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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Hallelujah - it's Messiah in miniature

By Norman Lebrecht / November 9, 2005

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The English may not know much about music, but they know what they like and they assume an attitude of reverent ownership in the face of Messiah. George Frideric Handel's oratorio was, until the Beatles, our most universal musical creation, adored on all five continents. Composed in London in 24 summer days of 1741, it was premiered in Dublin the next Easter and while London audiences proved somewhat more sceptical, the work being neither outright entertainment nor religious rite, when the King rose at the words 'for the lord God omnipotent reigneth' in the Hallelujah chorus, the entire nation shot to its feet and has continued to do so ever since.

An English tradition was established for doing Messiah on the grand scale, swelling by the late 19th century to 4,500 musicians and a crowd of 88,000 at Crystal Palace. Latterly, 'scratch performances' have packed the Royal Albert Hall with 5,000 participants, some carving their own instruments for the concert. Handel intended Messiah for the greater good of mankind, giving away the proceeds of early performances and staging annual benefits on behalf of Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, to which he left a precious set of parts in his Will. The Coram Boy, a new play at the National Theatre based on Jamila Gavin's Whitbread-winning children's thriller about an escaped slave boy and an unwanted nobleman's son, is constructed around one of these orphanage fundraisers, with Messiah serving as a harbinger of hope amid despair.

Nobody does Messiah like the English. We own the score (at the British Library), the language, the history, the continuity, the board game. We have the music in our bloodstream, the motives in our national character. Band Aid, Live Aid and all similar philanthropic outpourings are, wittingly or not, offshoots of Handel's example in his London Messiah. So when some continental comes along with a baton and tells us we're doing it all wrong, we can't count crotchets in Comfort-Ye or tell a pp from a ppp, we're not, for once, going to nod obeisance and say musical Europe always knows best. Hands to ears, we English don't need be to be told how to sing Messiah, right?

Unless the instructor is Nikolaus Harnoncourt, that is. Harnoncourt, 75, is the market leader in period practice, a thoughtful musician who in more than 440 recordings has used primary sources to reveal how composers wanted their music to sound. A descendant of Habsburg emperors and Huguenot refugees, reduced by 20th century circumstances to common musicianship, Harnoncourt has been thinking about Messiah for half a century - ever since, as a salaried cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, he submitted to the showy conductorship of Sir Malcolm Sargent, who brought along a chorus from Huddersfield because no-one in Europe was loud enough. 'The ladies were like tanks,' laughs Harnoncourt, 'when they opened their mouths the Musikvereinsaal shivered.'

It was not just the noise that bothered him. The English singing was 'too precise, almost zombie like.' The absence of passion, allied to encrusted tradition, sent Harnoncourt in search of Handel autographs, not just analysing the notes between staves but employing a graphologist to study the pressure of the master's hand as it raced across the paper, where it skimmed, where it pierced. 'I have seen every pencil stroke of Handel in Messiah,' he maintains, 'and I found very interesting things that were generally overlooked.'

The results, freshly recorded on Sony-BMG, are startlingly flexible. Handel in the BL score often omitted barlines, whether in the heat of invention or because they impeded an effect. Singers and musicians unthinkingly emphasize the first note in a bar, not realising that the barrier was inserted by some over-zealous printer, not by the composer. Playing the music without bars gives a free-flowing rhythm, devoid of jarring stops and starts.

Where Handel sought emphasis, he cut against the rhythmic grain. A note is placed on what appears to be a wrong syllable - the penultimate of 'incorruptible', for instance. 'The English are very quick to say Handel, a German, couldn't speak English,' scolds Harnoncourt. 'I couldn't believe that because, as a musician, Handel had an ear for languages, and he had the English librettist (Charles Jennens) at his side. He used English at it was spoken in his time - 'incorrupteeble', in the French manner. In fact, in the same aria he uses both ways of pronouncing the word, and that's what I follow.' It may well be that the pronunciation followed class divisions and that Handel wanted to reflect both levels of society.

Harnoncourt was first alerted to English eccentricities during a 1970s Messiah conducted by the retired countertenor Alfred Deller, who called in a tympanist of national authority - the Keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum, no less. Edward Croft-Murray was an antiquarian of noble birth and period enthusiasms. He dressed in 18th century military garb and had his instruments set up by a frock-coated butler. In a small Kent church, he drowned the Hallelujah chorus with his jolly hammering. 'That was not Messiah,' says Harnoncourt drily.

Using Handel's dimensions, Harnoncourt employs a chamber orchestra and chorus of 35 apiece, and opens Hallelujah at something like sotto voce. 'Handel specifies that the trumpets must come in softly,' he notes, inferring that all else is tamped down. The effect is an unexpected clarity, a gradual parting of clouds to reveal the ultimate glory. Some will find his approach unsatisfying, lacking the necessary catharsis, but the adjustment is both illuminating, and intimately beautiful.

Harnoncourt, who stands above the vicious bickering of period conductors, makes no definitive claim for his interpretation and respects the work's singular importance in the English tradition. 'I am not interested in repeating a performance of a special day in the 18th century. After all we have survived - in life, in politics, in art - the message of a work changes. You can project the message better by using the possibilities of the time, but not always. When there is a tradition that has grown for two centuries, a lot of things that don't belong to the work are added, and they become part of the country, of the national identity.'

That tradition, persistent in tsunami, earthquake and Armistice Day poppy appeals, was the core of the great composer's message. After the first London performance in 1743, he was congratulated by a friendly member of the aristocracy for the pleasure he had given. 'My Lord", said Handel, 'I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.'

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001