Oh God, not another Messiah

Well, folks, it's that time of the year when bright light decorations appear on the street skyline, when turkeys become furtive…

Well, folks, it's that time of the year when bright light decorations appear on the street skyline, when turkeys become furtive and when the television's full of cleanshaven alpha males exhorting our womenfolk to buy pointless, but rapidly rotating power tools.

It's also the time when venues the length and breadth of the land have sprouted notices announcing the appearance of the Messiah on Saturday evening, with the second coming the following night (please be seated by half seven!). Yep, it's the Christmas season and it's marked by the galloping apathy of every chorister and choristrette, choirmaster and mistress, organist, leaden violinist and conductor, in his or her presentation of Handel's sine qua non to a public which has heard it all before.

Now, don't get me wrong. Messiah is a very fine piece of music indeed, a beautifully constructed work which exists at that elusive confluence of intellectual depth, touching emotion and raw energy. But I can't help but feel there's a touch of the stuck record about it, wonderful as it undoubtedly is. Ireland's particular distinction of being the country in which the work was first heard makes it the automatic choice for programme-makers interested in choosing a rousing choral work which, in some remote sense, is Irish. It's a strange thing that in a country known the world over for its own popular music, nobody in the 250 years since Messiah first strode into the repertoire has written anything as popular or which as reliably draws such crowds.

Unfortunately, like Willy Wonka or A Christmas Carol, it's become a part of the seasonal furniture, to the exclusion of other equally enjoyable works.


I'm proposing, therefore, a voluntary moratorium on performances of the complete Messiah by the country's musicians. This is not to prevent those who want to from performing the Hallelujah Chorus (the only part which, in any case, most people go to hear), but instead to end its domination of complete programmes. By all means, give it top billing on promotional material to get, so to speak, the bums on seats, but please give other composers and music a look-in.

I'm thinking here about works such as Bach's Christmas Ora- torio and Magnificat, Monteverdi's Christmas Vespers or, more recently, Britten's Ceremony of Carols, Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ, Dupre's Aupres de la Vierge, Alain's Messe Modale, Langlais's Missa in Simplicitate or Missa Salve Regina, or Durufle's and Palestrina's perfect motets.

Not all, or even most, of these works are specifically intended for the religious feast of Christmas, but I doubt that this really matters very much in a country which has seen much of its religious patina eroded in recent years.

Such a moratorium would give a much-needed airing to these works and expose audiences to the wonder they evoke. My own fitful and largely osmotic religious musical education, stifled early on by the happy-clappy hymns and bland, glib tunes heard in parish churches in the 1970s, would never have developed had I not been exposed to wider musical influences - an education I am now profoundly glad I received. For many of those who attend performances of Messiah, I suspect that it will be their year's only classical concert. It therefore behoves those who organise such concerts to present as wide a range of styles as possible.

(As a sad sidenote, I glumly noticed that the organist at one major provincial cathedral played a lightly disguised rendition of Danny Boy during the introit at the recent funeral of a much-loved local dignitary. It seems infinitely sad that, for whatever reason, a magnificent, rich, deep and flowing tradition of inspired and inspirational church music should be elbowed out in favour of fourth-rate ballads.)

So, to reiterate, let's give Messiah a break. Let's see what else is out there and give our musicians the space to be able to communicate more of the breadth and depth of the extraordinary gift of music to those who would enjoy it.

Robin Hilliard is a chorister and organist