A historic moment will be revisited Friday night in the Washington Cathedral. Time will be moved back two centuries and Washingtonians will return to history's first Handel festival, which began in Westminster Abbey on May 26,1784.
Several historic precedents were established at that festival. One was the consecration of Handel's "Messiah" as a classic -- essentially, the first music to receive such treatment in European history. Another was the beginning of the mammoth performances of "Messiah" that became a tradition in the 19th century. An orchestra of 253 and a chorus of 257 sang the oratorio on that occasion -- approximately 10 times as many as Handel had used at the premiere.
Friday night's program will be somewhat smaller in scale (though numbering some 400 participants) and, if all goes well, more orderly. Antal Dorati will conduct two choruses -- the University of Maryland Chorus and the Cathedral Choral Society -- with an orchestra called the Smithsonian Concerto Grosso playing on 18th-century instruments. This group has 100 players recruited from all over the United States. It is smaller than the orchestra for the 1784 festival but as large as circumstances will allow. "It will be the first time in the 20th century that 100 players on 18th-century instruments have performed together," says Paul Traver, director of the University of Maryland Handel Festival. "There aren't 200 players of old instruments available. If there were, we couldn't afford them."
While they have all this power assembled (including 11 baroque oboes, 10 bassoons, three sackbuts, five horns and five trumpets), the festival sponsors plan to get their money's worth. The performance (to be recorded by Pro Arte Records and released next year) will be repeated Saturday at 6 p.m. in the cathedral; the festival ends Sunday night on the Maryland campus, with a performance of the "Royal Fireworks Music" in its original arrangement, followed by real fireworks. At the original performance, the fireworks burned down a building. For the current festival, plans have not been made to carry authenticity quite so far.
What will be happening is the beginning of a yearlong celebration of the 300th anniversary of Handel's birth. The festivities are beginning early -- the actual birthday will not happen until Feb. 23 -- but by jumping the gun, the Handel Festival will be able to squeeze in two festivals for one anniversary (the second a year from now), not to mention a birthday party on Feb. 23. By rushing the event, the festival is following an authentic tradition. The 1784 festival was originally planned for the centennial of Handel's birth, but the sponsors and audience were both too impatient to wait until 1785.
If any composer deserves such eager attention, it is probably George Frideric Handel.
Handel's music (mostly "Messiah," hauling other works in its wake like a tugboat) has survived changing tastes from the Baroque period to the present -- not quite unscathed but still clearly recognizable. Handel was the first composer to manage this trick, followed a generation later by Mozart and Haydn, then by Beethoven, who established a sort of archetypal image of the classic composer suffering the misunderstanding of his contemporaries while he wrote for posterity.
Handel did not write for posterity, though it took him up -- largely through the enthusiasm of George III, who would not allow any concert in his palace that did not include at least one work of Handel's. What Handel wrote for was money. In his lifetime, public taste in classical music was the exact opposite of what it is today; people wanted to hear the newest compositions and resented performances of old music -- not unlike today's audience for popular music. Handel helped to change that taste by frequently recycling the most popular numbers from his older works into new compositions. Sometimes an aria would be fitted to a new set of words. Sometimes an opera chorus would be rewritten into a movement in an organ concerto. Occasionally, Handel might reuse old material because it had been a hit. More often, he would do it because he was too rushed and overworked to invent something new.
The continued popularity of Handel's music after his death was the chief element in the birth of the classical music tradition -- that is, a tradition of preserving and performing music from the past. In 1776, 17 years after Handel's death, a group of his admirers in London founded the Concert of Ancient Music, an organization that played no music that was not at least 20 years old. Today, an organization could observe the letter of such a rule and still be considered radical and modern.
The road to becoming a classic was not always an easy one for Handel. As the director of his own Italian opera company in London, he made a fortune and then lost it -- a victim of organized opposition and the changing tastes of a fickle public. After his operas went bust, he shifted to oratorios, which were often operas with a thin religious veneer, a plot and characters drawn from the Old Testament and a text in English. The combination of a familiar subject (particularly one that could be considered holy) and an intelligible text won back the audience that had lost its taste from Greco-Roman gods and warriors singing long arias in Italian.
"Messiah," the most devout of Handel's oratorios and by far the most popular, was composed in little more than the time it took to write down the words and music: 24 days. Pious legend has it that the composer had visions of heaven while he was working on this score and that he did not stop to eat until the work was finished.
This is unlikely; Handel was not an atheist, but he was hardly a mystic. Essentially, he was a hard-headed businessman whose business happened to be music. But "Messiah" has certainly inspired visions of heaven in many who have sung or heard it.
In the eyewitness description of the 1784 festival by music historian Charles Burney, the event had some of the flavor of a rock concert, including long delays before the music began and a crowd that almost went out of control. According to Burney, the doors were supposed to open at 9 that morning but they remained closed until almost 10. By then, he says, "such a crowd of ladies and gentlemen were assembled together as became very formidable and terrific to each other, particularly the female part of the expectants." Some screamed, he reports, "others fainted; and all were dismayed and apprehensive of fatal consequences; as many of the most violent, among the gentlemen, threatened to break open the doors; a measure which, if adopted, would, probably, have cost many of the most feeble and helpless their lives; as they must, infallibly, have been thrown down, and trampled on, by the robust and impatient part of the crowd."
Fortunately, there were no reported casualties "except dishevelled hair, and torn garments." A capacity audience waited until noon when King George III, sponsor of the event, arrived and the music could begin.
A relatively new tradition is the "Messiah" sing-along, in which members of the audience bring their own scores and join in the choruses. The National Symphony has made this an annual event for years, and it usually draws a capacity singing audience. Other organizations in the Washington area have begun to have audience-participation "Messiahs" in the last few years, and nationwide there are hundreds of similar events.
This trend might raise the eyebrows of Baroque purists, who point to the early performances of "Messiah" with orchestras and choruses that usually totaled only 50 or 60 people. The tradition of enormous performing forces for "Messiah," which began at the 1784 festival, grew all through the 19th century and into the 20th. The orchestration was modernized again and again; Mozart was one composer commissioned to write additional wind parts for "Messiah," but the definitive distortion of Handel's text was the work of a 19th-century musician, otherwise unremembered, named Ebenezer Prout. His work survived for a long time. The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, one of the oldest musical organizations in the United States, stuck to performances in the Ebenezer Prout tradition until the 1960s, when it finally yielded to musicological pressure and began performing a stripped-down version in purer Baroque style.
Now, with the 300th anniversary coming up, the tide may be turning, at least partway. Friday's performance will be a historic moment and one that attracts international attention. Musicologists from all over the United States and Europe will be at the university for a symposium on various Handelian performance practices held in conjunction with the festival. The massive performance in the cathedral will serve as a sort of demonstration -- 200 years later -- of a turning point in the history of Handel performance. It should also be one of the season's more spectacular musical events.