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Handel’s Messiah Programme Notes

Re-visiting Handel’s Messiah
Most choral singers love Handel’s Messiah. Of all choral works it is the one which has entered cultural consciousness to the extent where a movement such as the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, with all its attendant myths and traditions, is recognisable enough to be used across an immense range of genres and traditions. It is a piece of music that it is assumed will be recognised immediately. This success was similarly immediate in Handel’s day; Handel was, in some ways unlike his contemporary JS Bach, celebrated in his own time and continued to be so after his death. Haydn was stimulated and influenced by the great Handel commemorations held in London at the end of the eighteenth century; they are echoed in his own oratorios. Handel had a gift for universal relevance. Messiah is perhaps the archetype of this trait (although many would argue for other oratorios being even greater works). Unlike Bach’s Passions and Cantatas, Messiah has relevance at any point in the Church’s year. Treated as a compendium of movements on different aspects of Christianity’s development, as it often is, it can be made to point in relevance to Christmas or Easter, as the season demands. Nor, in adopting this approach, can a conductor be accused of marring Handel’s concept. The composer himself presented versions of the work with altered versions of arias and choruses, and some omissions, to suit the occasion. While he might have baulked at Beecham’s version with triangle and cymbals, Handel would perhaps take in his stride performances with just organ, or on ‘modern’ strings.

This November, Chester Bach Singers present Handel’s masterpiece with all the Christmas music complete, followed by the majority of the ensuing movements which trace the Crucifixion story and the glory of Christ’s Resurrection. Thus, familiar movements, such as ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ and ‘The trumpet shall sound’ remain in place. They follow Handel’s tracing of the Christmas story from Old Testament prophecies, through the experience of the shepherds to the joy of the releasing of burdens that the appearance of the Messiah brings. These are presented with instruments as near as possible to the types with which Handel would have been familiar, played by the 18th Century Sinfonia. A quartet of highly promising young singers brings a freshness to the arias and CBS places its strong choral technical skills at the disposal of Handel’s memorable choruses.

Recordings of Messiah are too numerous to mention and selection is probably invidious. Suffice to say that the listener can find all types of performance to suit their inclination, whether from established groups such as The Sixteen, Polyphony or Cathedral and Collegiate choirs, usually with ‘original instruments’, or larger-scale groups, such as the celebrated performances over the years by the Huddersfield Choral Society.

30th October 2013 : Open Rehearsal – Handel’s Messiah

Come and join a Chester Bach Singer’s rehearsal as we begin to prepare Handel’s Messiah which we will be performing in Chester Cathedral in late November.

We welcome singers of all abilities to our open rehearsal on Wednesday, 30th October, 2013 at 7.30pm for a 7.45pm start at the Music Department, Kings School, Wrexham Road, Chester, CH4 7QL. Music will be provide on loan for the evening. The rehearsal will finish by 9.45pm.

Vaughan Williams – An Oxford Elegy

An Oxford Elegy is a very unusual choral piece. The main thrust of the text is carried by a speaker, rather than being sung by a vocal soloist. The choir’s role moves from being a prominent part of the accompanying orchestral texture to being either a response to the spoken text or to presenting part of the poem. It is unlike almost any other English choral piece of its time but reflects Vaughan Williams’ awareness of contemporary musical ideas. Composed between 1947 and 1949, and given its premiere in Oxford in 1952, this treatment of music and text reflects works by composers as diverse as Schoenberg (A Survivor from Warsaw), Stravinsky (Oedipus Rex) and Walton (Facade and Henry V). The structure of the work is rhapsodic, changing speed frequently and relying on a verse-like approach which mirrors the poetry in form but which creates musical challenges to ensure coherence in performance. The secret lies in Vaughan Williams’ close attention to the fluctuations of mood in the poetry. He combined sections of two poems by the nineteenth-century poet Matthew Arnold. ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ concerns a mythical figure from centuries back supposed to haunt Oxford and the hillsides which overlook its ‘dreaming spires’ – for this is the poem whence that famous quotation comes. (It has to be said that any fan of Lewis or Morse will feel at home in this piece!) Vaughan Williams skilfully cuts extracts from the poem into parts of another Arnold poem, ‘Thyrsis’. This was a tribute, through comparison with a Classical poet, to his friend the poet Arthur Hugh Clough who died young. Thus, the many references to ‘Thyrsis’ in the piece are references to Clough, and his loss. Hence, the piece as an elegy. The moods through which the music move end with resignation and acceptance as the piece returns to its opening key and the choir urges all to ‘Roam on’ as the scholar gypsy does.

Getting to know the work: the most famous, and still most easily available recording is that by Sir David Willcocks and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. The poetry is given somewhat ‘classic BBC’ tones by the reader (interestingly at its first performance the reader was a baritone, Sir Steuart Wilson, a practice CBS will follow) but the performance has great warmth.

Vaughan Williams – Dona Nobis Pacem

Dona nobis pacem comes from the decade before the Second World War when Vaughan Williams composed a number of works (for example the 4th Symphony) with harder edges than some might expect from the composer most-often (unfairly) seen as ‘pastoral’. Vaughan Williams was a man who assimilated the experiences of his life with great integrity so that much of his music reflects these with thoughtfulness, rather than any sense of immediate reaction. One of the most famous examples of this is his 3rd Symphony, known as ‘Pastoral’, but deeply influenced by the composer’s experience as an ambulance orderly (while in his 40s)in the First World War. Such experiences surely mark the composition and subject matter of Dona nobis pacem. First performed in 1936 to mark the centenary of Huddersfield Choral Society, the work joins together Bible passages (mostly Old Testament prophecy, often of considerable vigour) and passages from the Latin Mass (including the title which roughly translates as ‘grant us peace’). Alongside are three poems by one of the composer’s favourite inspirations, Walt Whitman. These reflect the poet’s experience in the American Civil War, particularly the way, in the ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ set by other composers as diverse as Holst and Kurt Weill, that war has its impact on whole families. The focus is very much on the human consequences of war. To this end, at the start of the fifth movement, Vaughan Williams sets part of a speech, given in the House of Commons by the Manchester MP John Bright during the Crimean War, which makes reference again to the Old Testament and the Passover. The message given by the Baritone soloist, Andrew Davies, is that there is now no-one to mark the doors so that the Angel of Death will pass on. Vaughan Williams creates music of great rhythmic vigour and uses harsh harmonies at times to focus clearly the devastation of war. Yet throughout the work the Soprano soloist, Donna Lennard, presents the plea for peace, ‘Dona nobis pacem’ until, at the end, a vision of peace and good-will towards all is achieved. There is a definite sense that Vaughan Williams sees this as a vision for the future, rather than something which is imminently to be realised (a true reflection of the times in the 1930s) but his music brings certainty and resolution to the dissonance and turmoil of the early movements. Originally composed for large forces, Chester Bach Singers’ performance is in the arrangement authorised by the composer for piano and strings.

Getting to know the work: performances by Sir Adrian Boult from the 1960s with Sheila Armstrong and John Carol Case and more recently (2010) by David Hill with Christiana Pier and Matthew Brook are the most easily available and reflect the performing traditions of their times.