Music-Making in History

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

Music-Making in History


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Charles Burney, the 18th-century historian of music and father of Fanny, the novelist, told a story about how George Frideric Handel blew up at a printer called Janson, who had a good bass voice and had come for an audition: ". . . but alas! on trial of the chorus in the Messiah, `And with his stripes we are healed,' - poor Janson, after repeated attempts, failed so egregiously, that Handel let loose his great bear upon him; and after swearing in four or five languages, cried out in broken English: `You shcauntrel! tit not you dell me dat you could sing at soite?' - Yes, sir, says the printer, and so I can; but not at first sight."

Handel, in the English city of Chester at the time, was on his way to Dublin where he would put on the premiere of his most famous oratorio and was recruiting as he went. In those days before the permanent concert orchestras and virtuoso musical professionals we now take for granted, ensembles would be scratched together for a single performance, often combining professional with amateur players. Opportunity for rehearsals were limited, making ability to sight read a score often crucial. Concert performances could be patchy, and audiences were better at listening "through" a particular rendering to the music itself than most listeners are today.

The "Messiah" had its premiere April 13, 1742, in the Music Hall on Fishamble Street at 12 Noon. What was it like to be there? One of the more delightful pieces of evidence surviving is a wordbook, sold at the door for sixpence, in which a member of the audience - and who of us does not have one such meticulous friend or acquaintance? - penciled in the names of the singers as they appeared.

Posterity could have managed without that wordbook, it being well known, among much besides, that the popular actress Mrs. Cibber (Susanna Maria Cibber, onetime daughter-in-law of Colley Cibber who became poet laureate) was the best-known of the soloists that afternoon, and that her "light voice, clear diction, and sensitive expression made her performance of the aria `He was despised' particularly memorable." There also is story of how Jonathan Swift, the aging dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral at first refused to let his choristers participate and then relented.

Much gets lost, inevitably, and the music we hear today is not always quite what was played in the first place. Handel continued to revise his oratorio, and in the meantime concert halls and musical instruments have changed. Who now recalls the ophicleide and serpent, both of which featured in the 1830 Paris premiere of Hector Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique"? And in some cases, the losses are cardinal. Berlioz's symphony cannot be heard today as it was first performed, because the score used on that occasion (the composer reworked the piece later) no longer exists.

Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography for his ballet "Le sacre du printemps" to the music of Igor Stravinsky, which caused such a ruckus when first performed (also in Paris) was not written down and ceased to be until the Joffrey Ballet's reconstruction in 1987. In a piquant footnote to musical history Giacomo Puccini attended the 1913 premiere and was not impressed at all, reckoning the choreography "ridiculous," the music "sheer cacophony" and the whole "the work of an idiot." Still, the world of music, as we now know, has not been the same since.

The combination of period setting and instruments employed at the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Vienna in 1824 - just six years before the first performance of the "Symphonie fantastique," but how distant it seems in cultural time - make it hard to imagine what that masterpiece must have sounded like when the public first heard it at the Karntnertor Theater. We have the composer's "conversation" books with his marginal notes. But as Thomas Forrest Kelly asks in the introduction to his book devoted to reconstructing some of these occasions, "Is it possible that the amazing C-flat major scale played by the fourth horn near the end of the slow movement .

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