Handel has always held an especially prominent position in British classical music. Yes, his fortune has fluctuated over the years, but The Messiah , if nothing else, has kept him in the public eye.
In 1784, it was decided to hold a series of three commemorative concerts in April for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Handel’s death. What we’re going to be looking at is the record of the concerts produced by the music historian, Charles Burney which was published the following year. It’s quite easy to think of these concerts as nothing but a highly popular way of marking a significant anniversary. Handel had been a Titan on the London musical scene for so long, a commemoration of some sort would only have been fitting. However, the eighteenth century’s turbulent political scene also fed into its staging and reception.
Two of the concerts were held in Westminster Abbey, the other, secular concert in a long-defunct establishment called the Pantheon on Oxford Street. All of them were held under the patronage of the king, George III. Burney lists all the performers in the book, and it’s obvious this was the start of the gargantuan Handel performances which continued into the following century. I wouldn’t have been happy playing somewhere towards the top of the staging at the west end of the Abbey.
This is a list of 26 oboe players! So yes, perhaps they didn’t all play in the same concert, but that’s still many more players than we’d expect today. If the performers (who were nearly all men and boys) came from outside the capital, their location was noted. I can see a few singers in the list who came from Birmingham.
On the first day, there was a huge amount of interest from the public. There was a delay in allowing the audience to enter. Burney says this about the crowd waiting for the doors of Westminster Abbey to open:
Such a croud of ladies and gentlemen were assembled together as became very formidable and terrific to each other, particularly the female part of the expectants; for some of these being in full dress, and every instant more and more incommoded and alarmed by the violence of those who pressed forward, in order to get near the door, screamed; 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 …
Apparently, roughly 4,500 people crammed into the audience space which was circumscribed by the staging for the performers at one end, and the box for the king and his entourage at the other. And this wasn’t even the performance of The Messiah – that was the third and final day’s music, also in Westminster Abbey. Burney appears awestruck as he comments on the build-up to the Messiah performance:
The very filling of the Abbey with such company, and the orchestra with such performers, was a new, varied, and amusing spectacle, before the arrival of their Majesties and their beautiful offspring crowned the whole, and rendered the ensemble as enchanting to the eye, as such sublime music, so exquisitely performed, must have been to every ear.
The concerts were so oversubscribed that it was decided to repeat the two sacred concerts the following month, again in Westminster Abbey. Burney marks them in the book as being ‘By command of His Majesty’. So the king and queen weren’t just content to turn up to the concerts. They were playing an active part in the arrangements. It’s partly these actions which make it possible to see Burney’s words quoted above in a different light.
Why the commemoration was so important
As I’ve already noted, Handel was a hugely significant composer, and his links with the House of Hanover were strong (think the Coronation anthems, the Water Music … ). However, the situation in the country as a whole made such an event a blessing to the monarchy. Just as nowadays a significant public event can draw the country together, so George III must have hoped that it would take away some of the lingering taste from the loss of the American colonies in the previous decade. While also deflecting attention from the turbulent political situation in Parliament.
A fascinating essay on the Royal Collections website takes this further. Prof. Matthew Head puts it like this:
Handel’s music was a dynastic soundtrack, associated with the patronage of George II, with state occasions and – through its public and charitable use – with British identity as Protestant, manly and civic minded. Keen to associate his reign with these values, and more broadly with the nationalist trope of the flourishing of the arts and sciences, George III attended and lent royal sanction to the Handel commemoration …
This has any number of modern parallels. George III’s interference (or influence) extended beyond the actual concerts to Burney’s record of them. Matthew Head cites a letter in the Royal Collections in which the monarch complains about Burney’s tone:
‘Dr Burney may seem warmed with the subject put into his hands [but] a real admirer of Handel cannot help finding it is only a mask and not the sentiments of the heart’.
This call from someone in power for greater enthusiasm to be displayed also has so many contemporary echoes. All in all, an eye-opening look at Handel as propaganda tool.