Messiah Memories

by Simon Lindley

It remains one of life’s profound mysteries that Messiah is widely regarded as the sacred work to perform during, or even slightly before, Advent in preparation for Christmas. But that is how things are!

A comparatively small amount of the work is concerned with the Nativity, though there’s prophetic material a-plenty at the outset and a huge corpus of music dealing with the consequences of the birth – ministry, suffering, death, Resurrection and the famous “last things” with which the Book of Revelation is so strongly concerned.

Many will have a huge stock of memories of the work – of performances that have been memorable (hopefully for the right sort of reason), of occasions that have proved a triumph over the adversity and that could involve anything from the sudden indisposition of a soloist to something as mundane as a power cut. Maybe the interpretative nuance provided by a particular solo singer, or group of soloists, was such that the memory of a very special event remains with us still, years and years later.

Messiah is high in what the marketing boys and girls refer to as “the tingle factor” and that facet plays a significant part in the powerful effect of the piece as a whole and each of the three parts in particular.

There are extra-mural aspects of the piece, too. Chief among these is the special connection with charity resulting from the work being devised specifically for the benefit and relief of prisoners in the Dublin Gaols. Subsequently, in its composer’s lifetime, London performances were often a means of raising much-needed funds for one of Handel’s favourite charitable endeavours – the Foundling Hospital – whose important work with children and families is continued to this day by the Coram Foundation in Bloomsbury. Both Handel and his contemporary William Hogarth were indefatigable supporters of the Foundling Hospital and both served long periods as governors of the institution. Sheffield Bach Choir is proud to have played its part in arranging present-day retiring collections in aid of local social endeavour, specifically the Archer Project at the Cathedral over the past few years. At the conclusion of this year’s music-making, there will be a retiring collection for a project associated with the Victoria Hall.

It is the pathos and sense of rhetoric communicated through the music that is significant in terms of the masterly verbal selection secured by Charles Jennens, the Leicestershire squire who devised the libretto. Though there are quotations a-plenty from the 1611 King James Bible, it is the influence of the Book of Common Prayer issued half a century later, in 1662, that is even more powerful. The texts drawn from the Burial Service and the Easter Anthems in the work’s third part never fail to move listener and performer alike and, beside the evocative Old Testament texts there are the movements drawn from the great treasury of the Psalms of David – the extraordinarily declamatory Let all the angels of God and The Lord gave the word are prime examples of such vivid treatments.

Much is made by musical historians of the speed at which Handel completed the piece, and yet it’s worth remembering that a great amount of the musical score consists of only two instrumental parts and a single vocal line – some of the best-known movements fall into this category: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, Rejoice greatly, How beautiful are the feet, If God be for us and, of course, the glorious I know that my Redeemer liveth. Even the most complex numbers only comprise ten musical lines in all.

Legendary Bach Choir conductor, Dr Roger Bullivant MBE, was invariably wont to use as the basis for his edition of Messiah the instrumental material from the Bourne Original Edition issued in the early years of the last century. Investigation by Bach Choir member Jen Smith has been helpful in locating background information on this trail-blazing musicologist whose work on Handel’s masterpiece pre-dated the great Dr Watkins Shaw’s by some six decades. It is hoped to be able to give a full account of T W Bourne and his great work in some future programme and perhaps on the Bach Society’s Website.

Major factors in the scoring are concerned with the oboe parts and the harmonised contributions of the so-called continuo material devised by the stylish harpsichordist or organist in accordance with a numerical system of musical short-hand printed beneath the cello and double bass line known as “figured bass” by which means the composer indicates the harmonies to be played above this bassus generalis.

It was perhaps inevitable under the circumstances that Handel would, to some degree, find the need to re-utilise material originally devised for another purpose. He drew upon a double concerto for orchestra and horns to provide the basis of the magnificent chorus Lift up your heads. Anyone wishing to investigate the origin of some others of the best-loved of the choruses need look no further than the complete vocal compositions of Johannes Brahms, who devised special accompaniments for Handel’s Italian love duets that form the basis of movements such as And He shall purify, For unto us a Child is born and His yoke is easy. Thus, some of the “music that became Messiah” is to be found in the duet section of Brahms’s complete works.

There will be those at the performance who may well remember “their” very first Messiah whether as singer, player, listener or conductor. Some senior members of the community will have a veritable galaxy of recollection involving many occasions.

Perhaps few Yorkshire adult choristers will ever equal the recall of George Swindells, in whose memory this year’s rendition is being given. His prodigious memory, the huge fund of memories of conductors and their foibles – very especially of the legendary Sir John Barbirolli – all this contributed to George’s great enthusiasm for this masterpiece, and so many other choral masterworks too. His long loyalty to choral institutions in and around Sheffield benefited many choral groups – perhaps predominantly Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, Sheffield Bach Choir and Dore Male Voice Choir. Large representation from each of these musical institutions was seen, and heard, at the memorial thanksgiving for George’s life held in this very building just a few months ago.

The Bach Choir is delighted to be able to welcome members of the Philharmonic Chorus joining with us for this performance. We all remember George with admiration and much affection. Just a few short months ago, in the Summer of 2012, he submitted himself once again for re-audition to the Bach Choir – bringing along with him on a balmy summer’s evening and giving the small number of Bach Choir officers privileged to hear it a performance of Lord God of Abraham from Elijah that could have been directly transferred to live radio or CD, such was its quality. One was, simply, left lost for words. One of those ample eyebrows of his raised at the end enquired wordlessly as to whether the rendition was acceptable – acceptable? it was magnificent. No other word will do. Thank you, George, for what you brought to us all in so many ways – commitment, loyalty, sheer musicality, a good understanding of the power of words and a fine, natural voice are qualities that shone through everything you did.

About Sabram

Professor of Anthropology and co-Director of Durham Energy Institute
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