The Three Choirs Festival was founded some 300 years ago, bringing together
the choirs of three great cathedral cities — Worcester, Gloucester and
Hereford. The Three Choirs epitomize all that is great and good about the
English choral tradition. It’s a festival which no-one seriously interested
in the genre can miss. The atmosphere is unique, and immeasurably enhances
appreciation of the music.
Edward Elgar was very much part of the Three Choirs Festival. He attended
without fail, and his music has figured prominently in every Festival for over
100 years. He was a Worcester man by birth, so it was a very special experience
to hear this performance of Caractacus in Worcester Cathedral, where
Elgar himself would have heard it.
Caractacus is an epic oratorio about an ancient Briton King called
Caractacus. Legend has it that he was defeated by the Romans, making his last
stand on a hill now known as the Herefordshire Beacon. It’s a spectacular
spot, commanding a panoramic view over the Malvern Hills. Ancient
fortifications can still be seen on its summit.
History co-exists with the present of Elgar’s own time in
Caractacus. “Watchmen alert!” sing the massed choir. Right from
the start, Elgar’s Caractacus begins defiantly. “The Roman hordes
have girdled in our British coast”. Then Caractacus takes up the call.
“Watchmen alert! The King is here!”. The Britons are facing a crisis
situation, for soon Caractacus and his men will be taken as slaves to Rome and
their ancient Druid religion gradually obliterated.
In 1898, the British Empire was at its peak. Basking in the certainties of
their manifest destiny, Victorian Imperialists didn’t register the irony that
they were themselves doing to others what the Romans Imperialists did to their
ancestors. In the last big chorus, Elgar’s text specifically mentions “the
flag of Britain (and) its triple crosses”, ie the Union Flag which didn’t
exist until Stuart times, and British dominion “O’er peoples
undiscover’d, inlands we cannot know”. Hearing the truculence of this text
makes one realize what a shock the 1914-18 war would be to Elgar, and to the
certainties of Empire.
Nonetheless, Elgar’s music is exquisite, overcoming the often lugubrious
text. He was a Worcester man at heart, who hiked and cycled in the woods around
him. Caractacus is very much inspired by the spirit of the landscape
around him in the Malverns. The text may be violent, but the music is
gloriously pastoral for the most part. The “Woodland Interlude” that begins
Scene III is short, but its verdant loveliness pervades the entire work. The
Druids worshipped the forces of nature. Dense woodlands were sacred to them
just as Worcester Cathedral is to the modern faithful. For Elgar, nature and
landscape were almost sacred too. He wrote to a friend (who appears encoded in
the Enigma Variations), “the trees are singing my music- or have I
“The air is sweet, the sky is calm” sings Caractacus, “all nature
round is breathing balm…O spirits of the hill surround, with waving wings
this holy ground”. Peter Savidge’s firm intonation carries authority
naturally, without being forced. His diction is so clear that it cuts through
the choirs, decisively. He creates Caractacus’s character with warmth and
sensitivity, more faithful, perhaps to the spirit of the Druids than to High
Victorian arrogance. Just listening to Savidge, you can understand why
Claudius, the Roman Emperor, was so impressed by Caractacus’s moral strength
that he treated the Britons with respect. Savidge’s O my warriors! was
expansive, yet surprisingly tender. Truly “a freeborn chieftain and a people
free …(whose) soul remains unshackled still”.”
Elgar’s forte is the orchestral extension of text, so performance stands
or falls on orchestra and conductor. Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia were
superlative, technically brighter and sharper than the London Symphony Chorus
were for Richard Hickox on their recording almost 20 years ago. Davis
delineates the underlying themes so precisely that the music seems to come
alive, whispering meaning much as the trees the Druids worshipped whispered
meaning to them. Tight dynamics built drama into what might otherwise be fairly
stolid Victorian melodrama. When this performance is broadcast on BBC Radio 3
on 3rd September make sure to listen, because this is the new benchmark.
Hopefully, a recording may be made available. Worcester, and the Three Choirs
Festival are sacred ground to Elgar enthusiasts.
What makes the Three Choirs Festival unique, however, is the quality of the
choral singing, which is the whole raison d’Ítre behind this 300
year old tradition. Although at moments it wasn’t easy to make out all the
text, the fault lies not with the voices nor with the choirmaster but with the
text itself. English is a language which lends itself to vowels rather than
consonants, so it’s easy to approximate vocally, which is why it’s near
universal today. There were many Caractacus figures in Gaul and in the lands of
the Franks, so in theory there might be similar works in French or German, but
they’d sound completely different. The relative imprecision of English makes
the Triumphal March sympathetic. The Britons are a ragged bunch of
wild men, very different to the sophisticated Roman Court, yet they win out
since Caractacus is a level-headed fellow.
Brindley Sherratt sang Claudius with such rich resonance that he brought out
the depth in the Roman’s personality. The Romans may be the enemy, but
Sherratt shows what a fundamentally civilized man Claudius is, for he can show
mercy without compromising his power. Stephen Roberts Arch Druid/Bard was also
deeply impressive. Judith Howarth reprised Eigen, Caractacus’s daughter. Her
voice is in excellent form, still pure and sweet though it’s been 20 years
since she sang it with Richard Hickox. In At eve to the greenwood she managed
the sudden leap up the register with aplomb. Even better was her When the glow
of the evening. Ben Johnson sang Orbin, the Druid whom Eigen is in love with.
Johnson’s very young and this is a fairly demanding part, so he did very well
indeed. His bright tone is matched by good Italianate looks and an expressive
face which will stand him in good stead in opera.
This performance of Elgar’s Caractacus from the Three Choirs Festival at
Worcester will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 after the Proms end in mid
image_description=Engraving of statue of Caractacus by John Henry Foley
product_title=Edward Elgar: Caractacus
product_by=Peter Savidge: Caractacus, Judith Howarth: Eigen, Ben Jihnson: Orbin, Brindley Sherratt: Claudius, Stephen Roberts: Arch Druid/Bard. The Three Choirs Festival Chorus, The Philharmonia Orchestra, Andrew Davis: conductor. Worcester Cathedral, Three Choirs Festival, 10th August 2011.
product_id=Above: Engraving of statue of Caractacus by John Henry Foley