The Three Choirs Festival began more than 300 years ago. Perhaps it is the oldest music festival in the western world. The exact start date is unknown: members of the choirs of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford decided to join together and sing. That sense of community and cooperation, is very much a part of Christian tradition. As Jesus taught "Love they neighbour as thyself". If only people could live by that concept, whatever their faith.
Next week we mark the centenary of the day on which Britain declared war on Germany. Thus began a conflict that, arguably, continued until 1945. Would the cycle of attack and revenge have continued? Instead of punitive reparations, the US introduced the Marshall Plan: victors supporting the welfare of the defeated. Mutual humanity. Some - certainly not all - Britons might still relish foreign wars (on behalf of other states) but Germany has becomes a force for peace. In this spirit I salute (perhaps the wrong choice of word) the Three Choirs Festival for its concert tonight, Reflections on 1914.
"Spirit of England, go before us !" the soprano sings at the start of Edward Elgar's The Spirit of England. The melody echoes, gloriously, in the solo violin, recurring and uniting the piece, its warmth suggesting sunny confidence. . Lawrence Binyon's poem "The Fourth of August", written in the heat of the moment, refers to the "grandeur of our fate". Binyon even equates war with Spring and regrowth. England "fights the fraud that feeds desire on Lies, in lust to enslave or kill, The barren creed of blood and iron," The photo above shows officers of the Worcestershire Regiment posing before they're sent to the Front in 1914. How many would survive?
Perhaps Elgar wasn't quite so belligerent. He sets the middle section (loosely based on Binyon's To Women, in a more reflective key, ushering in the final section "To the Fallen". Trumpets blare and a march-like rhythm emerges. "The enemies of England|" are still a threat. At last the meaning of death sinks in. The text comes from Binyon's most famous poem, To The Fallen. "We will remember them" repeats the soprano, her melody taken up by the chorus, and at times a melancholy cello. .Boadicea-like, the soprano's voice soars. even as the orchestra becomes hushed. "As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, To the end, to the end, they remain."
Ralph Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending can mean many things but in this context, one might reflect on its melancholy. Something very beautiful is being glimpse, but through a haze of nostalgia. Perhaps when the violin soars upwards, we could be thinking of transcendence, deliverance, or timless release? Music doesn't exist just in notes but in our emotional response.
Two of the greatest British composers, responding to a war that would change their world, and a youngish German composer who has travelled the world, reflecting on what went before him. Torsten Rasch grew up in a tradition very close to the Three Choirs: he was a boy chorister with the Dresdner Kreuzchor, which produced Peter Schreier and Rudolf Mauersberger (lots about them on this site too). Rasch's music embraces wider genres. He emigrated to Japan as a young man and has worked in theatre, film and multimedia. Read more about him here.
Torsten Rasch's A Foreign Field is a Three Choirs commission, (in connection with Chemnitz Opera) continuing the Festival's support for new music in its core repertoire. "It's not a Requiem" says Rasch. He uses the British Evensong tradition to bring together English and German poems texts by poets who served on opposite sides in 1914-18 - Ivor Gurney, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl. Below a sample