They are not a choir, as such, but an umbrella organisation that organises annual gatherings of seven constituent choirs in the Winchester Area, on two successive Saturdays in May to perform wonderful works from the choral repertoire.
The Festival originated from a meeting in the Winchester Guildhall on 30 September 1921 with the support of several distinguished musical personalities. Originally it was competitive with school choirs included but it also gave opportunities for participating choral groups to combine for the performance of major works under eminent adjudicator-conductors. The latter included Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Sir Henry Wood and Sir Adrian Boult, working alongside soloists like Isobel Baillie, Owen Brannigan and Leon Goossens.
Winchester Cathedral 16 May 2020
Requiem – Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)
When Rossini died in 1868, Verdi proposed that a Requiem should be written in honour of the great man. Thirteen leading Italian composers, including himself, would each be invited to contribute a movement. Somewhat predictably, initial enthusiasm for the idea soon gave way to all sorts of professional rivalries, and when it also became clear that the piece would be little more than an unconvincing pot-pourri, the scheme had to be abandoned.
In 1873 the Italian poet, novelist and national hero Alessandro Manzoni died. Verdi had been a lifelong admirer and was deeply affected by his death. He decided to write a Requiem in Manzoni’s memory, and began by re-working the Libera me which he had composed five years earlier for the ill-fated Rossini project. Though it is Verdi’s only large-scalework not intended for the stage, the Requiem is unashamedly theatrical in style, with passages of great tenderness and simplicity contrasting with intensely dramatic sections. Writing at the time, the eminent conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow aptly described it as ‘Verdi’s latest opera, in church vestments’
The first performance of the Messa di Requiem was on 22nd May 1874, the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, in St. Mark’s Church, Milan. Its British premiere took place in May 1875 at the Albert Hall, conducted by Verdi himself, with a chorus of over 1000 and an orchestra of 140. One journalist described the work as ‘the most beautiful music for the church that has been produced since the Requiem of Mozart’. However, a minority found it offensive that Verdi, an agnostic, should be writing a Requiem. Today this difference between traditional sacred music and Verdi’s operatic treatment of the Requiem text no longer presents a problem.
Few choral works have captured the public imagination in the way that Verdi’s Requiem has. The uncomplicated directness of his style, his soaring, lyrical melodies which lie perfectly for the human voice, the scintillating orchestration and, most significantly, the work’s extraordinary dramatic and emotional intensity, all contribute to the Requiem’s status as one of the great icons of Western music.
Conductor: John Sutton
Choirs: Compton & Shawford Festival Choir, Itchen Valley Choir, Sarisbury Choral Society, Winchester City Festival Choir
Orchestra: Festival Orchestra
Leader: Elizabeth Flower