Three Choirs Festival ‘Premieres League’, July 2020

In 2020, in the absence of a live event owing to Covid-19, the Three Choirs Festival organised Three Choirs Premieres League, an online tournament along World Cup or Wimbledon lines, with an open vote determining the result of each ‘match’ between works commissioned in the recent (roughly post-1900) history of the Three Choirs Festival.

To its composer’s astonishment, the oratorio A Song on the End of the World by Francis Pott [Elgar Commission of the 1999 festival at Worcester] eventually emerged victorious overall, having ‘outvoted’ a succession of significant works including, in the semi-final round, Vaughan Williams’s great Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis.

Asked by the Festival to comment on the outcome, Francis said:

“This was a rather unconventional kind of competition. It attracted plenty of attention and, predictably, the odd bit of purist disapproval; but it proved a wonderful way to bring music-lovers together during lockdown, in the sad absence of this year’s Festival. On one level it’s a bit of harmless fun. On another, more seriously, it lays the ground for possible revival of several deserving works that have been heard only once.

“I feel that the only way to make sense of the competition result is to acknowledge that, after 110 years, Vaughan Williams hardly needed to make a point and remains firmly on his plinth, as do Finzi and many others! But what people seem to have voted for is keeping music a living tradition, to which new but potentially enduring things are continually being added. If I’m allowed a personal perspective here, I’m thinking of hugely under-valued works like John Joubert’s An English Requiem or Philip Lancaster’s War Passion.

“I can’t claim my own piece was especially prophetic, since if you write about man’s inhumanity to man, sadly you’re never going to be wide of the mark. But A Song on the End of the World – both the 1944 Czesław Miłosz poem and my oratorio to which it lends its title – probably speaks to the human condition at least as pointedly in 2020 as in 1999. So I’m profoundly grateful, not only to the Three Choirs Festival but also to those who seem to have voted to hear this piece again and to keep the life support machine switched on for contemporary music that acknowledges and respects its inheritance from the past.”