:: Messiah


Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Messiah front page

Messiah in Cambridge was  a wonderful occasion – lots of people determined to have a good time  for a good cause (we raised over £4500 for the Clifford Bartlett Appeal).  Great to catch up with old friends too, and I even enjoyed singing something I vowed not to do again about thirty years ago.

A lot of the credit has to go to Peter Holman. He directed from the keyboard with minimum interference and maximum joy. The slimmed down Parley sparkled away, but what was really impressive was that you felt that anything could happen and the players were listening so acutely that they’d always be there. There were some marvelous divisions from Emma Kirkby and Clare Wilkinson (fabulous to have a woman alto as Handel originally intended), and we all did things slightly differently in performance from the rehearsal. It was refreshingly different from a St John Passion I did at York a few years ago when I was told (several times)  not to do a certain appoggiatura as Bach wouldn’t have liked it.

We were using Clifford Bartlett’s OUP edition, which is a model of how these things should be done (the pics here are from the 1868 facsimile which I inherited from my father). Like Clifford himself, it’s generous, scholarly and eminently practical. There’s a thoughtful introduction which explains why he hasn’t larded it with editorial suggestions (mainly because they have a tendency to become incorporated into every performance, and in any case, competent singers know what to do these days).  He’s stuck with Handel’s autograph and the corrected versions by his copyists, of course, which are not the scores the singers would have  performed from.  The corrections of underlay by J C Smith are more likely to represent what singers actually sang (reproducing Handel’s more idiosyncratic stresses just sounds daft) so maybe the next stage in editorial evolution is to set the singers free from the printed underlay altogether. They’d certainly have done their own at the time.

comfort ye 1


I still find it hard to identify the enduring appeal of the piece. It wasn’t that much more successful in Handel’s own lifetime than many of his other huge successes. You expect great tunes, creative fugues and so on in Handel (and there’s even a couple of killer modulations worthy of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), but I suspect that what made the difference was  Charles Jennens’ libretto. It’s a wonderfully poetic collage of texts from both halves of the King James Bible; although it obviously had a later appeal to Victorian sentiment  it still works today because you don’t have to believe in God to believe in the synthesis created by composer and librettist.  In ‘Thy rebuke’ it also has the single most moving tenor recit ever written, made all the more poignant by the reference to ‘comfort’ which is the very first word uttered in the whole piece.

The standing for the Hallelujah Chorus thing was done with a nice hint of irony.  The problem won’t ever go  away – and nor should it really, it’s the audience’s prerogative. It’s just a pity so many people feel obliged to do it (we soloists sat even lower in our pews). My own take on the historical  circumstances is that George was happily slumbering away, woke up with a start at the Hallelujah and realised he needed a pee. He stood up to go, but found his way barred because everyone else had stood up too. History doesn’t record what happened next, unfortunately.


comford ye 2

I’m very glad I did it, but I can’t imagine doing it again. I find it almost unbelievable that there was a time when my ‘bread and butter’ work (see below…) all those years ago was the same tiny number of Bach and Handel pieces.  What a bizarre way to earn a living. Compare it with the singers who sang for Handel – they might have done the piece more than once, but if so they’d expect it to be re-written for them each time; there was no ‘bread and butter’ repertoire – each piece was new and had to be learned from scratch. Exciting times.

One slightly dispiriting thing about being in Cambridge was seeing the plethora of posters for musical events. These were almost identical to 40 years ago – the same old Bach, Handel, Mozart and the odd ‘English choral classic’. It’s also the same as you find in every other university town in the land,  the difference being that at  Cambridge it’s student entrepreneurs perpetuating stasis rather than  university lecturers who should know better. Not sure which is worse. Do students really want to stump up £27,000 to be taught what their parents (and grandparents) were taught? Surely the more imaginative are eventually going to find better things to get into debt for.