‘Messiah’ tradition

2014-11-06 00:00

CHRISTOPHER Cockburn’s fascinating article about the Messiah tradition in Pietermaritzburg, now dating back 150 years, put me in mind of the little that I know about the very first performance.

With Handel famously having written the work in just 24 days, that first performance was given in Dublin on April 13, 1742.

The first London performance came a year later, during Lent.

Cockburn doesn’t give us day and month of PMB’s 1864 offering, but our contemporary custom is to link the annual performance to the Christmas season. Eastertide might actually be a more appropriate time.

The nativity is the subject matter of part one only of the three part oratorio. Part two turns to the death and resurrection of Christ, ending with the wonderful Hallelujah chorus, and part three is essentially an affirmation of the Christian faith.

The longest aria in the whole thing, incidentally, comes early in part two (“He was despised and rejected of men …” ) and it takes more than 11 minutes to sing the whole piece through — something that is not usually done in current local performances but which may provide a clue to Handel’s thinking.

Cockburn’s description of the first in the series of annual PMB performances has echoes of Handel’s own first performance. Our cathedral choir provided the bulk of the chorus. Handel used the same resources in Dublin. Cockburn tells us that the solo parts were divided among members of the choir, with the dean’s wife being given at least one aria. In Dublin too, the soloists were drawn from the choir and sang both arias and choruses.

Then to the accompaniment. Here Dublin was served a little better than PMB, which had only a solo trumpet, an occasional violin, and a woman valiantly pedalling a harmonium (readers unfamiliar with Herman Charles Bosman’s Bekkersdal Marathon might find it entertaining). For his first performance, Handel had been very economical: there was a small string ensemble, trumpets and tympani.

Like all creative people, The Messiah having been written and performed once, Handel set about tweaking it. At least one number was dropped, albeit temporarily (thank goodness — it was “How beautiful are the fee …”) and at least one added. Solo airs were switched from one voice to another. For example, the spine-tingling moment when the soprano picks up from the contralto (“Come unto him all ye that labour …” ) didn’t thrill the Dubliners of 1742 as it does us today; Handel wrote it originally for soprano only.

Perhaps the most striking development has been size, not only of the accompaniment but of the choir. For that first performance, Handel had his small ensemble and just 16 singers, who sang both airs and choruses.

For PMB’s 150th anniversary performance, there’ll be around 150 people, soloists, orchestra and choir, on the city hall stage. They will include, as in Handel’s day, boy sopranos, but (thankfully again) no castrati.

• Moray Comrie is a member of the Pietermaritzburg Amateur Music Society (Pams) choir, singing the bass part and running out of breath at inopportune moments. Much of his information is drawn from the notes accompanying the double CD recording of The Messiah by The Scholars Baroque Ensemble, published by Naxos.

what you NEED TO KNOW

Handel’s Messiah is being performed in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall on November 16.

PHOTO: supplied

Handel's Messiah is being performed in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall on November 16.

PHOTO: supplied

THE 150th commemoration of the first performance of Handel’s Messiah in Pietermaritzburg will be taking place in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall at 2.30 pm on November 16.

The oratorio will be performed by a mass choir made up of the Pietermaritzburg Amateur Music Society (Pams) choir, the Howick Choristers and Tembelihle Children’s Choir. They will be accompanied by the Pietermaritzburg City Orchestra and the Messiah will be conducted by Robin Walton.

Tickets for the concert cost R120 (reserved) or R60 (unreserved). They can be booked at: Lazy Lizard, Howick, at 033 330 4308; Pink Heather, Hilton, at 033 343 1965; Wesley Methodist Church, Hayfields, at 033 386 1386; or Marshalls Music, Cascades, at 033 347 5481.

There is safe parking with car guards.

— Arts Editor.

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