"The sign of a good piece of music is when, after every single movement, you think, 'that's my favourite'; and then you get to the end and you've said the same about every movement – that's when you realise it really is a very good piece of music." Summing up Messiah, Accompanist James Orford quoted these words from Jeremy Summerly, the well-known academic, conductor and musical commentator. Many of us would agree!
Messiah must be one of the best-known pieces of music in the Western tradition and, as a singer, I'm constantly struck by its familiarity – it's not just the fact of having sung it many times, but it's such a significant part of our musical heritage. Amazingly, Handel completed Messiah in just 24 days and, having been commissioned by the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, it was first performed in the New Music Hall in Dublin. It was much anticipated and such was the excitement before the performance that a Journal article admonished women to “come without hoops” and men to “come without swords” so that more people could be crammed in to the Hall. It was a huge success.
The original version of the work has been lost but it's believed it was written for a small orchestra and choir, perhaps 18 musicians and 16 singers. After Handel's death, the work was adapted for performance on a much larger scale. This tradition continues with major orchestras and choruses putting on performances at Christmas or Easter. Meanwhile, in recent times musicologists and conductors have tried to interpret the work more as Handel originally intended.
For our performance in Kingston, we will be accompanied by the Beaufoy Sinfonia, a 15-piece chamber group. For Conductor Harry Bradford the attraction of a small group supporting the Choir is the opportunity to make chamber music together and create a cohesive whole of the work. "I'm trying to bring elements of the instrumental phrasing into the singing, to create real synergy between choir and orchestra", he says. "As a work that most singers know well, it can easily become something of a 'factory piece'. On the other hand, the fact that everyone knows it gives me a chance to work on interpretation and intonation, and I'd like to think I'm changing people's opinion of the work by getting into the music, and bringing something new to it."
This will be the first opportunity for our 2023 cohort of Scholars to take solo parts at a concert and they are looking forward to it. Natalka Pasicznyk, one of the sopranos, is particularly excited to be singing 'If God be for Us'. "It's so often one of the Airs that's cut, so I'm really excited to be singing it." Allyn Wu loves Messiah's tunes. "The Bass solos are not easy", he says, "but, get them right, and they are great for showing off what you can do!"
The work was originally intended to be performed during Lent but it was the Victorians who instituted the tradition of Christmas performances, one of which we are following with our 9 December performance. And, of course, it has become tradition for the audience to stand for the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus following the occasion when King George II suddenly stood up and the audience followed out of respect. The story goes that the King had been roused by the music, but no one really knows!
We hope you will join us for what promises to be a memorable evening.