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.

I’m not sure choirs have any strong motivation to change. Rarer repertoire can always be given at another time of the year, as Our Lady’s Choral Society did just last month with Gounod’s Mors et Vita, or the Dublin County Choir in April with Dvorak’s Requiem. And a Christmas Messiah is a good way to make good any losses that may have been incurred in the year. Hilliard, I suspect, was clutching at straws with some of the Messiah replacements he suggested, and asking choirs to risk going deeply into the red by stepping out of their long-established comfort zones.

And yet it would be hard to deny that, there would be genuine benefits from bestowing some of the attention that’s lavished on Messiah on less familiar pieces. The broadening of any area of music repertoire would generally be welcome.

Of course things have developed since Hilliard made his case. The National Chamber Choir has had fruitful relationships with its artistic directors Celso Antunes and Paul Hillier, leading to styles of year-round programming that were unknown here 12 years ago.

More recently the Irish Youth Choir has spawned an Irish Youth Chamber Choir under Greg Beardsell, which gave nine concerts earlier this year, and which will be heard with the Irish Chamber Orchestra in Limerick on Thursday (in Handel’s Dixit Dominus). And in recent years the Arts Council has provided funding for tours by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Latvian Radio Choir, and there’s a tour by the BBC Singers in prospect for next March.

But this month alternatives to Messiah are even thinner on the ground now than they were at the beginning of the century. So Hilliard’s basic issue still stands. Is there not some way to take some of the energy and interest that are generated by Messiah for the benefit of other worthy choral works? The answer, I suspect, is probably no, unless someone can find a way of ameliorating the financial risks that would be involved.

Amateur choirs represent an extremely varied cross-section of society, from judges to students, Arts Council employees to ambassadors, musical experts who might literally be able to perform parts of the works they sing backwards, to absolute neophytes. The choral singers of Dublin must surely have somewhere in their ranks an individual or two with the deal-making skills to dream up a plan to provide more variety of repertoire in the month that’s busiest with choral concerts.

Might it not be possible to bring a group of choirs together to agree a rota of some kind, so that each year one of them would perform something other than Messiah, on the understanding that the financial burden would be spread across all the participating groups?

Might not the National Concert Hall be persuaded to become a co-promoting partner in the enterprise, to provide another layer of protection.

Might not a wealthy patron be found to help bring a different flavour to the Christmas season? The cynic in me says, no. The evidence since Hilliard’s articles is that most people just love Handel’s Messiah too much to fret for a moment about having too much of it.

Winner takes all. Nothing succeeds like success. Choose your own cliché.

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