The festival has been privileged to enjoy royal patronage for almost two centuries, and our current Patron HRH The Prince of Wales has visited the festival in recent years. Simon Carpenter, the festival’s volunteer archivist, has put together the history of the Three Choirs Festival’s royal connections.
The Hereford Festival of 1897 marked Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee with, as the Annals describes, ‘much of the music of the week [taking] its colour from this event and [reflecting] the loyal sentiments of the nation.’ On the Tuesday morning a special thanksgiving service was arranged when ‘appropriate’ music was performed, including Handel’s Zadok the Priest and ex-Gloucester organist C H Lloyd’s new work A Hymn of Thanksgiving, which he had dedicated by permission to the Queen. She wasn’t present to hear it, but she was during the 1830 (Worcester) Festival when, as a 12-year-old princess, she accompanied her mother, the Duchess of Kent, to some of the performances. According to the Annals again, ‘Extensive and appropriate arrangements were … made for the comfort and convenience of the Royal visitors. Special seats were provided, to which access was obtained by an entrance being made through a window in the Dean’s chapel.’ The Royal couple were present for the opening service when Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum (a long time Festival favourite), the Dead March from Saul, and extracts from Handel’s Funeral Anthem were performed, the latter in respect of the memory of King George IV who had recently died.
The first Royal visit to a Festival was by King George IV’s father, George III in 1788. This was the occasion when it was moved to the first week in August to accommodate the Royal wishes to combine it with a visit to Cheltenham, the music of Handel, which then dominated the programmes, being the draw. The Royal party stayed in the Bishop’s Palace at Worcester for the duration. In 1827 the Festival was granted royal patronage by George IV, a privilege which continues to the present day.
Further Royal visits occurred in 1870, 1891 and 1911. In 1870 a visit by Prince and Princess Christian (Queen Victoria’s third daughter) prompted the Hereford organist, George Townsend Smith, to drop the traditional first evening secular concert altogether and replace it with an oratorio performance in the recently gaslit cathedral. This consisted of the first two parts of Haydn’s Creation and Joseph Barnby’s recently published ‘sacred idyll’ Rebekah. The latter had been first produced in London in 1869, and according to the Annals ‘received with great favour by the musical world.’ Barnby himself conducted the Festival performance of his work.
In 1891 the Duke and Duchess of Teck and their children, Princess Mary (later the Duchess of York, then Queen to George V) and Prince Alexander, attended the performance on the first day of the Hereford Festival week of Mendelsohn’s St Paul. As the Annals discreetly notes, the same composer’s Elijah traditionally occupied this spot at this time. And then the Worcester Festival of 1911 was graced with the presence for some of the time of Princess Henry of Battenburg (Queen Victoria’s fifth daughter), Prince Leopold (Queen Victoria’s youngest son) and King Manoel of Portugal and his mother, Queen Amelia. A major highlight of that Festival was the premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs.
More recently, a knock-on effect from the Festival’s invitation and visit to Buckingham Palace in 2015 to mark the official 300th anniversary were that there were two Royal visits in 2016 and 2017. In 2016 Prince Charles attended the Gloucester Festival of that year and listened to Mendelsohn’s Elijah and, separately, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester also visited. The following year, Prince Charles visited the Festival in Worcester and attended a performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. The concert, conducted by Music Director of the English National Opera Martyn Brabbins, was performed by the Choirs Festival Chorus and Worcester Cathedral Girl Choristers, together with the Philharmonia Orchestra. The soloists were mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, tenor David Butt Philip, and baritone Roderick Williams. Before he left, the Prince met members of the Worcester Committee, Trustees and Festival staff and some of the performers and afterwards reported to Michael Clarke, the Chairman of the Worcester Committee, how much he had enjoyed the concert, and complimented the excellence of the performance.
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