Something old, something new, something borrowed and some completely original strokes of genius

Actually, before any of that the first thing I need to say is that if you want to come to our 70th birthday Messiah performance you really do need to get your tickets now. This is proving our fastest-selling concert ever and quite soon we will be down to ‘restricted view’ (fewer than half the performers) seats only.

Now, a few Messiah-related musings. Much is made of Handel’s having composed his most famous oratorio in only three weeks. Yes, this is impressive but it is broadly in line with the speed at which he often worked. And the orchestra in Messiah is smaller than he often used so there were fewer notes to write! In many of the movements there are only three lines of music (solo voice, violins and bass) and in some only two (voice and bass); he used abbreviations when he could (violini ut canto – violins with the soprano) in order to avoid writing the same notes twice; and several movements are re-writes of older music, so the creative process was already well advanced. The choruses For unto us, And he shall purify, His yoke is easy and All we like sheep are expansions of vocal duets, as is O death, where is thy sting which remained a duet. This is not to denigrate Handel in any way. (Bach’s B minor Mass consists almost entirely of re-written cantata movements). His genius, like Bach’s, can be seen, heard and felt in the way in which he re-shaped the originals and in what he added to them. To give just one example, in For unto us the great acclamations of ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Counsellor’ are completely new and are among the highlights of the whole work.

Along with the speed of composition, the other thing that ‘everyone’ knows about Messiah is that when the King heard the Hallelujah for the first time he was so excited that he stood up. Therefore everyone else had to stand and that is the origin of the slightly dotty but ultimately harmless British custom of standing for that movement. Let us examine the source of this story, a letter written by one James Beattie thirty-seven years after the event:

When that chorus struck up, ‘For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth’ [the audience] were so transported that they all, together with the King (who happened to be present), started up and remained standing until the end of the movement.

There has to be some doubt as to whether or not the King was even there – no contemporary accounts record this detail. If he was, he followed, rather than led, the standing. Furthermore, it wasn’t the opening cries of ‘Hallelujah’, but the next musical idea that excited the audience. They probably didn’t realize that Handel borrowed that tune from Corelli! But he did transform it into that magnificent unison choral gesture (a very rare device at the time). And the writer is unlikely to have completely fabricated the ‘standing’ element, though it may have been some, rather than all, the audience. So when we get there you may, if you wish, stand for any reason of your choosing. Just do it quietly!