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Radio: Messiah \ Handel \ St James’ Baroque

April 14, 2009

Nobody is forced to listen to radio. I certainly didn’t have to listen to Radio 3’s live broadcast of Handel’s Messiah this evening. Nobody told me I had to listen to it. And yet I felt I ought to.

This sense of obligation was in part down to a self-imposed feeling of near loneliness following my recent confession that I found George Friederich Handel’s music “boring”. It’s been playing on my mind for days now. Everyone else seems to rather like Handel. Everyone else expresses surprise that I don’t. One person suggested I was ignorant, another dismissed my disdain for the composer’s music as evidence of my snobbery. A colleague expressed surprised at me not sharing her passion for Handel’s output indicating our friendship may need to go into a trial phase if I didn’t change my views quickly.

It was also near-impossible an event to avoid today. Everybody seemed to be talking about it. Well, I say everyone. Seemingly “new twitterer on the block” BBC Music Magazine who kicked off the day revealing to the blogosphere that the reviews editor would sing everything from the oratorio in the run up to the main event in the evening. I found it difficult not to respond. And, of course, because I responded I ended up checking Twitter all day long to see what BBC Music Magazine were saying next.

Sadly they’re following me on Twitter so won’t have received my plea. Assuming the reviews editor was allowed out of BBC Music Magazine’s Bristol office, I’m only glad I wasn’t on the same train as him from as he ventured to London for the performance. He and I would surely have come to blows especially if he insisted on cheerily singing every famous tune from the work, assuming I let him on to the train in the first place.

Despite all of this relative bile, there were two key reasons why listening to tonight’s performance was important.

Number one is that I’m having Sunday lunch with a friend of a friend who sang in the performance and I’d like to be reasonably well informed. The conversation will inevitably come around to her contribution to the event. It was a big deal after all her being broadcast live to the UK and 17 other countries across Europe and to the United States. I don’t know many people who’ve had that kind of exposure. I’m bristling with excitement just thinking about it. I couldn’t possibly engage in a reasonably intelligent conversation with her unless I’ve actually listened to the performance.

Reason number two is a growing and genuine desire to gain a deeper understanding of Handel’s music. Why is it, for example, his music leaves me cold? Why do I hate melismatic writing in Handel’s works as much as I do? Why do I like JS Bach but not Handel? And .. perhaps most tantalising of all … could there actually come a point when I “get” Handel and his Messiah? And, assuming I reach that point, will I then gain entry to the special club so many other people have a fully paid membership of ?

Tonight’s performance has achieved what I hoped it might. It’s set me on a bit of a course in pursuit of that deeper understanding. For me, Handel’s work is less something for an audience and more for those who participate in it. Perhaps that in itself explains its popularity amongst choral societies up and down the country.

So supposing, just supposing, it’s more enjoyable to participate in (and I mean the entire two and a half hour oratario, not just a selection of arias) does that mean I need to find a choir to sing in ? Do I need to find a performance of Handel’s Messiah to participate in to get a better grip on whether I like it or not? I shall speak to someone somewhere to see whether I might be able to crowbar my way into some rehearsals for this one.

Be sure to listen to the entire performance given by St James Baroque (part 1) (part 2 & 3) the choir of Westminster Abbey and a collection of (from what I could make out) were very good soloists.

Most enlightening of all however was the interval piece of which former Communards man Richard Coles participated in. It helped fill in a few gaps about the composer, why the Messiah (the work) was important to Handel. It also reassured me that I wasn’t the objectionable human being I thought I was as a result of opinions I have about the composer who died 250 years ago.

  1. Kate permalink

    I think you’re right about appreciating it more if you’re participating in it. But then I think that’s true of most music. I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy playing in Messiah, year in year out (or this year, week in week out!)

    How do you feel about Haydn’s Creation? It’s another one of those pieces which seem to divide people.

  2. Chris permalink

    Picture the scene:

    School assembly, 1965. 200 difficult 5-11 year olds sitting on the gym floor for morning prayers. *yawn*. “important notices” (hah!) etc.

    At the end of it the headmaster picks up a Music For Pleasure album of Handel’s Water Music (as arranged by Sir Hamilton Harty). He says as a treat today we’re going to listen to this before going in to lessons.

    199 difficult 5-11 year olds sigh, kick their heels, chat to their neighbours, fart loudly, etc. 1 little 5-yr-old sits enrapt (if that’s the word). I loved it so much. So when it ended I stayed behind (little creep) and asked the head again what the music was – he told me – then I badgered my parents until they bought me a copy. (There was no classical music in the house at that point.) It was my first LP record – and the rest, comme on dit, est histoire.

    So my appreciation for Handel is more sentimental than cerebral.

  3. alex permalink

    For me it was Sir Hamilton Harty himself conducting the Halle in his Water Music suite on two 12-inch 78s that cast the spell.

    How anyone could find the works like the Concerti Grossi, the Coronation Anthems, Water Music, etc., “boring” I can’t imagine. Maybe the operas (some of which are exceedingly long) are indigestible for a beginner. But not once you’re hooked!

  4. Hamilton Harty on Wikipedia

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