What are we saying about ourselves when we go to see Handel’s Messiah?

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In December, you can barely move for Messiahs. I suspect several singer’s careers are heavily subsidised by belting out ‘Hallelujah‘ or ‘we like sheep!’ a few times during the festive season. It’s (more than) a bit of a Christmas staple, and I do like to have a listen to a recording during December to help me feel festive – though usually whilst I’d working or doing something else as I find it does go on a little bit. But this year I went a long with some friends to see a performance at the Barbican. It was real luxury casting: the Britten Sinfonia with Sophie Bevan, Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton and Roderick Williams. No surprise to learn that it was sold out. But it occurred to me during the performance – what does it say about us that we all went along for 2.5 hours of Handel?

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I’m not just being obtuse – my thought process was partly sparked off by an essay I’d written during my Masters studies, with the utterly tantalising title of ‘What can we learn from a dossier de presse documenting the Handel Commemoration Festival of 1859?’ In particular, I focused on a Handel centenary celebration where a performance of Messiah at the Crystal Palace featured a choir of nearly 3000, which an audience of 19680 according to the press report. Once upon a time, Handel was considered a saviour of British music in a country that was nicknamed ‘the land without music.’ Some of Handel’s belongings were on display to the public and given the loaded description of “relics”. In George Bernard Shaw’s words “Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution.”

The event is surrounded in Imperialist imagery – the organ built for the festival was adorned with Egyptian cartouches, and another Handel work was described as a ‘Thanksgiving for victory.’ Let’s not forget, we’re approaching the height of Empire in the mid 19th cenutry. In newspaper reports, the organisation of the event is compared to military success, the stage is a ship loaded with freight, and there is even a comment on how unsuccessful the French would have been if they’d tried to organise a similar event of their own.  The British people’s love of Handel was used to demonstrate that they were quite musical, thank you very much.

We are accused by some of our neighbours of a want of musical feeling, and this may be true with regard to the flimsy productions of many composers, but the grand and sublime works of the great masters, particularly when combined with religious sentiments, are better appreciated in this country than in any other part of the world.

Which brings me to the slightly strange feeling I had during the performance. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with going to see Messiah. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bobbing along as a choir sings ‘Unto us a child is boooo-ooooooo-ooooo-oooorn.’ But I couldn’t help but think, during this bizarre and worrying political climate and with Brexit a mere 3 months away, what will people say in 200 years time about the sheer number of Messiahs taking place? Obviously this is not a scholarly article (if only I had the time and resources) but I think it’s interesting to ponder – are we being sentimental and christmassy and cultural, or are we holding up old-fashioned ideals?

PARTICULARLY the bizarre moment when everyone stands up during the Hallelujah chorus! This was my first Messiah and I’m not ashamed to say that I mouthed ‘WTF’ to my friend. Is this a weird British tradition?

All I know is that the Spanish friend I went with said afterwards ‘Now I feel so British!’ but the British friend I went with just said ‘It just sounds like Christmas to me’. Either way, 2.5 hours is too much live Handel for me. I think I’ll stick to the recording next year and go to the sing-a-long Muppet Christmas Carol instead….

 

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