The Edington Festival of Music within the Liturgy

The First 50 Years

Edington Church

This article was written in 2005 by the then Director of the festival, Julian Thomas, marking the 
50th festival to be held in Edington
 

This year, for the fiftieth time, the Priory Church in Edington plays host to a music festival, or to give it its proper title, a Festival of Music within the Liturgy. Of course, there is no shortage of music festivals nationwide, but what makes Edington unique is the backbone of liturgy around which it is structured. In an age where recorded music is so widely available, one of the things which makes this festival so special is the fact that all the music is heard within the context of worship - there are no concerts, just four services daily; no grand orchestral collaborations, just beautiful artistry to the glory of God. The festival's founder, Sir David Calcutt, envisaged it as 'a festival in which God is worshipped through beauty - beauty of sight, shown or seen in stone or ceremony, beauty of sound, made or heard in the word sung or spoken'.

From humble beginnings, when a group of Cambridge choral scholars and four trebles gathered to sing for a few days, to the present day, with a whole week of services sung by three separate choirs, the ethos has remained essentially unchanged: that the daily routine of worship is central to our existence. The three choirs now are the Nave Choir, consisting of 16 boys and 12 men from cathedral and collegiate choirs (conducted by Robert Quinney); the Consort, a mixed-voice group numbering about 16 adults (conducted by Jeremy Summerly); and the Schola Cantorum, a group of 12 men singing exclusively plainsong (directed by Andrew Carwood).

The basic pattern of worship consists of four sung services each day: Matins at 9.00am, Solemn Eucharist at 11.30am, Evensong at 8.00pm and Compline at 9.15pm. At the heart of each day is the Eucharist, and all three choirs always sing at this service. During the course of the week the whole gamut of Mass settings is covered, from plainsong and Renaissance polyphony through to Classical Viennese, Romantic and more modern settings. The remaining music is chosen to reflect the theme of the day, complementing or contrasting with the mass setting. Evensong is generally a 'traditional' cathedral-style service, but the presence of more than one choir enables a wider variety of styles and repertoire to be covered, including at times a number of polychoral works.

Matins and Compline are sung entirely to plainchant by the Schola Cantorum. The morning office is perhaps one of the most uplifting moments of the day: as the sun streams through the large windows in the Chancel, there is something wonderfully understated about hearing the psalms, canticle and antiphons of the day chanted in perfect unison. By contrast, the gentle candlelight at Compline draws one into introspection and quietude, as if one has been transported back centuries, eavesdropping on the monastic Opus Dei. One of the real joys of having a choir singing exclusively plainsong all week is the professionalism they bring to it. All too often, plainsong is sung in cathedrals without any great understanding of the notation and its subtleties; at Edington, however, the Schola totally immerse themselves in the style, singing from the original four-line stave notation, bringing a freshness and spontaneity to the chant. One might think that the offices of Matins and Compline were a poor relation to the polyphony of Eucharist and Evensong, but any regular to the festival would be able to tell you otherwise!

The sixteen boys are recruited from a selection of cathedrals and collegiate choirs, in recent years from Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral, Salisbury , Wells, St Paul 's, Durham , Southwark, Winchester , New College , Oxford and St Patrick's, Dublin . Usually these boys are some of the most senior in their own choirs; to have a whole choir of strong voices both gives a mature sound, and also makes sight-reading somewhat easier – a real necessity given the amount of music they have to learn. Obviously some of the repertoire is familiar, but there is always some repertoire which will be new to them, and, moreover, they have to be ready to broadcast on the BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong after just three days together, which is no mean feat. They are supported by a back row of men from similar choirs: some choral scholars, others more experienced lay clerks.

The Consort sings almost entirely a cappella works, specializing in both Renaissance polyphony and twentieth-century music. Under the experienced guidance of Jeremy Summerly, they are able to perform pieces that would perhaps not normally be tackled by other choirs, either because of their length or complexity of part-writing. They often sing in the slightly more generous acoustic of the Chancel, which particularly suits the rich female top line. The three choirs certainly complement each other and there is very little overlap of repertoire styles between them.

Although there is inevitably a huge amount of music to be learnt in the course of the week, the festival is definitely not all hard work. Each morning is taken up with rehearsals and services, but every afternoon (apart from the Wednesday for the broadcast) is given over to free time, as it has always been. The boys are taken on various outings including trips to Longleat, Stonehenge , Wookey Hole caves, one of the nearby swimming complexes and much more besides. The administrators and some of the adult singers help on these excursions too, and this is just one example of the way the festival community draws together socially as well as musically.

The first festival took place in August 1956, under the leadership of the then vicar, Ralph Dudley, and David Calcutt (a former choral scholar at Cambridge ). For a place of only some 270 households to host a musical festival is a daunting prospect, and the involvement of local people has always been crucial to its success throughout the years. In this respect Ralph Dudley's vision was formative: he encouraged everyone to make it a joint venture between village and musicians. Whilst in some ways the influx of so many singers and congregation is clearly an invasion, nevertheless for the vast majority of the villagers it is also a reuniting of old friends, an opportunity to celebrate what is best in the Church, and a chance to be part of something unique. In the very early years, services were also sung in the nearby villages of Heytesbury, West Lavington and Steeple Ashton, but it quickly became evident that Edington was the perfect venue for the whole week, both as a practical and spiritual home.

The first year was modest in its proportions, lasting just four days and with only one sung service a day. It is easy, however, to lose sight of how important this was as a first step: Edington Church had not known daily sung services for generations, and there was no assumption of grandeur?it was, after all, just a group of friends making music together. By the end of this first year, though, it was obvious that the experiment would be repeated, and thus the festival was born.

It was already clear by the fifth festival, in 1960, that something special had been established and, moreover, that it was here to stay. David Calcutt, in his introduction to the festival that year, wrote: ?It has become increasingly evident 'that there are others besides the singers who derive pleasure, not to say inspiration, from the services.' The congregation is as much a part of the worship as the singers and the clergy, and it is this bond between these groups which draws people back year on year. There are those who come for a single service, right through to those who attend all twenty-five. Obviously they all come because they enjoy the music, but a good many come for more than that. There is something wonderfully uplifting about being part of a large congregation that not only appreciates the quality of what is being sung and spoken, but actually believes it too. John Harper wrote in 1973: ?There is never a notion of concerts with moments for prayer. Rather, the balance of actions, words, music, and silence should achieve that artistic unity that is true liturgy.' Undoubtedly the decision in the late 1970s to have Compline sung by a dedicated choir specializing in plainsong rather than by the whole congregation was seen by some as detracting from the congregation's involvement in the worship. Instead though, as Harper commented, it merely changed it: ?It is not the intention to exclude, but rather to involve by opening minds to new thoughts, to ponder in beauty, and so to pray.'

Liturgy and worship would, of course, be incomplete without the input of the festival clergy, and their important role in the week is vital to the success of the services. The mix of ?home team' clergy and various invited priests, usually about four or five in total, brings many benefits. It not only enables them to share out the considerable workload of so many services, but also it allows the congregations to benefit from a wide range of different ideas and theological arguments. Indeed, it is a real privilege to hear preaching of such quality accompanying the musical excellence which people have come to expect. Like the musicians, the clergy team mixes newcomers with the old hands; particular mention must of course go to Canon Paul Rose who has been involved for well-nigh forty years.

The festival has, from the outset, had the unwritten intention of encouraging young talent and providing an opportunity for young singers to meet each other. There is something strangely alluring which draws singers back from one year to the next and there is a real sense of picking up where one left off fifty-one weeks earlier. Often, boys who first came as trebles return years later to any one of the three choirs; others like Nicholas Hinton, John Harper, Geoffrey Webber and myself go one stage further and become festival director, which does prompt one to look at each new intake of choristers and wonder which one might follow in the directorial footsteps.

Right from the earliest years, there has always been a sense that the festival should not only celebrate what is familiar in church music, but also look to explore by commissioning new works. The list of such works, set out as page 62, is impressively long and includes a good many familiar names: Francis Grier, Grayston Ives, Simon Preston, Philip Radcliffe, Francis Pott, John Harper and Andrew Gant to name but a few. Some of the commissions have found their way into the mainstream repertoire (such as Radcliffe's Responses and Ives's Evening Canticles), others lie waiting to be rediscovered, but it is a central part of our festival outlook that we should be at the forefront of composition. In celebration of this 50th festival we have commissioned Judith Bingham to write a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, which will be performed during the BBC broadcast.

Each year the festival director chooses a particular theme to explore during the course of the week, ranging widely, for example from an exploration of the Psalms to a particular monastic Rule, from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to the Gospel of St John. A particular aspect of this theme is then chosen for each day and explored through music, readings and the sermon.

One advantage of a congregation made up entirely of music-lovers is that they always sit still throughout organ voluntaries, and this does add greatly to the completeness of the worship. Occasionally other instruments have been used to great effect too such as harpsichord, chamber organ, viol consorts and various solo instruments, but the pitch of the organ and the lack of space in the church have tended to restrict this a little. Liturgical drama too has featured from time to time, particularly during some of the Sequences of Music and Readings which sometimes replace Evensong.

One of the pleasant by-products of the fact that the festival has grown in size over the years is that there is an ever greater diversity within the assembled musicians: professionals and amateurs alike join together entirely voluntarily. Indeed everyone, from the youngest chorister right through to the administrators and director, actually pays for the privilege of taking part in the festival. This has a wonderfully levelling effect on us all: there are singers who could be earning their fortune (relatively!) standing alongside others for whom it is simply a hobby.

Without the incredible generosity of the villagers of Edington and the surrounding area in providing bed and breakfast free of charge, it would not be possible for the festival to take place. The contributions that the singers pay help towards the cost of lunch and supper, provided in the Parish Hall. The only other sources of income are the BBC broadcast fee and the collections taken at services. In recent years it has been particularly pleasing to see a steady increase in service collections as people recognise that financial support is essential if the festival is to thrive.

It was with the aim of helping to secure a more stable financial future that the Festival Association was set up in 2000, with charitable status. Through grants, the festival is now more easily able to commission new music, and purchase and properly care for robes; the Association also helped to finance a highly successful CD recording of plainsong sung by the Schola. In a similar vein, the Society of Friends of Edington Priory Church has over the last half-century contributed enormously to the upkeep of such a magnificent fourteenth-century building and it is a mark of the close links between festival and village that many festival participants are also Friends of the church.

Whilst the village of Edington itself is somewhat lacking in facilities (the nearest shop being a few miles down the road in Bratton), the Lamb Inn does a marvellous job in catering for the needs of thirsty singers. Musicians are not known for being abstemious, and the Lamb certainly does good business during festival week. Congregation and performers alike mingle, along with some of the more hardy villagers, and the festival pool competition is always hotly contested - although the clergy team regularly rely on divine intervention to cover for a lack of real talent in this field!

In celebrating this fiftieth festival, we inevitably look back with pride on a rich history, but look to the future too, encouraging young musicians, challenging congregations and, above all, helping to cherish the musical heritage of which we are just one small part. We look forward to welcoming new faces and old friends alike at the 50th festival.

Julian Thomas

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