|Down to the Choir
copyright © 2006
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
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
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.