"Next to him was an empty seat that, shortly after conducting his Fantasia, was taken up by Vaughan Williams."

 

 

"We’re just as eager to share our love of the festival and choral music."

 

 

"Legacy is a word that comes to mind, perhaps this is the greatest gift we have to offer."

 

 

For more information, visit www.poetry-festival.co.uk/schools-programme

 

Gerontius and Dream Catcher: Passing the Baton

by Ellis Coopey, Trusts & Foundations Officer

 

I can hear you all counting down, I can feel your anticipation. Yes, this coming Saturday will mark four weeks until the Three Choirs Festival takes over Worcester. We know you can’t wait and we can’t either, our fingers and toes are twitching for the celebrations to begin. While we are on the topic of counting, do you know how many times The Dream of Gerontius has been performed at the festival?

For the last decade, we’ve performed the piece every two years and it was performed 19 times in Elgar’s lifetime alone. By 1910, eight years after its first performance at the festival, there was already a very loyal following. Herbert Howells remembers the evening very well:

‘It was Tuesday night, an Elgar Night; a dedicated Elgar audience, all devotees of the by then ‘accepted’ masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius… But there, conducting a strange [new] work for strings, Ralph Vaughan Williams himself, a comparative (or complete?) stranger; and his Fantasy would be holding up The Dream, maybe for ten minutes? In fact, for twice ten, as it happened.’

A critic wrote after ‘There was a feeling of relief when the Fantasia came to an end… the piece took nineteen minutes in performance…’ As scathing as these first impressions were, Vaughan Williams was soon forgiven. Last year we were very lucky to hear Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis in Gloucester Cathedral, where it was first premiered that very evening; a truly magical performance. This year we’ll hear The Dream of Gerontius in Worcester Cathedral (you’ve guessed it!) where it had its first full performance at Three Choirs Festival. As I sit there, I’m going to be wondering what it was like to have been there in 1910, seen Vaughan Williams step down from the rostrum and Elgar step up. Imagining this scene, it strikes me what an act of generosity it was on Elgar’s part; passing the baton, literally, to share his very loyal audience with this young composer from Chelsea.

When Herbert Howells attended this concert, hearing The Dream for the first time, he was but seventeen. Next to him was an empty seat that, shortly after conducting his Fantasia, was taken up by Vaughan Williams. He came carrying a copy of The Dream under his arm and proceeded to share it with Howells for the duration of the performance. This image is one that resonates with me, the older composer sharing his music with the budding young musician. This hasn’t much changed, we’re just as eager to share our love of the festival and choral music.

The sentiment of sharing is reflected in our Festival Firsts Scheme, launched this year, whereby loyal festival-goers can donate the cost of a ticket to someone who has never attended. It’s not beyond the stretch of the imagination to think a donated seat might facilitate another chance meeting just like Howells and Vaughan Williams. Throughout festival week, we are also working with the Elgar School of Music to host a number of Tiny Tunes sessions, relaxed and interactive music events designed for babies and toddlers. Our support for young emerging artists is seen on every day of the festival, with the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir performing Jonathan Dove’s There Was a Child, the Royal College of Organists and the Philharmonia Fellows showcased in satellite venues across Worcestershire and pieces performed from young composers Owain Park and Thomas Hewitt-Jones.

Last month, in collaboration with the Ledbury Poetry Festival, we began a creative poetry and composition project named Dream Catcher in schools around Worcestershire. Taking The Dream of Gerontius as its impetus, we asked children from three primary schools to write poems in response to the piece. With the help of poet Roz Goddard and conductor Robbie Jacobs the children began work on their poems. The titles themselves evoke strong images, such as In an Angel’s Pocket, Angel Song, Chant against Death, Death Talks, There Came the Final Day and Once I Was the Man. Following these initial sessions, they began working with composer Freya Waley-Cohen to set their poems to music and coming full circle, they worked again with Robbie Jacobs to prepare for a final performance of their work. This was an extraordinary opportunity for the young people in these schools. I’m sure they won’t realise that Roz Goddard was former Poet Laureate for Birmingham, that Robbie Jacobs is one of the foremost up-and-coming choral conductors in the country or that Freya Waley-Cohen has commissions and performances year-around. I’m not certain it matters.

Legacy is a word that comes to mind, perhaps this is the greatest gift we have to offer. It was passed from Elgar to Vaughan Williams, from Vaughan Williams to Howells and now maybe even an inspired young generation of would-be poets, conductors and composers.

As you walk around this year (as I know many of you will have done many times before), think about the beautiful thing we’ve inherited, and how we've been bestowed the responsibility of passing it on. And, if you’re around for the end of the festival don’t forget to catch Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi; you might just be seated next to a festival first-timer destined to be a household name!

 

 

Dreamcatcher: Schools Showcase

 

Tuesday 4 July at 10.30am – 11.30am. The Community Hall, Ledbury

 

Pupils from Ledbury and Eastnor Primary Schools and Franche Community Primary School in Kidderminster will perform the poems they have made into songs as part of a partnership project between the Ledbury Poetry Festival and the Three Choirs Festival, inspired by Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. The pupils have worked with voice coach Robbie Jacobs, composer Freya Waley-Cohen and poet Roz Goddard.

Free entry.