Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester

July 22–29, 2023


The flight on Friday from Bergen to Gatwick took about two hours. A train to Victoria Station runs from the airport, and we had activated our Britrail passes for the day, so that transfer went smoothly enough. We needed to get to Paddington Station and chose to take Uber rather than deal with our luggage navigating through the Underground. Lee booked it, but we couldn't find the pickup point. It turned out to be completely the other side of the station. So we walked to the other side, and Lee went off in some direction I could not see. I tried calling him, but our cell phone connections were bad. He had headed west and found where the driver might have been before he gave up on us. I had continued heading north. Then I went west to where Lee might have been once, and he was looking for where I had been. Eventually he saw me at a distance, and it turned out to be near where the next driver was coming, so we got to Paddington OK.

Then we looked at the schedule boards to find a train to Gloucester. Lee found one that he said had left almost an hour earlier. I saw a couple listed that looked promising that Lee somehow wrote off. My watch is set by my phone. Lee has a nice watch that has to be set manually. He was still on Central Europe time. Once we sorted that out, we found a train that was leaving soon and headed off to get to a First Class car. The train trip was pleasant enough. At Gloucester, we foolishly assumed that the walk to our hotel from the station couldn't be too bad. Maybe it wouldn't have been had we known what we were doing. But if we had known what we were doing, we would have opted for a $10 Uber ride instead. It was just 0.7 of a mile, so not really that bad unless you are trying to roll suitcases along the uneven pavement and sidewalks. We did find a place along the way to get pizza. Our walk seemed to be geared to avoiding the park that was right in front of our hotel. But we managed to get there in spite of ourselves and did the self-service check-in to our unmanned facilities.

After settling in a bit, we headed off to the dock area restaurants and ate a Greek place. I must have seen this along the way.

The two-hundred-ninety-fifth Three Choirs Festival began the next morning, Saturday, July 22. There were three processions from different points in town. We went to the gathering near a tower. Torrey and Christopher went to one nearer their hotel. It was raining a bit, so they moved us from the tower to a storefront where at least some of us could stand under cover. I shot some pictures and videos from behind the group rather than getting wet. The event started with some songs by a Ukrainian choir. I was not in a good spot to see them, but just enjoyed the music. Then a part of the festival chorus sang. The bass standing nearest me later remarked that I got mostly them, so I could learn the part if I wished. The outstanding Flowers Band played a couple songs and then led the procession. You can see pictures of them at the festival on this page. The other featured ensembles for the concerts were the Royal Philharmonic, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

The cathedral officials waited at the West Door.

The service itself began with the Fanfare for the Three Choirs Festival 250th Anniversary, composed by Herbert Howells. Then we sang the National Anthem. Of course I had never sung "God Save the King" before, since the last king died when I was 5. I don't know that I ever sang "God Save the Queen" either. I guess I could have kept quiet or sung "My Country ’Tis of Thee." Charles III seems like a nice chap, and I wish him well, though he is not my king. The first page of the program book featured a nice note signed “Charles R” wishing us an enjoyable and successful event. Music by Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Parry followed. Of course there is no photography or recording during the programs and services. I got this shot of the festival choir later.

We never got to hear the organ, since it is being refurbished. It was built in 1666 by Thomas Harris. It has the only complete 17th century organ case surviving in England. Specifications as of the 1999 rebuild can be found in the Guide for Visiting Organists. I find the other instructions of interest, too. The pedal has 6 2/5′ and 4 4/7′ stops, which should help propagate good resultant pitches in that big space and maybe make the bombardes sound bombardier. The Great 16′ is a gedecktpommer. The Schlicker at Davidson had a wonderful 16′ quintadena which added weight without making the sound muddy. (Naturally that was one of the stops done away with during the rebuild.) I have wondered since why more organs have not incorporated this most useful stop. The pommer is likely to be a weightier member of that same tonal family, as would be appropriate for such a large space. Maybe some year that the festival rotates to Gloucester after the organ is playable again, I can get back there and hear it.

Some of the passageways were used in Harry Potter films, so they may look familiar.

The organ sits atop a screen between the nave (the main body of the church, the “ship,” so to speak) and the choir (or “quire”). This is typical of cathedral architecture of the period. The screen supposedly was to keep the monks a little warmer when they observed the canonical hours. In a time of Latin masses and illiterate congregations, it might have served to screen off the magical things happening at the high altar. In modern times in both Catholic and Protestant churches altars have been moved out front.

Evensong (sung Evening Prayer) is a wonderful English custom, whether in Anglican cathedrals or on occasion at Davidson UMC (where I will be singing in one some time this fall). I am especially moved by the prayer that reminds us that others work and watch through the night to protect us and to tend the sick. Much glorious music has been written for Evensong, especially settings of Mary’s Magnificat and of Simeon’s Song, both from St. Luke’s Nativity account, which are regular parts of the service. For Evensong, we typically sit in part of the Quire while the actual singers have their own section. There is very little congregational participation, maybe just the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and a closing hymn. So it can be a very contemplative service as much as a concert of wonderful choral music. I have attended Evensong at Anglican cathedrals in Canterbury, York, London, Oxford, Dublin, and now Gloucester. In 1976 Lee and I attended Evensong at St. Paul’s in London as part of our honoring our Methodist heritage. John Wesley wrote in his journal that the anthem at Evensong there one day was a setting of Psalm 130. He wrote that it prepared him for the experience later that evening when his heart was “strangely warmed.” I also went to Evensong at St. Paul’s on my next two trips to England, as I recall.

Here is a picture I made of the quire area from my seat prior to an Evensong service at Gloucester:

For the Flowers Band concert, our seats were on the front row, near the trombones. The balance was still fine. When we saw their banners, we found out where the name came from. Flowers Fine Ales sponsored them after the regimental band was disbanded. When the brewery went out of business, the band then used some other names, but eventually went back to the original. They have won numerous awards and competitions. I could easily tell why.

On the grounds around the cathedral were performances by different sorts of groups and tents for buying crafts, snacks, and drinks. I got a picture of the Morris dancers just as they were done performing.

West of the cathedral stands a memorial to fallen members of the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars.

The schedule for the festival was quite full, often with simultaneous afternoon events at different towns. You couldn't take in everything, even if you had the stamina to try. The program book is 263 pages long. In addition there were receptions for Americans and for donors and a Saturday morning farewell coffee for Americans. We went to only one of the events that started at 10:30 pm. Most nights we were trying to find somewhere for a late supper, but found just pizza and fast food. One night we went to Migrations played on electric harps by Ruth Wall and featuring compositions by her partner Graham Fitkin. The main evening program on Friday night featured his major work The Age of Aspiration, using the word in at least two senses with much breathing, names of gases, text from Sir Humphry Davy, and reference to the Industrial Revolution.

One afternoon we attended a delightful performance of Twelfth Night in the Old Bishop’s Garden east of the cathedral. As in Shakespeare’s day, there was an all-male cast. (This can't be done in Florida.) Other days we took bus trips to concerts in other towns. Of course organ concerts needed to be elsewhere, and soloists and small ensembles benefited from not so huge rooms. The performances were wonderful, and the venues were worth seeing in their own right.



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