The (musical) afterlife of the civil wars

July 15, 2010 § 4 Comments

Over at A Bit British, Lena’s recent post, The Language of Revolution, which is a lowdown on the seventh chapter of A Cultural History of the English Language by Gerry Knowles, is really fascinating. (Great find, Lena!) One item in particular caught my fancy, the one about the political context of Handel’s Messiah of 1741. When I was in high school donkey’s years ago, our chorus got together with other high school choruses in mid-Missouri to perform a handful of songs, the only one of which I remember is the Hallelujah Chorus, the last piece in the program.

I remember two things about that experience. The first is strictly personal. I got tapped to accompany on the piano, which was a relief, because that meant I didn’t have to struggle to find the alto line amid the din of the sopranos. Half of those sopranos really ought to have been altos, but in high school it was a lot cooler to be soprano than an alto. In the universe of the high school chorus, the soprano was not only higher up the musical scale than the alto, but also trumped her in social status, for some weird reason. We must have unconsciously believed that sopranos were far more feminine–i.e., desirable–than altos, with their dusky voices. We altos wore makeup and deodorant just like the sopranos, but  somehow we were an embarrassment to the sex, at least in the chorus classroom. Sorry for the digression. The alto thing still rankles.

Anyway, it’s the second thing that’s pertinent here. Our teacher, Mrs. Hansen, had told us about the Hallelujah Chorus was that the audience would stand up for it. “Why?’ we wanted to know. The answer struck as as pretty odd: because that’s what George II did. “It’s tradition,” she said. Whatever the king did, everybody else had to too, even if their bunions were particularly painful that day. When we got used to it, the idea made the piece seem even more rousing and made us feel more special (particularly the altos, who needed it). So ever since I’ve associated Messiah with reverence for the British monarchy. And it’s based on the King James Bible, after all, not the Geneva Bible, favorite of Protestant radicals and one of James’s pet bugbears.

Lena reports that Knowles says the radicals of the 1740s interpreted the Biblical metaphors Handel set to music as “biblical justification for revolution and eventual regicide.” Consider, for example, the lines “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low… Thou shalt break [the kings of the earth] with a rod of iron.” “Mountains and valleys were likened to the high and low of English society,” explains Knowles, “and Charles Stuart was a king of the earth.”

Lena, who’s an extraordinarily attentive and perceptive reader, made a really interesting slip. When she read “radicals of the 1740s” in Knowles’s chapter, she saw “radicals of the 1640s” instead. It’s not that she wasn’t paying attention: it’s that she made sense out of something that didn’t seem to make sense.  Why in the world would revolution and regicide have such play 100 years later?

A future post, about the afterlife of the civil wars–and much indebted to R. C. Richardson’s The Debate on the English Revolution (3rd ed., 1998)–will try to address that question.

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§ 4 Responses to The (musical) afterlife of the civil wars

  • Chris Nicholls says:

    I have sung Messiah many times with several British choral societies (next on 18 December 2010 in Farnham, Surrey) and have had audiences who stood for the Hallelujah Chorus and those who didn’t. The usual explanation given for George II standing at the Hallelujah Chorus at the first London performance (the work was actually first performed in Dublin) was simply delight at the music and if the King stood, then so did everyone else.

    I would be very sceptical about hidden messages in the music. So far as I know, Handel, who was German by birth, did not take any political position and if he had, he would probably have supported the Hanoverian Kings, who were German, rather than the Stuarts. He also lived through the rebellion of the Old Pretender, James Edward Stuart, in 1715 and, while Messiah was still developing between 1741 and 1750, the rebellion of Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie) in 1745. The editor of the current Novello choral edition, Watkins Shaw, makes it clear that after 1741 Handel continued to write additional pieces for Messiah and dropped others before the work reached its final and current form in 1750.

    Incidentally, the Hallelujah Chorus is section 44 at the end of Part 2 of the work. It is not the last chorus, which is no. 53 ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain’ which concludes with what I consider to be the finest setting of ‘Amen’ in the western choral tradition. Messiah is truly one of the greatest choral pieces ever composed.

    • Jane Smith says:

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comment and please accept my apologies for not having responded more promptly. (I took a bit of a hiatus from Mistris Parliament over the summer.) I actually didn’t mean to suggest that Handel intended The Messiah to express his own political views (whatever they were) about the British Civil Wars (assuming he had any) or their incarnation in Whig vs Tory politics. Making claims about authorial intent is always a risky business–particularly so, I would think, when it comes to large-scale musical works, whose collaborative nature makes it really difficult to pin down an agenda.

      I meant only to say that the Whig party of the 1740s seems to have appropriated passages in Handel’s oratorio that supported the supremacy of its own world view, in which the lowly were understood to be as worthy as the exalted. In this way, the Whigs used The Messiah to challenge the Tory orthodoxy that held that hierarchies of power were the best means of obtaining the well-being of the lowly as well as the exalted. I suppose you could reduce this contrast to the competing belief systems of the New Testament and the Old, or the more radical Protestant sects versus Catholicism or the Catholic-leaning Church of England.

      I know next to nothing about Handel or the circumstances of The Messiah’s commissioning or composition, so I was really interested to learn from you that Handel seems to have eschewed politics, at least conspicuously, and if he’d had to indicate preference for a British party it probably wouldn’t have been for the Whigs. I was also fascinated to learn that he tinkered so extensively with The Messiah, adding and subtracting bits until he gave off in 1750.

      I’d love to know your thoughts (1) about why he tinkered with the oratorio for nine years, (2) whether you think it is at all possible or desirable to recover Handel’s’s own politics (whatever they were) in the different iterations of The Messiah, and (3) why you think some audiences have stood when you performed the Hallelujah Chorus and why some haven’t. Is it possible to make any generalizations on the basis of class or geography or some other marker?

      Thanks again for writing. I wish I could be in Surrey in December to hear your choral society perform the oratorio!

      Cheers,
      Jane

  • Chris Nicholls says:

    I have sung Messiah many times with several British choral societies (next on 18 December 2010 in Farnham, Surrey) and have had audiences who stood for the Hallelujah Chorus and those who didn’t. The usual explanation given for George II standing at the Hallelujah Chorus at the first London performance (the work was actually first performed in Dublin) was simply delight at the music and if the King stood, then so did everyone else.

    I would be very sceptical about hidden messages in the music. So far as I know, Handel, who was German by birth, did not take any political position and if he had, he would probably have supported the Hanoverian Kings, who were German, rather than the Stuarts. He also lived through the rebellion of the Old Pretender, James Edward Stuart, in 1715 and, while Messiah was still developing between 1741 and 1750, the rebellion of Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie) in 1745. The editor of the current Novello choral edition, Watkins Shaw, makes it clear that after 1741 Handel continued to write additional pieces for Messiah and dropped others before the work reached its final and current form in 1750.

    Incidentally, the Hallelujah Chorus is section 44 at the end of Part 2 of the work. It is not the last chorus, which is no. 53 ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain’ which concludes with what I consider to be the finest setting of ‘Amen’ in the western choral tradition. Messiah is truly one of the truly greatest choral pieces ever composed.

  • lenosaurus says:

    You’re right, the Messiah premiered in 1742! Oops. I don’t know why Knowles included it along with all the other stuff that happened in the mid-seventeenth century. It’s interesting that everyone had to stand. I read a list of possible reasons why George II stood, but most of them seemed pretty far-fetched. I guess he didn’t think he needed to explain himself.
    I was a soprano 2 in high school and everyone hated the soprano 1 section for being too big, shrill, annoying and flat. The altos were much more dignified, in my opinion.

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