13 December, 2016

".....The better the voyce is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God there-with" (William Byrd)

Pat's ancient copy of the Messiah (cost when new 2/6!)
So they came. At one point half an hour before the performance they queued out of the church entrance and into the December night, waiting to pay their £6.00. Most clutched their battered copies of the Messiah – many family heirlooms. Graham and his wife came over 30 miles from Lincoln to take part in their second Messiah  in as many weeks – the first in the grandeur of the mighty Lincoln Cathedral, one of the great places of worship in the country, but tonight in an ordinary parish church in a small Nottinghamshire village. Graham and his wife had eaten a fish and chip supper, from the village chip shop, as they sat in their car before coming to the nearby St Peter’s. And then they had taken their places, Graham holding his 1928 copy of the Messiah – it had belonged to his father – and inside it was a programme dating from 1982 when Graham had sung the Messiah as a young man.

And this is the nature of the Messiah.  It is for every man and every place and every time: from great cathedral to village church, from world renowned choirs to humble village amateurs; from father to son and mother to daughter. It can speak to us as we enjoy a fish and chip supper listening to the car CD player or when dining at some elegant and sophisticated Archbishop's table with glorious choristers supplying the accompaniment. It speaks for and to everyone, it is not only a great and wonderful piece of sacred music but part of our individual and national heritage. When we lose a love of this great work then we will lose something of our national identity and our national soul. Like so many great pieces of music it is more than simply a few good tunes - it is about the very nature of who and what we are and what we want to be. When it was performed in Lincoln a couple of weeks ago the world famous Lincoln imp gargoyle would have been looking down on it from his perch high in the ceiling, his mocking, grotesque face forever fixed in stone  – because, it is said, in mediaeval times this imp had mocked the wonderful Lincoln Cathedral choir and his punishment from God, so the legend has it, was to sit frozen in stone forever listening to the wonderful sound of the Cathedral choir. There was no scowling, mocking stone imp at St Peter’s in Ruddington last night but had there been he would have been forced to listen grumpily not only to the wonderful music of Handel but have had to “suffer” a magnificent rendering of the masterpiece by all those who came to the annual community, “sing along” Messiah  led by the Ruddington & District Choral Society. People like Graham and his wife who had travelled many miles, joined local villagers, friends and neighbours to give their voice to Handel’s great work, and in doing so, celebrated the coming of Christmas and all that it means.
The mocking Lincoln Imp

This year, conductor Paul Hayward made a small but very significant change to the usual format in that a small section of the choir were singing at right angles to his conducting and to the main body of the singers. The result was stunning. For the audience (and I suspect the singers too) this allowed the acoustics to fill the church. In previous years with the singers all facing the conductor their voices have been facing away from the audience who sit at the back but the new arrangement opened the whole thing up. From where I sat the sound, instead of being rather “flat” because all the voices were going away from me, was multi layered – almost quadraphonic; each section – tenors, bass, altos and sopranos able to be picked out perfectly. Having sections of the choir facing each other and at right angles to other choir members and the audience was a "trick of the trade" often used by JS Bach when his St Matthew or his St John Passions  were performed in the Nilolaikirche in Leipzig three centuries ago. Perhaps Paul Hayward was emulating the great Bach – but whatever his motives, it doesn’t matter because  it worked to perfection;  most of his choir were close to him and consequently so, too, were the singers who had turned up on the night and sound created and the cohesiveness of the whole, choir and visitors, was obvious.

“Sing along” Messiahs must be difficult for any conductor – after all you don’t know who or how many are going to turn up and join in. Those that do will have lots of enthusiasm and probably a knowledge of the music but in the end will not have sung together before  and probably not have sung with that conductor before. Of course, having a choir there as the core of the singing helps enormously but in the end it is all down the leadership and ability of the conductor to lead and to get the best out of the disparate bunch of singers who have turned up on the night – and that is exactly what Hayward did. Over the years the Ruddington Choir have performed this piece more times than can be counted – the community sing along Messiah  has become almost an annual event and an integral part of village life. But none could have been better sung, more rousing or more spiritually uplifting than this one. The wonderful organ skills of Michael Overbury again  provided a rich back drop to the voices of choir, audience and soloists and the enthusiastic and inclusive conducting of Paul Hayward not only made the whole spectacle visually engaging but without any doubt ensured that every voice went that extra mile. The effect was quite electric. The great solo arias such as Comfort Ye, He was despised  or I know that my redeemer liveth were movingly and serenely sung by superb soloists Peter Nicholson (Tenor), Emily Hodkinson (Alto) and Jane Harwood (Soprano); their individual arias and recitatives counterbalanced  perfectly by the magnificence and joyousness of the choruses: And the Glory, For unto us a Child is born, the Hallelujah, and the Amen.  Both Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury must have gone home feeling drained with the sustained efforts that they had put in but at the same time they must have been delighted with the result. The singers and audience too, I think, knew that they had been involved in something very special. For me, from the gentle and haunting opening organ Sinfonia, to the majesty of the opening Chorus (And the Glory), through to the splendour of For unto us and the Hallelujah with its terrifying soprano high notes (which they carried off beautifully) and to the sublime and spiritually uplifting Amen I knew this was a Messiah to remember and treasure.
St Peter's, Ruddington last night (Picture by Graham Peck) My friend Graham
who came all the way from Lincoln with his wife wrote this on Facebook
today: "An excellent evening singing Messiah at Ruddington Parish Church.
The soloists and organist were superb.  Yes I did sing it, hard to believe I
know but 35 years ago I did sing in a choir and before that in a  choir with
my lovely father. Anyway thoroughly enjoyed it in a truly lovely church
 in a great chrismassy setting"

So many times during last night’s performance I found myself back in time to when I was 15 in the winter of 1960 and when I had what I can only describe as a kind of “Road to Damascus experience.” I was in my final year at a tough secondary modern school in my home town of Preston and  one December afternoon a young woman geography teacher, Miss Bolton,  kept me and one of the girls - Ann Pilborough – back after the lesson. At first we thought we were in trouble but no! She asked would we like to go to a concert that night at Preston Grammar School – we should be smart, wear school uniform and not be late. We were going to see the Messiah. I had no idea what the Messiah  was. I didn’t even really know what a concert was but the prospect of going out at night with a teacher and going to Preston Grammar School was overwhelming. I never knew why Miss Bolton chose Ann and me - obviously she thought it would appeal and that we might benefit - but whatever the reason I am eternally grateful to this woman. Little did I know that it would become one of the defining events of my life.  So I called for Ann and the two of us walked through dark Preston back streets to the Grammar School. It was brightly lit and very busy. We met the teacher outside and went into the Great Hall which was already full. I was all eyes - it was so very grand. Not at all like the bleak hall at my own secondary modern school; grandly polished gold lettered boards filled  the walls and were covered with the names of past pupils of distinction; masters scurried around in gowns and mortar boards, the Hall was already filled with very well off looking people. This was a different world for me.

At the front sat the choir and a small orchestra. There were also lots of grammar school boys in the choir and the audience – one or two I recognised from my junior school  of years before (lads who had passed their 11+). Sitting in the choir I saw Billy Masheter who had once been my best friend until with the 11+ our ways parted; now we occupied different universes. Then the Messiah  began and from the first bars I was transported and transfixed, open mouthed, I think. I sat for the rest of the evening totally engrossed – mesmerised by the music and the glorious sounds coming from the choir. I quickly learned how to behave at a concert and when to clap but most of all I loved sitting in this atmosphere listening to something quite unknown to me but which I instinctively knew was worthy and something to be part of. At the end of the performance I went home through the dark streets breathless and overwhelmed at where I had been and, more importantly, what I had heard and seen. For days afterwards I could hear the ringing sound of 'For Unto Us A Child is Born' and the 'Amen' – a piece that I still regard as one of the great pieces of musical composition. It was the beginning of my love affair with classical music.
English Tudor composer William Byrd

And that was how I felt last night as the last ringing notes of the Amen rang through St Peters and Ruddington – uplifted and aware that I had just been part of something very special and precious. The Ruddington & District Choral Society made many friends last night. There was universal approval for what had occurred. Hopefully it will encourage more people to take up choral singing and to experience the uplifting, emotional and spiritual atmosphere and involvement of great choral works. As I said in a previous blog, under Paul Hayward’s direction and with Michael Overbury’s musicianship the Ruddington & District are on top of their game. Last night’s performance will have advanced their cause greatly.

In his preface to "Psalms, Sonets, and Songs of Sadnes and Pietie", written in 1588, the great English Tudor composer William Byrd (1543-1623) set out his reasons for singing. He wrote:

Reasons briefly set down by th'author, to perswade every one to learne to sing.

First, it is a knowledge safely taught and quickly learned, where there is a good Master, and an apt Scholler.

Second, the exercise of singing is delightfull to Nature, & good to preserve the health of Man.

Third, it doth strengthen all parts of the brest, & doth open the pipes.

Fourth, it is a singular good remedie for a stutting and stamering in the speech.

Fifth, it is the best means to procure a perfect pronounciation, & to make a good Orator.

Sixth, it is the onely way to know where Nature hath bestowed the benefit of a good voyce : which guift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand, that hath it.

Seventh, there is not any Musicke of Instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voyces of Men, where the voyces are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.

Eighth, the better the voyce is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God there-with : and the voyce of man is chiefely to bee imployed to that ende - "Omnis Spiritus Laudes Dominum" [Every breath Praise the Lord]

Since Singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing.

I don’t think that anyone who sat in St Peter’s, Ruddington last night and had listened to or sung the great work would disagree with any of William Byrd’s reasons for singing – they would know exactly what he was talking about half a millennia ago. And I think, too, that had George Frederick Handel sat with Byrd alongside me at the back of the audience listening to his mighty work unfold then these two great musicians of history would both have nodded in quiet approval at what they heard.........And maybe if some Nottinghamshire cousin of that scowling, mocking Lincoln Cathedral Imp had by chance been present, high in the ceiling of St Peter’s, then surely, his scowl would have mellowed a little and turned to a smile at what he heard and saw beneath him! As Byrd so rightly said: "Omnis Spiritus Laudes Dominum" [Every breath Praise the Lord]!

05 December, 2016

Music to quietly inspire and to refresh the soul.

St Giles' West Bridgford, Nottingham
Ruddington & District Choral Society’s tuneful and elegiac concert (Saturday Nov. 26th) held in St Giles’ Church, West Bridgford was a sublime, quietly autumnal, and above all spiritual musical celebration. The thoughtful, meticulous and enthusiastic leadership of director Paul Hayward combining with the exquisite organ skills of Michael Overbury ensured that the choir again excelled under their stewardship.

The concert title, “Reflections”, was an apt description for an evening of music ranging from choral favourites, to requiems, solo piano and organ works and to operatic arias where each and every work provided an opportunity for both audience and performers to ponder and reflect upon life’s great mysteries and our own hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations and inspirations.. The opening work, an organ solo by Michael Overbury of Walford Davies’ Solemn Melody, a work so much associated with annual Remembrance Day occasions,  set the scene for what was to follow: an evening of music about our very being, about who we are and what we are; in short, music about our very souls.

Paul Hayward & soloist
Jane Harwood
Fauré’s much loved Cantique de Jean Racine and In Paradisum, the heavenly final movement  from  Fauré’s popular, serene and gently inspiring Requiem  provided a fitting, delicate and lyrical prelude to the evening’s main work, Rutter’s often bleak, haunting, poignant and chorally taxing Requiem. John Rutter’s great funeral work , like Fauré’s, speaks a different musical language from the mighty Requiem’s of Mozart or Verdi, and the choir, at the top of their game under Paul Hayward’s baton,  captured beautifully the sorrow, pain, the hope and the inherent humanity of Rutter’s masterpiece. The bleakness of the opening movement and its many other dark moments gave way to unmistakably optimistic and quietly joyous sections ensuring that its enduring message, as with Fauré’s Requiem,  was one of hope and comfort. It is not surprising that after the events of 9/11, Rutter’s Requiem   was the choice of music at the many memorial services across the USA. The subtle intricacies, nuance, lyricism and the quiet spirituality of each of this and the other works were quietly and sympathetically exposed by the choir as they gave voice to both the pathos and joy of the human condition both in life and in death.

Michael Overbury
Soprano Jane Harwood  was superb throughout - both complementing and leading the choir in the Requiem and in Mendelssohn’s  Hear My Prayer.  Her own solos: Handel’s V’Adoro Pupille  and Mozart’s achingly beautiful Dove Sono  were beautifully sung and worthy interludes between the main works as was Paul Hayward’s  piano performance of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Hayward’s  interpretation of this well known work painted a mysterious and yet captivating musical picture of shimmering moonlight. Accompanist Michael Overbury’s rendering of his own organ composition – Benediction - expressed exactly one of the most profound parts of the Eucharist when the Priest blesses the faithful and slowly raises the Eucharist before placing it back onto the altar. The crescendo  and diminuendo in Overbury’s composition  reflecting the intense devotion and expectation of the act magically captured both the spirituality and quiet beauty of the whole concert.
Taking a bow!

On a chilly and dark November evening this was both music and a performance to refresh and to still the soul. The Ruddington & District Choral Society are, to use modern day parlance “on a roll”. Paul Hayward’s skilled and sympathetic direction and leadership combined with Michael  Overbury’s highly talented musical skills are creating a choir that not only sounds good but which is capable of successfully tackling an increasingly wide repertoire. Choral singing is not only about hitting the right notes. It is as much about empathy with the piece and with what the composer intended; good conductors know this and good choirs are able to capture it. Both Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury, and the whole choir, should be pleased with themselves, together they captured perfectly the music, the autumnal atmosphere of the occasion and, most importantly, the essential ethereal nature and spirituality of these much loved works. The St Giles’ audience intuitively understood this and their appreciation showed it in their delighted applause.

28 November, 2016

Don't be "frighted" - be part of the great story that is Handel's Messiah at St Peter's Church Ruddington on December 12th (7.30 pm)

There are many pieces of great  music that I enjoy each year at Christmastide – Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Telemann’s Festive Suite, Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Number 8 ( often called  The Christmas Concerto) and many, many more – but above them all towers Handel’s great masterpiece the Messiah. Undeniably it is one of the very  great musical works.  It is, however, like other great pieces, more than simply a good piece of music. Just as with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Bach’s B Minor Mass, Bach’s St Matthew Passion or the Mozart Requiem it is something that reminds us what it is to be human – just small spots in a vast cosmos.  And it confirms to  everyone, even those of no religious affiliation or view, that there is something deeper and more significant about Christmas than just torn wrapping paper, bottles of wine, Christmas stockings or turkey and stuffing. Put simply, the Messiah reminds us of what we are about – or should be about - for those few days in dark December whilst much of mankind watches TV shows and binges upon his and her excesses.
I have seen and listened to the Messiah more times than I could possibly guess at. Indeed, it is one of the formative influences on my life – begun with an almost “road to Damascus” experience which brought me to classical music as a teenager (see blog: A night alone with Klever Kaff - May 2011). In the many performances I have seen and heard over the years some stand out – often for the strangest of reasons. A quarter of a century ago Pat and I were holidaying in Florence. It was Easter and we passed a church outside of which was advertised a performance of the Messiah. We went along that night and sat like many others on the cold stone floor surrounded by great Italian works of art that decorated the church. Throughout the three hour performance ordinary Italians popped in and out – many simply walking their dogs but grabbing a few minutes of wonderful music at the same time. It was quite magical. And then, as the opening bars of the "Hallelujah Chorus" struck up from the little orchestra, all the Brits in the church suddenly made themselves known – as if a switch had been pressed. We all stood to attention in the time honoured manner! Italians looked in confusion at what was happening when a third of the audience rose in unison and stood proud! Magic!
The story of the Messiah is, indeed, a magical and rich mixture of national and musical history, the great and the good, and the everyday. It stretches from great opera houses and theatres of the world to tiny village halls and churches; its story is the story of both Kings and humble commoners; it encompasses the great sopranos, tenors, choirs and orchestras as well as the keen amateur musician and singer. It is a Christmas piece and an Easter favourite, but also a piece for all seasons. Messiah is a piece to give us a sense of place in the great scheme of things, a work to spiritually refresh, inspire and to humble as well as a source of national pride.  Finally, it is at the same time, both part of our national history to call upon in times of fear or celebration as well as a part of our local life to act as a marker in each year and across the years. We all, no matter who we are or what we are, both own and profit from this wonderful work.

St Peter's Church Langton
I  came across a bit of the Messiah jig saw by accident one day a few years ago. I went, one afternoon, to visit a trainee teacher who I was supervising as she did her teaching practice in a small village school in Leicestershire. After watching her teach we retired to the school staff room to discuss her lesson. On the notice board there was a notice advertising a performance of the Messiah in the local church and as I read the notice I noticed that the performance included some very well known, international singers and players. I wondered how the church in so small a village could afford such great names - and then I read the small print.  It was to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the first church performance of the Messiah in England - the great and the good of the musical world were celebrating this very special event. The school was in the tiny village of Church Langton, the church where that first church performance took place was just across the road.

In the Spring of 1759, only a few weeks after Handel had died in London, a Leicestershire man and Church Langton resident and philanthropist, the Rev. William Hanbury, paid £500 for an organ to be built and transported to the local church of St Peter’s in his village - mid way between Leicester and Market Harborough. It is about 40 miles away from Ruddington, where I live. According to local records, the sound of the organ was a terrifying prospect
“....some of the common people were frighted and hurried out of the church with all speed....they thought the Day of Judgement was come indeed.....” After the tumult had died down and the villagers become used to the sounds of the organ and other instruments brought by Hanbury, the very first performance of the Messiah was given in an English parish church - on September 26th 1759. In the two day Handel musical festival that followed in the village records tell us that “the countryside flocked to the performance...accommodation of all kinds was at a premium, the price of food was nearly tripled, there were more than two hundred chariots, landaus and post chaises....” This little snippet of local history and music represents well, perhaps, the bigger tale of the music of Handel and especially that of Messiah
The Rev. William Hanbury - what a wonderful
tradition he started.
Hanbury was a wealthy man with great ambitions and aspirations and he not only began the Messiah's church performance. He had plans to build a Minster to rival the great York Minster in his village. He never realised that dream but he did endow his village with other things - most notably the school in which I had sat that afternoon and watched that young teacher teach. It was and still is known as the Hanbury School and was "founded for the education and religious instruction of boys and girls of this parish".

But back to Messiah. It was  composed in 1741 based on  a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, the Psalms and the Book of Common Prayer. Jennens, too, was a Leicestershire man - he lived only a few miles from Church Langton. It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742, and received its London premier nearly a year later. After a modest public reception in London, the oratorio quickly gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.
Handel, of course, was a German – he became a naturalised Englishman and in his life time became almost more English than the English. He walked with Kings and composed some of the very great state music – much of it still with us. His Water Music, for example which was played a  year or two ago  as the Royal Barge floated down the Thames in the Queen’s Jubilee Year – just  as it had been played in 1717 for George 1st as he cruised down the Thames. Handel’s royal connections do not end there; our Queen, now in her 90th year, will one day be replaced and as the crown is placed upon the head of her successor the music that will be played and sung will be that of Handel – Zadok the Priest. Handel's impact on the life of his adopted country was, and still is, huge. 
Charles Jennens - a Leicestershire man
who gave Handel the words & idea

But although he walked with Kings he had to earn his crust and he composed furiously to earn a living. He was something of an impresario – putting on operas at a great rate. He owned shares in theatres – he was almost the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day! His fortunes went up and down and although he died a wealthy and respected man, like everyone else, he suffered success and failure. In an echo of today’s economically challenged times he lost a huge amount of money with the financial banking scandal known as the South Sea Bubble and, just as today, the fickle world of music with its ever changing fashions forced him to continually rethink his approach.

By the late 1730’s interest in grand Italian opera was declining – there was a move towards English language productions and although Handel continued to write and produce great opera he increasingly moved towards the English oratorio. In July 1741 Charles Jennens, a friend of Handel,  sent him a new libretto for an oratorio, and in a letter said: 
"I hope he [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah".
The music for Messiah was completed in 24 days of swift composition. Having received Jennens' text sometime after 10 July 1741, Handel began work on it on 22 August. His records show that he had completed it in draft by 12 September, followed by two days of "filling up" to produce the finished work on 14 September.
The great man's handwriting on the score

The score's 259 pages show some signs of haste such as blots, scratchings-out, unfilled bars and other uncorrected errors, but according to music scholars the number of errors is remarkably small in a document of this length. At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote  "SDG"—Soli Deo Gloria, "To God alone the glory". This inscription, taken with the speed of composition, has encouraged the belief that Handel wrote the music in a fervour of divine inspiration in which, as he wrote the "Hallelujah Chorus”, "he saw all heaven before him". The reality, however, is perhaps rather more prosaic! Many of Handel's compositions were composed within similar timescales – they had to be squeezed between theatrical and operatic seasons. There is significant evidence that Handel’s finances were at a low, fashions were changing and he needed a new idea to boost his bank account!  In short, for Handel and other musicians of the day, time was money! 
Handel agreed to give a season of six concerts in Dublin in the winter of 1741–42 following an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and in early March it was further agreed to give a charity concert in April 1742 - the premier of Messiah.
Another successful concert!

He had been given permission from St Patrick's and Christ Church Cathedrals to use their choirs for this occasion - a total of 16 men and 16 boy choristers; several of the men were allocated solo parts. The women soloists were Christina Maria Avoglio and Susannah Cibber, an established stage actress and contralto, who had sung for Handel before. The charities that were to benefit were prisoners' debt relief, the Mercer's Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary. In its report on a public rehearsal, the Dublin News-Letter described the oratorio as "...far surpass[ing] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom". Seven hundred people attended the premiere on 13 April. So that the largest possible audience could be admitted gentlemen were requested to remove their swords, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. The performance earned unanimous praise from the assembled press: "Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring and crowded Audience" said one news sheet.  A Dublin clergyman, Rev. Delaney, was so overcome by Susanna Cibber's rendering of the aria "He was despised" that reportedly he leapt to his feet and cried: "Woman, for this, be all thy sins forgiven thee!" The takings amounted to around £400, providing about £127 to each of the three nominated charities and securing the release of 142 indebted prisoners.
This warm reception to Messiah  however, was not quite repeated in London when Handel introduced the work at the Covent Garden theatre in  March 1743. The first performance was overshadowed by the view that the work's subject-matter was too exalted to be performed in a theatre, particularly by secular singer-actresses such as Cibber. In an attempt to deflect such sensibilities Handel  avoided the name “Messiah” and presented the work as the "New Sacred Oratorio". Although the custom of standing for the "Hallelujah Chorus” originates from a belief that, at the London premier, King George II did so, there is no convincing evidence that the King was actually present. However, the first reference to the practice of standing appears in a letter dated 1756 – by which time the King had certainly witnessed the oratorio so there may be some truth in the tale.

During the 1750s Messiah was performed increasingly at festivals and cathedrals throughout the country and after Handel's death, performances were given in Florence, New York, Hamburg  and  Mannheim - where Mozart first heard it. These were still relatively small affairs involving twenty or thirty singers in the manner originally scored by Handel rather than grand “theatre” productions.
George Frederick Handel - what a treasure
trove he has left us!
But by 1784 a fashion for larger-scale performances began with a series of commemorative concerts of Handel's music given in Westminster Abbey under the patronage of King George III. A plaque on the Abbey wall records that "The Band consisting of DXXV [525] vocal & instrumental performers was conducted by Joah Bates Esqr."  In 1787 further performances were given at the Abbey; advertisements promised, "The Band will consist of Eight Hundred Performers". By the mid nineteenth century performances had become increasingly grandiose. Messiah was presented in New York in 1853 with a chorus of 300 and in Boston in 1865 with more than 600.  In Britain a performance held at the Crystal Palace in 1857 had 2,000 singers and an orchestra of 500!

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to get on the Messiah bandwagon! There were, however, growing dissenting voices towards the grand scale production. George Bernard Shaw commented, "Why, instead of wasting huge sums on the multitudinous dullness ..... does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die."  Bernard Shaw’s plea was increasingly heard and although the huge-scale oratorio tradition was perpetuated by large ensembles such as the Royal Choral Society, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society in the 20th century, there were increasingly calls for performances more faithful to Handel's smaller concept.
Susanna Cibber - sang in the first (and
subsequent) performances. I wonder if her
sins were, indeed, forgiven!
Despite the popularity of the large scale production the tide was turning. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham wrote that  "....after the heyday of Victorian choral societies.....[there was a] rapid and violent reaction against monumental performances....... [the Messiah] should be played and heard as in the days between 1700 and 1750".

And in the intervening years, the Messiah has increasingly “come home” – to village hall and parish church. We now have “sing along” Messiahs, hugely popular community Messiahs like our own annual Ruddington performance. At the turn of the millenium, choir members from throughout Nottinghamshire filled Southwell Minister to sing, and be inspired as the 21st century began by the well loved words and music. And what was begun in Dublin by Handel and continued only a few weeks after the composer’s death in St Peter’s, Church Langton courtesy of the Reverend Hanbury will be continued again over 250 years later in our own St Peters here in Ruddington when the Ruddington & District Choral Society lead the local community in the 2016 Community Messiah  .  And, of course, it will, too, be being heard and sung  in churches and village halls throughout the country. It has come full circle – to a village church in the middle of England just as Hanbury dreamed of when he listened that Messiah in his own village church in the middle of England in 1759. 
Of course, when the Messiah takes place in St Peter’s here in Ruddington on December 12th we cannot promise you “the Day of Judgement” feared by the villagers of Church Langton and we hope that you will not rush from our own St Peter’s “frighted” as did those villagers in 1759! We cannot promise that all your sins will be forgiven as was promised to contralto Sussana Cibber in Dublin! And we do not anticipate having to ask gentlemen to remove their swords of ladies remove their skirt hoops as Handel did almost three centuries ago! Nor do we anticipate the price of food in Ruddington tripling or that the “village be filled with landaus and post chaises” because of our concert!

But we do promise you the greatest oratorio ever written with which to begin your Christmas!  And in a week or two, on December 12th when I sit at the back of the church, having done my duty by selling tickets on the door, and my wife takes her place amongst the sopranos as they file to their places at the front of the church to begin the performance I will, I know, reflect upon the history of this wonderful and monumental work. I'll think of the men removing their swords in Dublin; the ladies being very immodest by not having hoops in the skirts; the village of Church Langton filling up with "more than two hundred chariots, landaus and post chaises" and I might wonder if I will be brave enough to stand up in the middle of the performance and shout to the contralto "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee"! May be not! What I will undoubtedly reflect upon is how this work has been so much a part of my life and indeed the life of the nation for so many years.
St Peter's in Ruddington - be there on December 12th and
be part of the great story that is Messiah!
And, I will again marvel and think of what Mr Handel would have thought of it all today – his music being relayed electronically and instantly streamed into homes throughout the world!  Could he ever have forecast the impact that his work would have over hundreds of years in tiny village halls and churches like St Peter’s Church Langton and St Peter’s Ruddington, and in great concert halls throughout the world. I don’t expect he could have ever believed that audiences would stand to attention – even in cities like far off Florence - two hundred and fifty years after his death when his “Halleluiah Chorus” was sung. I don’t suppose that he could have ever have imagined that for many, like me, the opening bars of the Messiah would signal, that Christmas is again with us. What a wonderful heritage he has left us! So, why not come and join us - be part of the wonderful story of Messiah on Monday. You'll be very welcome, you won't be “frighted” but who knows – it may just be that all your sins will be forgiven thee!

22 November, 2016

"...You don't know what you've got til its gone……”

In the past few weeks a few words from two of the 20th century’s truly great hits have been haunting my mind; their words provoked by the appalling debacle of the Brexit vote and in the last few weeks the worst nightmare of most of the world’s population – the election of Donald Trump as the most powerful man in the world, President of the USA. I could not possibly add to any of the hyperbole and analysis that has taken place on these two game changing events except to say that in Saturday’s Guardian Conservative politician (and a woman I have little time for) Anna Soubrey, had it exactly right when she commented that we in the UK have “lost the plot”. I can only say that if that is true of the UK then the electorate of the USA have gone completely mad.
We now have the bizarre situation that the retiring President Barack Obama has been touring Europe meeting European and world leaders and, according to the political media ,“passing the baton of freedom” to Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. Merkel herself has just announced that she will stand for a fourth term as Germany’s Chancellor and I for one am delighted. Despite our alleged “special relationship” with the USA - always a dubious privilege, but now a poisoned chalice in this era of Trump – we have, by our Brexit vote, lost all credibility as an international power who should be taken at all seriously. We are unquestionably quite unfit to take on the “baton of freedom” or any kind of leadership in the world. We, in the UK, are now led by a rag tag outfit of dangerous nonentities and political opportuntists while the USA is led by – and to quote the words of a normally charitable man, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – “a man [with] a total indifference to truth (not to mention decency), no connected strategy but an incoherent series of crowd pleasing postures as if [his] aim was not to do anything as president simply to be president. It is the ersatz politics of mass theatre in which what matters most is the declaration of victory”.

Williams is right and what he says of Trump has resonance here in the UK with the language, politics and policies (such as one can identify them) of the political chancers that now are in charge of the Westminster madhouse. Over the past few days I have watched with no little horror as the graceless, narcissistic Trump has invited more and more extremist head cases into his tasteless Trump Tower lair and offered them jobs that will profoundly affect the world. I have watched in disbelief as nepotism has run rife through the American political landscape as his daughter, son in law and anyone else he fancies sits in at the top table – in some way, each of them now given that prerogative by his election to speak on behalf of millions of Americans. And I have sworn in exasperation as a failed UK politician, Nigel Farage and his henchmen have somehow infiltrated Trump’s circle and are now by default representing the views of the UK. To add salt to the wounds there is already talk of Farage being offered a knighthood or some similar award and of Trump being invited to dine with the Queen at Windsor. And a few minutes ago I read that Farage is castigating the UK government because they have "distanced themselves" from Trump's suggestion that Farage should be the next UK ambassador to Washington.This is the politics of the madhouse a thousand times over. It makes the court of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland look the epitome of sanity and good taste. No wonder Obama is touring the world pleading for some sane response from people like Angela Merkel – he certainly won’t get it from the current UK leadership. John O’Gaunt’s famous description of England as being “this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle” is no more; we are rather this “septic isle”.
Tasteless and worrying - both the subjects and the lift

As I watched the unfolding picture of Trump’s “appointments” on TV and then watched “an ordinary American woman” sporting green lipstick and painted eyebrows that curled upwards into her hair line telling the world that Trump would solve all her country’s ills I could only reflect that here is the richest, and most powerful society that the world has ever known in terminal decline; what we have witnessed in the USA in the past few weeks is a mortally sick society. And although we in the UK have perhaps not yet reached so low we are certainly in extreme intensive care.

Watching  the megalomaniacal Trump/Farage and the rest reminded me of that other great mad leader, the Roman Emperor Caligula. Increasingly known for his narcissism, cruelty, sadism, extravagance, and sexual perversity he was finally assassinated by officers of the Praetorian Guard, senators, and courtiers. During his reign he killed off those who were close to him or whom he saw as a threat. He increasingly appeared in public dressed as a god and was self-absorbed, angry, killed on a whim, and sated himself on spending and sex. He was accused of sleeping with other men's wives and bragging about it, killing for mere amusement, and of incest with his sisters and prostituting them to other men. He sent troops on illogical military exercises, turned the palace into a brothel, and, most famously, promised to make his horse a consul. In the end he gave up on that whim and appointed the horse a priest. To raise money for his excesses Caligula began auctioning the lives of the gladiators and he caused starvation. Finally, at the games at which he was presiding, he ordered his guards to throw entire sections of the crowd into the arena during intermission to be eaten by animals because there were no criminals to be prosecuted and his notoriously short attention span caused him to be bored.

Donald Trump fits many of these excesses to perfection; his lack of attention span is well documented, his predatory sexual exploits the stuff of infamous legend. His narcissistic and megalomaniacal personality which has spawned the  grossly unpleasant Trump Tower, complete with gold lifts, would have been loved by Caligula. And Trump’s mad cap schemes and comments such as building a wall to isolate Mexico would have got the nod of approval from the ancient Roman. The world should be very afraid.
Trump with his worrying clan (Klan?)

But we are not. We laugh and mock him (and the UK equivalent Brexit crew). We shake our heads in frustration and sorrow that these dangerous clowns have taken power. But in reality we have done nothing. When the UK was politically mugged by the Brexit vandals they did exactly what Rowan Williams voiced: they displayed a total indifference to truth – promising and saying anything (extra money for the NHS and the like) to secure victory. Victory justified and justifies all in contemporary Britain and America. Trump has followed in Brexit's footsteps making outlandish claims and totally unsustainable and unreasonable promises. We now live in a post truth era,  and what have we done?  Nothing. President Obama has as always been dignified and correct seeing, what one can assume, is the greater good, the bigger picture, the human perspective. In a world today where outcomes justify all our actions the only questions that we ask are - does it make us richer, will we be healthier, can we gain an advantage from it, does it solve the problem, will the public buy it......... Obama has been one of the few politicians who has asked the greater questions that we seem never now to ask in this modern world; namely, is it right, is it good, is it worthy, is it honourable, is it just, is it decent? As societies the US and the UK have stopped asking these questions that are at the very root of our humanity and which separate us from the animals - we are no longer able to see their importance or verbalise our concern. If we had or did ask these important moral questions then  Trump, Farage, Johnson and the rest would never have emerged to gain the power that they have. We have largely lost our ability to think as humans and the rule of the jungle is increasingly filling our TV screens, our High Streets, our media and our governments.

Ensuring that there must be an ordered and legal transference of power as the US constitution demands Obama has played out his role to perfection - as he has done throughout his presidency. Hilary Clinton, albeit through clenched teeth, rightly gave a gracious speech to acknowledge Trump’s victory. But all the time the great, the good and we lesser mortals "do the right thing", the powers of evil – be they Trump or the  Brexit crew - assume more and more ill gained power. While democracy acts “correctly”, as the law demands, those with malign intentions – the Trumps, the Farages, the Johnsons and the millions who voted for them make the law look an ass by their disdain for its core principles of truth and integrity. And the rest of us stand and watch. And when the law tries to assert itself as the law lords did recently in the UK when they reminded the government of the need for following the law in regard to the Brexit parliamentary debate the right wing populist press, led by the rabble rousing Daily Mail and its neanderthal readers, howled in rage shouting down and vilifying our most senior judges. We should be very afraid.
Decent people are already missing Obama

As Obama toured the world’s capitals saying his farewells to world leaders last week an increasing number of people took to the air waves and to social media thanking him for all that he had given in his eight years in office. No, he didn’t fulfill all the promises of his first inauguration speech. Yes, I’m sure that he made mistakes and could have done better in some areas – he would, being a decent and humble man, be the first to admit to those faults. But his decency and basic goodness shone through. Suddenly, when the world woke up to Trump we all realised what we had lost. It was the same in the UK; David Cameron was disliked (by me especially) but he was not a charlatan or a chancer; he was not a blatant misogynist or liar. Donald Trump and to a lesser degree (simply because they are such a nonentities) Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have managed something quite unthinkable just a few months ago: they have made George W Bush look not only an intellectual but the epitome of virtue and goodness. As Hilary Clinton said in one of her speeches before the election she had always criticised the policies of George Bush but never his suitability or right to be president. She was right – and by implication Trump has no right or suitability for the post he is now about to take – whatever the election result. In modern parlance he, like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, is “not fit for purpose”.

But, we watch and allow it to happen. Like turkeys voting for Christmas.

A few weeks ago Theresa May, the UK PM, took exception to one of the well used comments current in today’s UK, especially amongst those like me who are horrified at the Brexit vote. Many of my persuasion are of the view that we prefer to be seen as citizens of Europe or even the world rather than what we will be categorised as, once Brexit takes effect, citizens of the UK . May suggested that “to be a citizen of the world is to be a citizen of nowhere”. Well, Theresa May is entitled to her view but I am not bound to subscribe to it and as Obama passes the torch of freedom to Angela Merkel I, for one ,will be far more interested in what Frau Merkel has to say about the world and my place in it than I will about what May, Trump, Farage, Johnson or any other of these charlatans utter. My reason? – simple. I’m sure that Merkel has her faults, she is a politician so we should all have a healthy skepticism but, her defining qualities are decency, humanity, a large measure of integrity and truth, and most important she displays all the necessary qualities to prove that she is a human being. I find those qualities in very short supply or non-existent in Brexit and Trump land. So, Mrs May, unfortunately I might not legally be able to call myself a citizen of Germany but I can, indeed, be a citizen of a Europe or world perceived and led by Angela Merkel once she takes the “baton of freedom” from Obama.
Passing the baton? Let's hope so.

I started this blog by confessing that a couple of songs had been going through my mind in recent days. I have not forgotten. Two of the very great songs of the 20th century and a time when things were simpler. In 1970 Joni Mitchell brought us Big Yellow Taxi.....and the words that keep going through my mind from that wonderful song:

“Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Til its gone
They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot”

And the other? From Don McLean’s mighty 1971 hit American Pie a song about which Ph.Ds have been written as to its meaning: the death of the American dream with the death of Buddy Holly?......or was it (as is my firm belief) Kennedy? Or was it both and was McLean forecasting the demise of that great country and which we are now witnessing with the rise of Trump? Whatever, the words of McLean’s fifth verse seem prophetic and so apt for Autumn 2016 in both the USA and the UK:

“…..I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I'd heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn't play
And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
And they were singin'
So, Bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my chevy to the levy
But the levy was dry
And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singing this'll be the day that I die….”

"You don't know what you've got, Til its gone” and “The church bells all were broken, And the three men I admire most, The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, They caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died ………".  Can there be a sadder but more telling and accurate commentary upon the terrible times in which we now live? I think not. We should all be beyond angry at what we have allowed to happen.