Elgar fan, because I can boast that I had my early violin lessons above the shop in Worcester that had been the Elgars’ music shop. I had my first lessons in the cathedral close in Worcester, but my teacher became too ancient to be able to climb the stairs in the music master’s tall house. She used to get a train to Worcester to teach a few pupils like me, and she was quite ancient and she used to stagger all the way up to the top of the house, and by the time she got there she was completely out of breath. But then when she gave up, there was someone called Bridget Monahan, who was known in Worcester for her amateur music making. And she took me on, and she rented a room about the old music shop at the top of the high street, which of course had been the Elgars’ music shop.

I just marvel now at the fact that there I was learning the violin, which of course was Elgar’s instrument as well, just above the shop where he was developing as this amazing composer. If I hear a strain of Elgar, a phrase, it makes me go, ooh! Because of being born and brought up in Worcester, it’s second nature to me.

I think I feel the same connection with all English composers. I spend my whole life listening, I’ve always got Radio 3 on. I know it drives my wife mad sometimes! But I’m always waiting to hear something new, something totally different. If something’s playing and I didn’t pick up who the composer was, I reckon you can tell if it’s English music. It’s just an extraordinary thing.

Of course, when I moved to Hereford in 2007, I was aware that it was another Three Choirs city. But the only Three Choirs I’d sung up to that point was in Worcester. When we decided we would settle in Hereford, which choir were we going to sing with? I remember hearing the choral society sing the Messiah that first Christmas we were there, and I just turned to my wife and said, I want to be part of that! And of course, Three Choirs came along, for which you audition again. And it’s that step up as it were. So we’ve been very lucky, we’ve sung with the choral society since 2010 but I’m not going to sing next year.

It’s not that I don’t want to sing in it, because I do. But last year, we had to accept that Peter Nardone only wanted three first basses from Hereford and there had been four of us singing. And I couldn’t manage one of the all-day massed rehearsals, so I think it was on that basis. But by that stage you’ve already set aside all those dates in your diary, you’ve already said yes I can attend all those rehearsals, and you’ve started to think about where we’re going to stay in Worcester and so on, that’s your summer. For us that’s our summer holiday, it’s Three Choirs. But managed to get over to two concerts, and one of the lovely things was that one of the supernumerary lay clerks, who is a very close friend, had said you’re coming to the Saturday night concert, you’ve got to come to the afterparty! So we went along as his guests, which was lovely.

But then this year my wife is expecting a hip replacement and you know what it’s like, we’ve been waiting six months and still don’t know, and next year I don’t know if I can commit myself to Mondays and Thursdays over that period. So I sadly withdrew.

The experience of the festival was very different in Worcester. If you’re singing it’s just a week long party! It’s hard work, yes, but it’s such tremendous fun. I can remember, not so long ago, the rehearsals used to end two weeks before the festival because everyone had to go on holiday! And we’d arrive back two days before the festival and start rehearsing again, and nobody could remember anything! So in the last few years they’ve very sensibly abandoned that, so the rehearsals now become more and more intense and then we go straight into that week and it’s so much better. Of course, the performance must be better as a result. And all you do for that week is sing, and you sleep and you drink and you meet with friends and so on.

Martin (far left) meeting Prince Charles at the Gloucester festival in 2016

We have family that will come – this week is in their diary every year. This is all my wife Philippa’s side of the family. Phillipa was a Tunnard. Her father Tim Tunnard’s responses are lovely, and they are sung on a regular basis in Hereford and have been since Roy Massey’s time, because Roy succeeded my late father-in-law at Birmingham Cathedral. So it’s a musical family. Tim’s sister was Viola Tunnard, the accompanist, who tragically developed motor neurone disease at the height of her career. She worked very closely with Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, she was part of that small, really quite intimate but very powerful group. The story goes, that one day Viola made a mistake, and Benjamin Britten said what on earth are you doing, Viola? Because she didn’t make mistakes – she never made mistakes. She was a perfectionist – lived on cigarettes and coffee. And she didn’t know what was going on.

Her fingers weren’t working properly, and that was the beginning of motor neurone disease. She died at the peak of her career. Still, sometimes, if you listen to Radio 3, you’ll hear that it’s accompanied by Viola Tunnard. There are lots of recordings of her. And she also worked with Joyce Grenfell. She had to sometimes play pianos which were just held together with string out in the desert or something with Joyce singing and Viola playing.

And next year is also significant because it’ll be the centenary of Tim’s birth. His responses are very interesting because they’re not trying to be clever. And yet the cantor part is not that easy, but it works rather beautifully. The precentor in Hereford always says it’s your late father-in-law’s responses this week so I have to have my wits about me! And he’s a very able musician. I think the reason he wrote a slightly tricky cantor part was because the clergy at Birmingham couldn’t sing anything right anyway, so he made them so difficult that they had to be sung by one of his choir men. And actually the choir man who used to sing them was Duncan Wilkins, until very recently, when he retired from the Cathedral choir in Hereford. He was a pupil of Tim’s. And if you mention Tim Tunnard to Duncan, his face just glows and he says, that man gave me my love of music.

Duncan was a rascal at school, and the rest of the staff were fed up with him, but Tim liked a mischievous boy. He understood and sympathised, and he befriended Duncan, I think he wrote those responses for Duncan. So it’s lovely that in recent years they’ve come back into the Hereford repertoire and Duncan, before he retired, would sing them.

I’m not from a musical family myself. My father could never sing a note in tune. I was trained as a chorister at St George’s Barbourne in Worcester. We had very good training as young boys in the choir. We didn’t do a huge amount, I mean we didn’t do evensong every day of the week, we did Sundays and occasionally would sing anthems and so on. But there’s always been a very good musical tradition in Worcester, and I noticed that Three Choirs in recent years has used St George’s as a recital venue. It’s a fantastic concert venue, and one of the people who really has played a big part in that has just died, that’s Ian Patterson. Ian sang at the Three Choirs Festival for years and he was singing in the first year that I sang. There were three of them that sang with the St George’s Barbourne choir who also sang with the festival chorus. I was a young seventeen-year-old and these guys were all in their early twenties, but they took me back to the festival club for a few beers and that was the most difficult thing about that week. Every night in the bar, we were hoofing this lot back and you know I was only seventeen, I couldn’t actually quite keep up with that. And I remember by Thursday morning of that Three Choirs week, I think I missed the morning rehearsal – I was absolutely wiped out just trying to keep up!

My younger brother and I both joined the choir, I must have been about 8. The rest of the family stayed in the front row because they never failed to be at church on a Sunday morning! And then I started playing the violin. The sad thing is that in those days, at King’s Worcester where I started as a boy at eight, the music around us was a weekly hymn practice on Saturday morning and a music lesson once a week where we sat in front of the piano and sang a few folk songs. That was it really. My musical education was coming from the church.

I went on to teach music and was faced with the challenge of youngsters coming up from the primary school, never having been taught to read music. But I’ve always believed that everybody can do it. You all carry a musical instrument with you – you have your voice. I started teaching in the late 1960s, and we had money pouring into our school for music. I thought it would be lovely to have an orchestra, and the head said well you need orchestral instruments, go out and get some! This was the day our local music shop had been waiting for! And by the following Christmas we had an orchestra as well as a choir.

And children who weren’t any good at anything else – there was one girl I remember, the domestic science department used to despair because she used to put stuff in saucepans and put saucepans in ovens, you know? But on the clarinet, she was amazing.

I taught the children to read music – you can do it in one lesson, you know, it’s not difficult! And I remember saying to them you can write music, too! They just scattered these notes around, you know, I said make patterns, see what happens. And then we’d play it – and their faces! You’ve got this young boy sitting there, who was only interested in football, realising that he can write music! And it was all so easy. It was the late 1960s and we had all this money to spend, and wow! Suddenly we could turn out instrumentalists and it was fantastic.

I used to take a group of children to the concerts for children set up by Ernest Read, who was this great visionary. You could sign up for a season ticket which gave four or five concerts in the Festival Hall with a distinguished conductor and orchestra. But the whole thing was put on for them, so there was lots on interaction going on.

But we didn’t have that when I was at King’s. And of course the only other music going on at King’s was the choristers. They always arrived late for their first lesson because they’d been practising. And we never heard them because they sang in the cathedral. Then when I got to the sixth form, Harry Bramma had arrived – have you heard of Harry Bramma? He recently retired as Director of the RSCM. We had music appreciation as a sort of light relief to our studies – you know, we’d go and sit with Harry in a small room and he’d put on Mozart’s 40th Symphony and would explain it to us.

I was singing in the church choir, and I reached the stage where my voice started to break, so I knew the end was coming. So then I progressed to singing tenor, it was great fun. And then one day I decided to do and sit in the congregation – it had been nearly ten years since I sat in the congregation. So I sat next to my father in that evensong and it was a revelation. Because there was a very powerful tenor in the back row of the choir, and when we stood up to sing, he used to turn to the congregation. So all they were getting was the full force of the tenor line. They were singing the tenor line in hymns! In psalms, in everything, everything was tenor! They were all looking at me, thinking what is he singing? I was singing the tune! I bet that happens in other places too.

We had Sir Arthur Bliss conduct his Mary of Magdalen, which I think was a commission for the festival. And we sang under him, which was fascinating. Over the last few years, it’s wonderful because every year we have an international conductor. We’ve sung under Martyn Brabbins before, and in Gloucester on two occasions we had Ed Gardner.

They’re inspirations, these people. Vladimir Ashkenazy did one concert; he did the Rachmaninov Bells, and Andrew Davis. I think he lives near Hereford, not quite sure where. These are people, for whom conducting appears to be easy. They also know the work intimately, so they’re not interested in detail, they’re interested in one thing in this beast, just communicating. And they hear the whole thing as they’re conducting it and they’ve got this overall perspective.

When Geraint conducts a rehearsal, you don’t stop for breath until the end! And when you get to the end, you’ve done everything as planned. And you have a tremendous feeling of satisfaction, you actually want to carry on. To be able to manage an exciting rehearsal must be an enormous challenge in itself. Geraint works us very hard, but it’s fun.

Listening to music is an art in itself, isn’t it. Because I tend to be singing, I don’t tend to go to many concerts. Some things are difficult to listen to. Things that you know are easier to listen to. Because you’re already in it and you can navigate your way through it, you can anticipate something.

If you’re a great fan of contemporary music, you will only probably choose one concert at Three Choirs to come to! I think it’s terribly important that Three Choirs festival does introduce stuff that’s challenging to listen to. I don’t think it would be faithful musically if it didn’t do that.

Elgar conducted his own premieres here, and Vaughan Williams, and all those people that now we return to their works again and again, but at one point they were new. But it’s like any new artwork, it’s a contemporary response, and it comes out of the contemporary world. The contemporary world must speak. It has to happen, even if it’s uncomfortable for us. Most of us are geared not to like change, not to like things that are new. But it is important. But then I’m a teacher originally by profession, so I’m deeply committed to the young.

For the festival, younger performers are absolutely critical. We’ve got to persuade a whole lot of young people that the old Three Choirs Festival is something they want to be part of. I hope it’ll survive because – well, for me, I enjoy it anyway – but it does do something unique, it’s true, it’s a terribly important festival. Thankfully there are a significant number of people who support the Three Choirs because they just believe in it. And at the other end, it’s terribly important that schools are educating children musically. Of course, in today’s world we’re all surrounded by music anyway.

Our Village Community Church Choir is a real musical gem. There is a member of the choir who seems to have come alive as a person since the choir was started. Because he’s got this group that he can sing with now, instead of just on his own with his wife in a congregation of four on a Sunday morning. Music is so accessible. When people say that they can’t sing in tune, I don’t think that’s true. There’s so much involved in singing: it’s hearing, and it’s how you use your vocal chords, it’s about how you’re breathing. It’s a very complicated thing that actually produces this fine sound that we aspire to.

After the performance, you have to go through this routine: you put your copy in the box. You carry this music around with you for the last two months, and then you stick it in the box and that’s it, it’s gone. And then you go and party and talk to people. That’s one of the things that disappoints me, actually, about the Three Choirs Festival. It always puzzles me; I come out of the performance and the one thing I want to do is meet up with friends in the bar or somewhere, and party and let the thing go on. But the thing that always amuses me is that at Three Choirs you get thousands of people streaming out of the cathedral and getting in their cars and going home, and I always say, they’re off to have their cocoa now.

I would never ever do a Three Choirs Festival travelling every day, because you’d be too tired. When I go to the Three Choirs Festival I want to be there for the week, the whole week is going to be an amazing experience. We’ve got to meet lots of friends and we’ve got to have lots of fun, so we’ve jolly well got to stay there.

Last year we wanted tickets for Gerontius. I rang up about a week after the booking had opened, and was told, no, sorry, it’s a sell-out. So I put my name on the waiting list. I will stand outside the door, in the porch! We did get into the concert in the end, because it was a few weeks before and we got the phone call from the ticket office. We were up in the quire, and you could hear everything.

The chorus have to sing for the week and then there’s another concert which is not chorus and they can’t get in! And they’ve got to buy a ticket. So we now get free tea and coffee so that’s ok –it they took that away from the chorus I think there would be a rebellion! The chorus always say, we’re making this and it’s very hard work!

When I was teaching, I took a group of schoolchildren to the Albert Hall for the last but one night of the Proms. I said, I can’t take you to the last night because we’ll never get in! But we’ll go for the last but one night, it’ll be fine. So we got there in good time, we arrived at the Albert Hall and there was this queue that went right round the Albert Hall and down the road! So we joined the queue, and once they’d opened the doors we got nearer and nearer, and just as they were closing the doors to the auditorium, everybody else had gone, and we went into the foyer. And we sat there with some other people in the foyer, listening to it on someone’s portable radio! It was fantastic.

And of course we’re getting an extra day for Hereford! Hereford is usually the shorter of the weeks, but we’re doing a Saturday evening concert. In the past few years we’ve had the Gathering Wave. But that Saturday night has now become a Three Choirs Festival concert. So people are going to get more for their money! Of course, the Gathering Wave is wonderful, not least because it’s bringing in singers who wouldn’t usually come and sing in the cathedral. And those singers are really important as well.

It’s only in the last few years that people have realised that if the festival is going to survive at all and not go under financially, it’s daft to triplicate the organisation. But the lovely thing is, each of them is still different.