Classical music and the Cotswold landscape
Classical musician and new director of the Tetbury Music Festival, Caz Weller Knight, looks at music inspired by the Cotswold countryside
The Cotswolds has produced far more than its fair share of Classical music stars. Well-known names trip off the tongue: Parry, Holst, Elgar, Vaughan-williams, Howells, Gurney. Indeed, their output has become part of the DNA of what it is to be British. What would we do without the stirring music of Holst’s The Planets, or Parry’s I vow to Thee my Country? Could it be that the Cotswold landscape itself inspired their greatness?
Parry grew up at Highnam in Gloucestershire. From there the views extend in one direction to the spire of Gloucester Cathedral and in the other to the local church of Highnam, where Parry took his lessons from the church organist.
Worcester-born Elgar was taken by ferry over the River Severn to school every day, and was once found on her banks with music paper ‘trying to write down what the reeds were saying’.
Holst, from Cheltenham, grew up to be a ‘good walker and an incessant one’. A great friend of Down-ampney born Ralph Vaughan-williams, they had ‘field days’ together when they would walk, absorb the changing landscape and critique each other’s latest musical compositions.
And Howells and Gurney, Gloucestershire born and bred and two years apart in age, would go for long walks together, sometimes lasting several days.
So there is no doubt that the Cotswolds landscape inspired them. On one of his walks Gurney looked at the outline of the Malvern Hills and said “unless that influences you for the whole of your life in tune-making, it is failing in one of its chief essentials!’ His lifelong friend Howells who ‘never composed a note of music without a place or building in mind’ went on to dedicate his 1916 piano quartet to ‘The hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it’.
They were devoted countrymen, and anchored to the sense of place that the landscape gave them. But in every case the much-loved landscape was only one part of the alchemy that would lead to musical success. Two other vital ingredients were needed and the Cotswolds had these in a unique combination.
From a young age each of these men was able to learn his craft from a highly skilled church organist of the region. Geographically close to the ancient music traditions of the cathedrals of Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester, the Cotswolds had an unusually vibrant and skilled network of music in parish churches. This in turn spun out informal music making in local bands and glee clubs.
Within this musical structure lay opportunities, as organists, conductors and choir-masters, to learn and perform and then, critically, to arrange, orchestrate and compose original music.
But the final part of the mix, the game-changer for our Cotswold crop of musical lions, was the opportunity to hear world-class, sometimes groundbreaking music every year, not far from their own homes. And the chance there to see, And
what’s more, to have the chance to see, meet and be inspired by the top musicians, composers, conductors and impresarios of their day.
And this is where Music Festivals come in and in particular for these composers, the Three Choirs Festival. You cannot look at the life of any of our Cotswold composers and ignore the impact that this local but world-class music Festival had on their lives.
Parry first visited the Three Choirs Festival when he was 13 and went on to have a lifelong association with it as composer and conductor; likewise Elgar was a regular visitor as a boy. In an era before recorded music became easily available, the Festival was a way for horizons to be expanded: Holst thought he had floated up to the ceiling when, aged 19, he heard Bach’s
B minor Mass there! The music Festival was also a meeting-place of minds: when Herbert Howells
and Ivor Gurney, aged 18 and 19, went to hear the premiere of a piece by Ralph Vaughan-williams, they were thrilled to meet the composer himself and they all talked long and animatedly about Elgar’s then highly controversial Dream of Gerontius.
So, in a world before internet and social media, The Festival not only broadened horizons but enabled what today we would call networking. And by routinely commissioning new works, it provided a platform from which British composers could be supported and promoted.
Our beautiful Cotswolds countryside did indeed inspire some of the most glorious Classical music ever composed. But it was the vibrant music-making heritage of the area and the existence of a well-supported provincial music Festival that transformed inspiration into output.
Inspiration, education and opportunity: the Cotswolds provided all three.
Instruments of Time and Truth