Handel: A Symposium

Handel: A Symposium

Handel: A Symposium

Handel: A Symposium

Excerpt

Of all the master musicians of the very first rank, none, not even Haydn, is now so proportionately unknown to the general musical public as Handel is. Even the once-worshipped oratorios, after all only a part of his work, have one by one dropped out of the normal round, so that only Messiah remains. Yet Messiah, as Professor Bukofzer says in his admirable chapter on Handel's style in his Music in the Baroque Era, 'is not musically superior to the best choral dramas and its fame is due more to its universal religious appeal than to its musical excellence', though Mr. Herbage will be found making a higher claim for it in the present book. Whether or not Messiah is the supreme peak of Handel's art, the general public does not know it as such. The object it worships -- and worships largely from habit and custom -- is a species of religious monument, disfigured by generations of editors and conductors, frequently defiled by the casual, thoughtless irreverence that springs from over-familiarity. On a much smaller scale, the same fate has befallen one among the innumerable lovely songs in the operas; as the late W. G. Whittaker remarked in the Preface to his admirable edition of 'Ombra mai fù', 'it is a curious anomaly that the one piece of music of Handel's which the British public has placed on an equality with the most loved oratorios has been the first aria of his only comic opera, and that it has been turned into "sacred song", anthem, organ voluntary, and what not, mostly in incorrect versions'.

The only way to rescue Messiah from its religious pedestal in the choral-society box-office is to remove the filth of two centuries and perform it, as we ought to perform all Handel's music, in the Handelian manner or as nearly as we can get to it: with due proportion of voices and instruments, with continuo instruments and without the accretions that have crept in' to take their place, and with at least enough ornamentation to shock audiences into realizing that they are listening to living music and not to a petrified object of devotion. A number of most praiseworthy attempts have been made in that direction and, thanks very largely to the lead given by the B.B.C., not only Messiah but Handel's music generally is beginning to be performed in England in something like a Handelian style. This is our modern Händel-Bewegung, in contrast with the German . . .

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