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Preview Handel: Messiah

Handel’s timeless masterwork is with us once more

Preview: Handel: Messiah

Those citizens seen around town brandishing an unfeasible grin, perhaps more out-of-place in these recession-hit times than an offensive weapon, are either the criminally insane or choir singers savouring the prospect of their annual Messiah. Having been introduced to one of life’s true treasures, seasoned choristers carry this unchanging expression of unbridled good cheer wherever they go and can now stand envious only of those, musicians or listeners, who are about to discover the work for the first time.

Messiah’s Yorkshire roots run very deep. Handel did not conceive it as a Yuletide piece. Both the Dublin premiere in 1742 and its UK first appearance, at Covent Garden the following year, were given at Easter. Its appearance at this time of year was a Leeds innovation as the Leeds Intelligencer of 27 December 1767 reported: “On Christmas Day that part of the Messiah most proper for the occasion was performed by the singers of Holbeck Chapel, to a very crowded audience with universal applause.” According to the 1928 edition of the Publications of the Thoresby Society, housed in Leeds Central Library, this was the very first Christmas performance.

Consequently, Yorkshire Messiahs are now everywhere, from Northallerton to Sheffield and Halifax to Hull, and can be as early in the calendar as the first appearance of tinsel in the Garden Centres. Further, since this county boasts the finest choirs in the world, it has become incumbent upon one of our number, the blessed Keighley Choral Union, to take it every year, as a seasonal offering, over the Pennines to the godless of Lancashire.

Handel’s orchestra – strings, oboes, bassoon, trumpet and timpani – was already considered too small and outdated even by the time he died in 1759. Every subsequent age, starting with Mozart in 1789, has created its own version, fresh and contemporary to their ears. G B Shaw was blown away by a Crystal Palace presentation in 1893 that involved 4,000 performers.

The fashion nowadays is for rather more modest forces. Inevitably, fashion will change, but the work will endure. Its abiding appeal is summed up most eloquently by biographer Paul Henry Lang: “Messiah is perhaps the only major work about which public sentiment is unanimous… with it Handel achieved the most widespread critical recognition ever accorded a composer, for among those to have acclaimed him are not only every English-speaking church congregation and choral society, small or large, but also Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, and every musician who ever tried his hand at choral writing.” Make sure you hear it.

4 December, 7.30pm, Bradford Festival Choral Society, St Paul’s Church, Shipley
4 December, 7.30pm, York Musical Society, York Minster

4 December, 7.30pm, Harrogate Choral Society, Royal Hall, Harrogate
5 December, 7.30pm, Halifax Choral Society, Victoria Theatre, Halifax
11 December, 7.15pm, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, Leeds Town Hall
11 December, 7.30pm, Ripon Choral Society, Ripon Cathedral
18 December, 7.30pm, Wetherby Choral Society, St James Church, Wetherby

Posted on Tuesday 16th November 2010

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