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Things That Have Interested Me

Down to the Choir

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
23 December 2006

I wouldn't normally think of buying a recording of Handel's Messiah, but the other day I heard the treble voice of Henry Jenkinson, 11 years old at the time of the recent Naxos recording, singing "I Know that My Redeemer Liveth". It all came back, and it came back in a particular way: not without profound pleasure, but accompanied, as it would have been once before in my life, by the deepest anxiety.

To hear a boy chorister singing one of the great solos was to feel again some trace of those terrors of childhood: fear of hitting the wrong note, or making a false entry; fear of running out of breath, or of the voice (which every treble knows is not going to last for ever) simply failing to do its job; fear of a brutal reprimand, the sarcasm of the choir master, the cuff, the "clip", on the back of the head by a senior boy.

I do not mean to imply that I ever had a good enough solo voice to perform what I was listening to, to be entrusted with the solo when the great day came. What I was hearing seemed rather to correspond to an ideal we had tried to live up to. The child negotiated the rapids with only the faintest hint of effort - the voice pure and on pitch, the phrasing beautiful, the enunciation ...

The enunciation! How it was drummed in to us, with how painful a sense of our shortcomings. The trouble begins with the back-to-back consonants: "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world", in which the singer must try to pronounce two t's in rapid succession on "that taketh". Sometimes, if you do not pay attention to this, you can alter the meaning of the phrase alarmingly, so that "And with his stripes we are healed" becomes "And with his tripes we are healed". On the other hand, if you do more than fractionally pause before the "stripes", you draw attention to the difficulty inherent in the setting.

Handel is, of course, a master, more than a master, at setting the English language to music. Throughout the oratorio there is very little that sounds unnatural, unless it is "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain ... to receive power", where the word receive has to be accentuated on the first syllable. Surely it was never pronounced in such a way?

What happens, however, during the repeated phrases and the great baroque runs on which the singer must set out with such gusto, and which he must negotiate with such sprezzatura, is that in due course we find a phrase that simply cannot be sung at the speed indicated, without some kind of abbreviation: "Every valley shall be exalted" - you need a little time to enunciate "shall be" without turning it into "shabbee".

But there are many moments where the identical problem occurs: "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed", which is followed by "And all flesh shall see it together." Those back-to-back sh's of "flesh shall" demand a careful, if microscopic, division. It was at a similar moment in the boy's performance of "I Know that My Redeemer Liveth", when he reached the phrase "Yet in my flesh shall I see God", that I felt moved to cry out, Bravo. He had got past "flesh shall" without making it either sloppy or - the opposite problem with boy choristers - prissy.

"Our version," says the booklet, "provides the only modern account of Handel's unique London performances in April and May 1751, when he used treble voices for choruses and arias." Note the time of year: Messiah was written to be performed at the end of Lent, and that was the season in which Handel regularly put it on. The first performance was April 13 1742, in Dublin, with women among the soloists, but a choir of boys and men.

The "unique" performances with boy soloists as well will be familiar to any cathedral or college chorister. All that is unusual, from the point of view of that tradition, is to have an orchestra instead of an organ. Here the choir is that of New College, Oxford, with the Academy of Ancient Music, under the baton of Edward Higginbottom. The trebles' work is shared between Henry Jenkinson, Otta Jones and Robert Brooks, 11, 12 and 13 respectively at the time.

In a short space I have seen a musically triumphant Carmen at Covent Garden and listened to this excellent budget Messiah two or three times through. So naturally it seems to me that Carmen is exactly like Messiah, at least in this respect: they both move from hit to hit without the occasional dud in between. Perhaps we could do without the smugglers in Carmen. It certainly has been the practice, over the years, to make abridgments to Messiah, and there were just a few later passages that I had completely forgotten, if indeed I ever knew or rehearsed them.

Yet the spaciousness of Parts Two and Three, the grandeur especially of their choruses, would make one unwilling to accept the least cut. This in turn means that, if we listen to Messiah for the meaning, what we are hearing is a meditation on the Nativity and the Passion, with nothing in between, but with a climactic emphasis on the Resurrection. It is not a quasi-dramatic piece, like the Bach Passions, and would not benefit from the recent kind of theatrical presentation. But everything after Part One is a meditation on the Passion.

Still, the booklet rather surprisingly tells us that "there is absolutely no evidence at all that Handel himself ever intended an evangelical purpose. If anything, he intended a charitable one, having performed Messiah regularly throughout his career for the benefit of the poor and needy." We are told that there was disapproval of sacred words being performed in a theatre, and that Charles Jennens, who compiled the words for Handel, said: "His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho' he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus'd."

Exactly like Carmen, it took a little time for the work's merits to sink in.

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