Making Arrangements

By Pettitt, Stephen | The Spectator, September 23, 2006 | Go to article overview

Making Arrangements


Pettitt, Stephen, The Spectator


Recently I found myself lured for the second time in as many years to what is surely one of the most alluring music festivals in the world, the Handel Festival in Göttingen, Germany, which has survived -- nay, flourished -- for more than 80 years now, come hell, high water and Hitler. It's alluring in the first place because of Handel, of course. No music makes one feel more glad to exist than Handel's, and that, let me assure you from personal experience, comes in handy at difficult times. But it's also alluring because one really does feel that one is present at a festival, an occasion for celebratory feasting, musically and otherwise.

The ancient university town, which claims to have been associated with more Nobel prize winners than any other, is small enough for the collision of musicians and audiences to be an inevitability, and with someone as effervescent and gregarious as Nicholas McGegan serving as its artistic director, as he's done with outstanding success since the early 1990s, a good time is guaranteed for one and all.

But I come neither to praise by extolling virtues self-evident nor indeed to bury with a grand 'however'. Instead my purpose is to attempt some sort of answer to a big musical question that Göttingen's programme quite deliberately put to those among us who like to look out for these things rather than just absorb. This being the Mozart quarter-millennial year, the festival found itself more or less obliged to include some acknowledgment of the finest composer in the age succeeding that of Handel. And, like us, Mozart thought Handel was pretty hot stuff. Hot enough, in fact, to make his own arrangements of several of Handel's works, Messiah and Alexander's Feast included, with German librettos provided by the Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Though to be honest he was motivated to undertake these tasks more by worldly concerns than through wanting to pay homage. It was van Swieten's association of aristocratic patrons, the Associierte, which commissioned the arrangements from him. Both Messiah and Alexander's Feast, duly Mozartised, were heard in Göttingen this year. And their performances set me to thinking about this whole business of arranging things.

For nowadays we tend to think of arrangements as rather naughty. I recall a journalist friend recounting a brief conversation he had with the late Stanley Sadie, editor of the sixth and quite a lot of the seventh edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music (now known as The New Grove).

My friend was, as am I, an admirer of the work of Hans Werner Henze. Henze was in the process of arranging Monteverdi's opera Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria in his own, inimitably rich style, and had told my friend, with some relish, that there would be in it 'much percussion'. When this information was relayed by my friend to Dr Sadie, a proponent of period-style performance practice and, one suspects, a perennial seeker after the urtext, he is reported to have replied, with disarming bluntness, 'How disgusting!' Of course, Sadie might well have been engaging in a mischievous piece of selfcaricature with his riposte. But much percussion there certainly was, and much Henze there certainly was in the realisation, just as much Mozart there is in his arrangements of Handel. Yet does such treatment compromise the original or enhance it? In my view, that depends. …

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