In praise of Handel

I’d been looking forward to listening to a broadcast of a performance of Handel’s Messiah, but the program was pulled, and instead something I didn’t know existed, a reorchestration of the oratorio produced by Johan Hiller in 1786, was played. It was no more successful than reworkings of earlier music usually are, turning it into something softer and more lush…of course such a process can sometimes add value, as in the case of a swinging version of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto recorded in 1940 in which Benny Hill was the soloist, and could conceivably be the case with a version of Messiah Mozart himself is said to have produced, but I’m afraid what Andre Rieu does is more typical. Never mind. Hiller’s version can be seen as another sign of the extraordinary popularity of Messiah. It may be the oldest piece of music with an unbroken record of frequent performance until the present day (would it be pipped by the same composer’s stirring Zadok the Priest, performed at coronations?); it may have had the largest cumulative audience of any serious music; and, judging by the size of some groups singing the chorus, it may have had the largest number of performers! Why has it done so well?

In his own day Handel was famous for his operas, but these have not lasted as well as some of his other compositions. Two pieces, one from the beginning and the other from the end of his years in England, are more widely  heard, and they have a lot in common. The Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Water Music are both big production items, composed to be performed outdoors before large crowds. The former is solemn, fast-paced and brassy, with an amazing jauntiness. The Water Music is quieter and perhaps deeper in emotion, but again resolutely upbeat. And each is laid out in a sequence of short passages; if for some reason one’s attention is lost, a new beginning is never far away. All of this is also true of Messiah.

But of everything Handel wrote, the easiest to like must be the movement from a suite now known as the Harmonious Blacksmith, clunky as only a harpsicord can be and thoroughly good humored. Neither here nor in Messiah does Handel encourage introspection. It’s the sense of easeful cheerfulness that one warms to; no-one feels uncomfortable in following the example of George II and standing at the Hallelujah Chorus. I think of Handel as John Bull sauntering down the street with his hands in his pockets, exuding joviality. The music produced by such a character is for every man, easy to like.