It goes without saying – though it’s definitely worth restating – that music by women composers has been neglected and under-represented in classical music for centuries. While that situation is gradually being improved upon within the UK, in the world of choral music the absence of women (and not only as composers) remains starkly apparent. It was therefore much to be celebrated that the opening night of this year’s Three Choirs Festival, in a nod to the centenary of some women obtaining the vote, was almost entirely devoted to a major work by British composer, Dame Ethel Smyth.

Geraint Bowen © Michael Whitefoot
Geraint Bowen
© Michael Whitefoot

The work in question was Smyth’s 1891 Mass in D major, a monumental response to the Latin text for four soloists, choir and orchestra, clocking in at a little over an hour’s duration. It’s undoubtedly a striking and impressive piece, though also a problematic one. Smyth’s musical language, broadly romantic, just about manages to maintain coherence and unity by veering between – and, more often, intermingling – two modes: the deeply personal and the rambunctiously triumphal. Disentangling these twin strands of musical and emotional thought can be taxing, and conductor Geraint Bowen had obviously taken pains to make them as clear as possible.

The rendering of these triumphal passages (Credo, parts of the Sanctus and, above all, the Gloria – which Smyth boldly repositions at the end of the work) by the Three Choirs Festival Chorus and the Philharmonia Orchestra, though by no means lacking in boisterous ebullience, exhibited a generic quality that made the distinctiveness of Smyth’s music seem much more remote. At such times the Mass became virtually indistinguishable from any other example of the peculiarly British kind of spirited choral rowdiness that one encounters every week in every cathedral in the land. Nonetheless, despite being overlong it was hard not to be carried along by the Gloria, Smyth conveying within its briskness and dynamic overload a real sense of joy.

There’s an important caveat to be made: these passages only seemed as generalised as they did due to the enormity of emotional weight demonstrated elsewhere. Smyth’s approach to the opening and close of the Sanctus, keeping the tone surprisingly calm and measured, was extended and expanded in the Benedictus through an emphasis on tenderness, which then turned in on itself in an affectingly introspective Agnus Dei, as if the singers were communing directly with the divine, oblivious to an audience being present. These sequences were poignant and heartfelt, though they paled beside the work’s masterstroke, the opening Kyrie.

Opening concert of the 2018 Three Choirs Festival, Hereford © Michael Whitefoot
Opening concert of the 2018 Three Choirs Festival, Hereford
© Michael Whitefoot

There can be few Kyries that attain the level of abject personal desolation as that in Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D major. Articulated via twisting chromaticisms, lingering suspensions and slithery, overlapping lines, this was unequivocally tortured music in which mercy, far from taken from granted, was being desperately implored. And while other movements at times suffered from the lengths to which she explores/subjects the text, in the case of the Kyrie it had the effect of magnifying the weight and necessity of its words, as if Smyth simply couldn’t bring herself to let go of them. With echoes – in terms of both style and, interestingly, orchestration – of the Kyrie from Berlioz’s Requiem, it proved so impassioned and so painful that it coloured everything that followed.

Ethel Smyth’s music (and, indeed, Smyth herself) was judged unfairly by society, and to an extent the same can be said of the other work in the concert, John Ireland’s cantata These Things Shall Be. Composed in 1937 (as part of King George VI’s coronation celebrations) and setting words by John Addington Symonds, the soaring utopian nature of the piece became poorly regarded in the wake of World War 2. It was a strange and unfortunate response to a work that displays unshakeable, enthusiastic confidence in a better future.

The best of British choral music has always found remarkable ways to tap into the ineffability of transcendence, whether in this world (Howells’ Like as the Hart) or the next (Bainton’s And I Saw a New Heaven), and this same sensibility permeated Bowen’s interpretation of These Things Shall Be. Bowen perhaps compartmentalised the verses just a bit too much, yet Ireland’s emotionally-charged yet non-mawkish approach to the text, evident from the outset, was sufficiently potent that it hardly mattered. Even when the chorus became so full-blooded that they sacrificed clarity for immensity, this merely clarified and made yet stronger the work’s infinite sense of hope.

Whether in wartime or peacetime, there’s never a bad time to hear words and music so richly – and realistically – certain that, in spite (literally) of what malevolence presently prevails, in the future things will be better, and “they are no dream”.