From MA graduate to supporting the Three Choirs Festival’s archives and history

This post comes from Simon Carpenter, who completed an MA by Research in History at the University of Gloucestershire.

Shortly after graduating I spotted a photograph of Sir Herbert Brewer on the Three Choir’s Festival Facebook page. I was intrigued. The Gloucester Cathedral organist in the early part of the twentieth century, he had been the focus of my researches for the duration of my degree. I left a message on the page, and within a few days I was sitting in the office of Alexis Paterson, the Festival’s chief executive officer, volunteering to help with the Festival archives and history in my imminent retirement.

Three Choirs Festival programme from 1934.

Generally believed to be the world’s oldest classical music festival, the Three Choirs Festival alternates annually between the cathedral cities of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester. Originating sometime in the early 18th century, it has long provided a platform for composers and has seen the premieres of some of the best known British classical compositions, including Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Top names in classical music have also always performed at the Festivals over the years.

The Tallis Fantasia programme cover from 1910.

My chat with Alexis was nearly two years ago, and early on proved to be one of the best decisions of my life. For someone with a choral music, information management (I trained as a librarian) and now historian background, this was my dream role. But as much as any factor in making it so this is due to the confidence that my research degree training left me with. I now know how history should be researched and how historical narratives are formed. And more importantly, I now feel equipped to develop my own narratives and argue for them, knowing that history is all about perception and interpretation. 

My knowledge of Brewer was also good starting point, as he had directed several Three Choirs Festivals as part of his role as Gloucester Organist. Another was the first task Alexis set me, which was to track and list all the Festival premieres. This helped me become familiar with the history of the Festival and its key sources. The early material is mostly held by the three cathedral’s libraries. Continually being refined and updated, at present this list is a spreadsheet of some 500 performances with the earliest verified one dating from 1743.

Currently I am cataloguing the archive stock in the Gloucester office, which includes programme books and photos among other material, and other projects I am involved with include drafting history based social media posts, writing short pieces for the monthly Festival e: newsletter, preparing some of the history-based text for the Festival’s new website and reviewing books for the Festival magazine, Spotlight. In my ‘spare time’ I am working on a spreadsheet that will hopefully in due course include all the major Festival performances since the known earliest ones, and planning a possible new book, among other things.  No wonder my family think they have never seen me so enthusiastic about any of my pre-retirement jobs as I am now.

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