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Gloucester Three Choirs Festival Opening Service: Saturday 27 July 2019

The Very Reverend Dr Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury

May I say how wonderful it is for me to be back in Three Choirs Festival country, having had the pleasure of hosting three Three Choirs Festivals in my nine years as Dean of Hereford.

In response to the Dean’s welcome, I too have happy memories of thirty years ago, when he was one of my curates in Sherborne Abbey, and I well remember his first communion, celebrated at the high altar in the Abbey, when I acted as his Deacon. We came to the Sursum Corda and he lifted his hands to begin but then said out of the side of his mouth ‘Can you do my shoelace up?’ so I quickly knelt down behind the high altar, did up his shoelace and the communion continued. At the end of the Service, as the large congregation left the Abbey, nearly all of them said to me ‘What a wonderful Service but the most moving moment was when you knelt before Stephen.’ This is the way acts of liturgy begin!

We heard read as part of our lesson from St Paul’s letter to the Romans the words ‘We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.’ A Festival like this one and Services like this one this morning are occasions when a whole kaleidoscope of creative gifts from many people are displayed for the enjoyment of us all and they have the effect of encouraging our own unique gifts of creativity with which each of us is endowed. I very much believe that we are never nearer to the heart of our Creator than when we are ourselves exercising the creative gifts that are particularly ours. Cathedrals are very much places where people can find the kind of encouragement to use those gifts which are unique to them, as they experience in music, or drama, or the beauty of architecture and stained glass the creative gifts of others. The increase of pilgrim groups coming to Cathedrals has been astonishing in the last twenty years. One such group came to us at Canterbury about three weeks ago. They were a group of young people from the parish of St Mark’s, New Canaan in Connecticut. They spent five days with us and during that time observed people like themselves involved in the many skills that a Cathedral community displays in its workforce. On the last night, before taking them on a candlelit pilgrimage I gave them a chance to ask any questions they might want to ask. Now usually when you give people that kind of opportunity the questions are ordinary ones about the way the community works or puzzling things they have found within the Cathedral itself. I admit to having ready answers to many of these but was to be challenged in a new way by this group. One young man called Jack Harrison asked me ‘Who is in charge of my destiny, me or God?’ I could almost hear gears in my head changing from automatic to manual as I thought how I should answer this question. I went back to the teaching of Austin Farrer and spoke about a double agency in which you and God are involved in a partnership of mutual willingness but I said to him, ‘You can deny that destiny but if you do God will present it again in a multitude of different ways and situations as the years go by and true contentment will only come when your unique gifts connect with that creative destiny.’

In August 1900 the composer Edward Elgar had taken Birchwood Lodge, a cottage near the Malverns, to write the Dream of Gerontius. On the morning of August the 3rd he completed the score and wrote in his handwriting at the bottom ‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate and drank and slept, loved and hated like another; my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this if anything of mine, is worth your memory.’ He had been filled with inspiration not only from within himself but also from the beauty of the countryside around him as he wrote. In a letter to Jaeger in July 1900 he had written ‘The trees are singing my music – or have I sung theirs?’ which is reminiscent of the phrase we heard read from Isaiah 55 ‘You shall go out with joy and be led home in peace; the mountains and hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’ A friend arriving for lunch just at the moment that Elgar had completed the score begged to be allowed to get his camera from his bicycle and film him just as he sat and the picture of a youngish Elgar with the score in front of him and his eyes full of contentment, as if remembering the vision which impelled him to write this music, shows someone who is at that moment very sure that they are willingly responding to their destiny.

It was not always to be the case. I do not have to tell a Three Choirs Festival gathering that from then on Elgar’s fame grew and his popularity grew so that when his first symphony was performed in 1908, Jaeger who was in the audience in the Queen’s Hall, said he had never seen such a wild ovation with people standing on their seats cheering and calling for Elgar again and again. Of that symphony Elgar wrote to Walford Davies ‘There is no programme beyond a wide experience of human life with a great love and a massive hope in the future.’

All that hope and that certainty of his destiny was to be shattered by the fact of the Great War, those four years which for Europe were to be catastrophic and cataclysmic years, whose centenary we have just finished remembering. During that time he could write music to order, which was well received, but as far as he was concerned the wellsprings of inspiration within him had run dry. It was Lady Elgar, always his muse and for me the true enigma of the Variations, who as the war was ending found a cottage in Sussex where she hoped the atmosphere of the countryside rather than London might evoke something of what the young Elgar had known was his own destiny. At that time he had an operation to remove an infected tonsil which needed a general anaesthetic and, on recovering from that, he asked for manuscript paper and a pencil and on that he wrote the first three bars of the melody played by the cello in the Cello Concerto. That Cello Concerto will be performed in its centenary year at this Festival and how I wish I was still here to hear it. Just as Gerontius had had a disastrous premiere, with musicians unprepared for the type of music they were playing or singing, so the Cello Concerto suffered the same fate at its first performance. Nevertheless, the most respected music critic of the first half of the 20th century, Ernest Newman, wrote of that performance ‘There have been rumours about during the week of inadequate rehearsal. Whatever the explanation, the sad fact remains that never in all probability has so great an orchestra made so lamentable an exhibition of itself – the work itself is lovely stuff, very simple, that pregnant simplicity that has come upon Elgar’s music in the last couple of years: but with a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity. A fine spirit’s wistful brooding upon the loveliness of earth.’ Step forward now not Jack Harrison but Beatrice Harrison aged 29, sure of her destiny with her cello, for she it would be who made the Cello Concerto increasingly more famous and so loved that it retains its position as one of the most requested of all Elgar’s works. The same Beatrice Harrison that many of you will have heard on YouTube practising in her garden as the nightingales sang. A phenomenon recorded thanks to Lord Reith’s energy in sending BBC recording engineers to her home in Oxted to make the first ever BBC Outside Broadcast in 1924.

‘Fear not, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.’ That sentence spoken by Jesus in St Luke’s Gospel, which we heard read this morning, ranks high in my favourite verses of all scripture. It speaks to each of us of God’s gift of our own individual destiny which God gives us the freedom to embrace or deny daily. Sometimes we deny it because other ways look more attractive in terms of this world’s rewards and favours, but it will find us again. It will find us in the most unexpected situations and in the voices and needs of the most surprising people. It will find us at home or abroad, in office or kitchen, in good times or bad, this prompting to use the unique creative gifts given only to us. Elgar recovered his gift having lived through the terrible years of death and destruction when hope and inspiration had ebbed. The simple tune, written in pencil, became his Cello Concerto and signalled a fresh embracing of his destiny. Near to the end of his life he said to a friend when speaking of those opening bars ‘If ever after I am dead you hear someone whistling this tune in the Malvern Hills, don’t be alarmed, it is only me.’


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