Handel’s Messiah

A performance of Handel‘s Messiah at St David’s Hall is always a pretty sure sign that the Christmas season is upon us, although the work itself was actually first performed at Easter and it’s by no means clear why it ended up being so strongly associated with this time of year. Whatever the reason I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young. It’s actually been far too long – six years in fact – since I last went to a performance of Messiah (in the same venue) so  I relished the chance to hear it again.

Messiah is the most frequently performed choral work in the entire repertoire, and so much has been said and written about it already that I’m not going to say much about here, except for one thing  that struck me about it last night that I hadn’t thought about before which makes it quite an unusual work: unlike most other oratorios I’ve heard, the four vocalists are not associated with specific characters or roles. The reason for that is that the work spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1) , the Passion of Christ (Part II, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus), and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.

Last night’s performance involved the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera (conducted by Adrian Partington) and the BBC National Chorus of Wales (including Ed’s sister) with soloists Soraya Mafi (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo), Ben Johnson (tenor) and James Platt (bass). Handel’s original scoring was for a relatively small orchestra and chorus but over the years it has become fashionable to perform it with larger forces. Last night the orchestra was modest in size, but the BBC National Chorus of Wales was more-or-less at full strength. There was a harpsichord.

I felt it took both the orchestra and the chorus a little while to warm up: the strings were a little ragged during the opening Sinfony and, early on,  the large choir seem to lack the sharpness  one might have expected given the very high standards to which they usually perform. Once they got into their stride, however, they were really excellent and Parts II and III (after the interval) were superb throughout. I can see the attraction of using smaller forces for this work, actually, because it’s much easier to bring a smaller choir into a tight focus. One the other hand, the larger choir makes the louder moments (such as the Hallelujah Chorus, for which as usual the audience stood) absolutely thrilling. It’s worth mentioning also that the orchestra expanded a little bit for Parts II and III – no brass or percussion are used in Part I – but trumpets and timpani appeared after the interval. I’d like to pick out the percussionist Patrick King (although to be honest his beard needs a bit more work) and the principal trumpet Dean Wright (whose brilliant solo playing during “The trumpet shall sound”” was absolutely thrilling when juxtaposed with the splendidly deep sonority of James Platt’s bass voice (whose beard is magnificent). I also enjoyed the crystal clarity and wonderful agility of soprano Soraya Mafi, especially on “I know that my redeemer liveth“.

All in all, it was a hugely enjoyable evening at St David’s Hall, which was so busy it seemed to take an age to get out at the end of the performance! The concert was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Monday 19th December at 7.30, so you can listen to it yourself and make your own mind up whether my comments above are fair.

Well, that will be the last of my concert-going for 2016 so I’d just like to thank all the musicians and singers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to since I returned to Cardiff for  shining some much-needed light into what has otherwise been a very gloomy year.




7 Responses to “Handel’s Messiah”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I wonder if Handel’s Messiah became associated with Christmas during the great Victorian upgrading of that festival? This upgrading happened for three reasons: photographs of Queen Victoria and Albert celebrating it; the great popularity of Charles Dickens’ tale A Christmas Carol; and the revival of Anglican ritualism in the high ‘Oxford Movement.’ In 18th century Britain Christmas was not a big deal, while a century before that Cromwell had briefly banned it, as part of his drive against the Catholic calendar and its plethora of Saints Days. (There is no evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was born at this time of year, incidentally, and the New Testament does not specify the season, implying that it isn’t – or shouldn’t be – an important part of the Christian faith.)

    Mozart said that Handel understood affect (meaning how to evoke differing emotions via music). Dead right! The best moment in the Hallelujah Chorus is that thrilling descent on the trumpet. Based on your description that would have been a particular highlight.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I was avoiding all that here, Phillip, but it’s far more likely to be the pagan solstice festival of Sol Invictus than Saturnalia. (And it wasn’t the end of the Jewish year.) That is the same day of the year promoted by Emperor Aurelian in AD274 as a celebration of the sun god, and under the Julian calendar of that era it corresponded to the winter solstice. (The Julian calendar has since drifted by several days, but it is still used by the Russian Orthodox church, which celebrates Christmas in January as a result.) Centuries later, the church aimed to take over pagan festivals as a mission strategy. Pope Gregory advocated this syncretist trick in a letter to his missionaries in England in the early 7th century (found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, book I, ch. 30). As for what time of year Jesus was actually born, there is weak conflicting evidence – some of which you mention regarding sheep – for several times of year. I think the autumn, during the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The Orthodox church system is not a universal hierarchy in the way the Roman Catholic church is. The Orthodox churches of some nations are genuinely autonomous; others (typically of smaller nations) are under the Orthodox church of another (typically larger ones).

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      There is a book of collected comments by composers on other (perforce, earlier) composers, edited by John Holmes (titled “Composers on Composers”). He has also edited another book, “Conductors on Composers”.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Incidentally there is no command in the New Testament to celebrate even Easter (I prefer the Orthodox name, Pascha), which definitely derives from a Jewish festival, than Christmas, which doesn’t! The apostle Paul says that it is a personal matter for each believer; so that no believer, including ecclesiastical high-ups, should tell any other that they “should” or “should not”. Some believers prefer not to single out any day but to celebrate the mysteries of their faith daily, or exclusively in their hearts, while others are persecuted and do not deserve added condemnation for not doing so.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The name ‘Pascha’ comes, appropriately, from the Jewish Passover (which is when Jesus was crucified). ‘Easter’ comes from the name of the month in which it mainly falls, which in turn is likely to come from the pagan goddess Eostre. Bede says something about these things.

  2. […] on from yesterday’s post about Handel’s Messiah I thought I’d include this very nice performance of The Trumpet […]

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