Singing hallelujah to calls for a 'Messiah' ban
There have been calls not to perform Handel’s ‘Messiah’ each Christmas but it is just too popular
Who could forget such a radical idea? At the beginning of the century, in the Comment Box column that used to run on this page, Robin Hilliard suggested in successive years (2000 and 2001) that there should be a moratorium on performances of Handel’s Messiah in the run up to Christmas. The first headline, “Oh God, not another Messiah,” set a strong tone for his proposal.
It was a bit like suggesting to department stores that they forego filling their shelves with Christmas products, or asking television stations to drop their seasonal programming. People give every indication that they want to indulge in shopping and present-buying in December. And they gravitate to Christmas specials on TV in large numbers as their stressed stomachs demand time for recuperation.
I dropped in for a sample of the annual Messiah by Resurgam and the Irish Baroque Orchestra at Christ Church Cathedral on Friday. It was well attended. Conductor Roy Goodman was leading his forces in an uptempo approach that would have left the performers of many a seasonal Messiah floundering, though not those at Christ Church. It was a Messiah with a difference, and a good time was being had by all.
So, why change? Messiah is the most popular high-profile piece in the choral repertoire. Nothing by Bach or Beethoven or Haydn or Mozart or Brahms really runs it close. Our Lady’s Choral Society presents three nights of Messiah at the National Concert Hall every December (this year from 12th to 15th). The Belfast Philharmonic Choir and the Ulster Orchestra have an even greater potential audience for its two nights at the much larger Waterfront Hall (14th and 15th). The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre which also seats over 2,000 people, has got in on the act, and now does two performances on a single day (23rd). It’s the age-old balancing act of supply and demand. Choirs love singing Messiah and audiences love listening to it.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you might suggest. But Hilliard did have a point. He wasn’t worried as much about all the attention that Messiah achieves every year, as concerned about the attention its success sucks away other worthy and interesting choral works. He made the case for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Magnificat, Monteverdi’s Christmas Vespers, Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ, Dupré’s Auprès de la Vierge, Alain’s Messe Modale, Langlais’s Missa in Simplicitate or Missa Salve Regina, Duruflé’s Requiem and Langlais’s Messe Solennelle.
It was a rather odd list. He ignored the fact that there are choirs in Dublin – the Lassus Scholars and the Goethe-Institut Choir – which every year do exactly what he wants, and avoid Messiah for their Christmas concerts. He put pieces on his list by Bach, Britten and Berlioz which were all actually scheduled for performances here at the time he was making the case for them. And he didn’t exactly enhance his case with a list of French pieces which, apart from the Duruflé Requiem, would be a tough sell at the best of times.
There is not a single realistic rival or substitute for Messiah in his list, nothing to bring audiences to the National Concert Hall for three successive performances, nothing to give singers the same kind of satisfied buzz.