St Mary’s Church, Bampton, Oxfordshire
Lisa Howarth soprano; Serenna Wagner alto; Ed Woodhouse, Ross Wilson tenor; Sam Young baritone
Bampton Classical Players, on period instruments
Conductor: Gilly French
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), remembered above all as the composer of Messiah, was never primarily a composer of sacred music. Most of his oratorios are essentially dramatic works and his few liturgical settings are more ceremonial than devotional. In writing his oratorios he produced colourful, largely (until today’s times) unstaged dramas, which appealed to moralistic audiences as both entertaining and uplifting. Messiah was written in anticipation of a visit to Dublin in 1741 and performed in London the following year. It met with a mixed reception, not least from its librettist Charles Jennens: ‘His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste… I shall put no more sacred words into his hands to be thus abus’d… I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition; but he retained his overture obstinately’. Fortunately, the dispute did not last long and the two were soon in collaboration over Belshazzar.
Despite its subject and text, Messiah is not as such a sacred work – Jennens himself referred to it as a ‘fine entertainment’ and Handel’s performances were more likely to be charitable – such as those in support of the Foundling Hospital – rather than evangelical. The nineteenth-century commentator Edward Fitzgerald described Handel as ‘a good old pagan at heart’ and the Hallelujah chorus ‘a chorus, not of angels but of well-fed earthly choristers… Handel’s gods are like Homer’s, and his sublime never reached beyond the region of the clouds’. The oratorio’s structure follows the liturgical year: Part I corresponds to Advent, Christmas and the life of Jesus; Part II is concerned with Lent, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost whilst Part III depicts Christ’s redemption, the end of time and the immortality of the soul. Mozart’s celebrated re-orchestration started a trend of well-intentioned but misdirected attempts to enhance the calculated restraint of Handel’s orchestration. In the nineteenth century it was increasingly performed with mammoth forces (choirs of 2,500 singers apparently not being exceptional) as a form of imperial propaganda and a voice for the Victorian doctrines of progress and social amelioration. The early music movement of the last 50 years has encouraged a much leaner and cleaner approach, with small forces and period instruments, such as you will hear tonight.