MUSIC / Can the country really Handel it?: If Karen Gadd has her way, the entire country will be singing 'Hallelujah' on Tuesday. Kevin Jackson reports on the nationwide scheme to mark 250 years of Handel's 'Messiah'

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IN THE section of his Notebooks entitled 'Cash and Credit', the 19th-century novelist Samuel Butler drew up a short list of the works he regarded as the world's 'Crowning Glories'. They included the Iliad, the Odyssey, Hamlet, the portraits of Rembrandt, Holbein and Bellini . . . and Handel's Messiah. The last entry would have raised an aesthetic eyebrow or two in Butler's own time; nowadays, when Handel tends to be regarded more with affection than with awe, your standard admirer of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven (all of whom Butler considered palpably inferior to Handel) would just shrug off that mini-pantheon as another of Butler's regular displays of mild dottiness.

Yet it was actually one of Butler's more modest acts of homage to the composer, since he thought Handel not merely the greatest of all musicians, but the greatest of all artists - certainly 'a greater man than Homer' (by whom Butler meant 'the author of the Iliad', since he believed that the Odyssey was the work of a woman), and, when it came to the crunch, even more splendid than his only true rival, Shakespeare: 'Neither were self-conscious in production, but when the thing had come out Shakespeare looks at it and wonders, whereas Handel takes it as a matter of course.'

Indeed, though it is commonplace for artists to begin and then develop their careers under the sway of some other and older talent, it is hard to think of a love affair to equal Butler's lifelong passion for Handel. Not even Baudelaire, who so revered Edgar Allan Poe that he used to pray to him at night, was quite so faithful or ardent. As Butler wrote in 1883: 'Of all dead men Handel has had the largest place in my thoughts. In fact I should say that he and his music have been the central fact in my life ever since I was old enough to know of the existence of either life or music . . . I believe I am not exaggerating when I say that I have never been a day since I was 13 without having Handel in my mind many times over.'

Butler's shade will surely be transported to a state of bliss next week, since Britons will finally be paying homage to his idol on something like a scale he would have considered just. Tuesday 23 March 1993 is the 250th anniversary of the first London performance of Handel's Messiah (it had previously been performed in Dublin, in the April of 1742) - and to mark the occasion, musicians and singers all over the land will be joining in a massed chorus of Hallelujahs (though not all on the precise anniversary).

The event goes by the name Sing Hallelujah], and the performances of which it will be composed range in size from the 1,000-strong choir fielded by the Clarendon School in Trowbridge, Wiltshire - which, rumour has it, will be co-conducted by a local radio DJ known as 'Hungry Howard' - to the rather more intimate effort of Operabox Plus in Tunbridge Wells, which is trying to establish a world record by mounting Messiah in a conservatory (dimensions: roughly 10 x 15) with just four singers and one piano. 'The idea of the conservatory came to me,' says John Hitchell of Operabox, 'because the librettist wrote the text of Messiah in his own conservatory, and Handel would pop in to see how he was getting on. The whole thing was written in a bit of a rush, and we're staging ours in a bit of a rush, so with luck there should be some connection.'

Somewhere between these extremes, the 25-strong British Museum and Library Singers will be drawing attention to one of the treasures of their collection by performing the Hallelujah Chorus in the Manuscript Saloon, next to its display of Handel's original score. Another group with some claim to be shaking the composer's own hand, albeit with a degree or two of separation, is the Tynedale Choral Society of Wotton-Under-Edge, Gloucestershire, who will be swelling the strains of their rendition with an organ that Handel himself once played; built for George I, it was originally housed in St Martin-in-the-Fields and brought to Gloucestershire in the 19th century.

As well as these and many similar local events, dance students at King Alfred's College, Winchester, have choreographed a piece to accompany the College Singers' Messiah; the Northumbrian Consort and Musica Johannis choirs are joining forces with a small orchestra to attempt a performance of authentic size (18 singers, 23 musicians); and efforts of the Sinfonia Chorale, Nottingham, are being supported by Nottingham University, which has arranged a day of lectures and seminars on Messiah.

All in all, about a thousand choirs will be making a joyful noise unto the Lord next week, and the woman behind this harmonious outburst is Karen Gadd, managing director of Music at Oxford. Apart from the element of homage involved, Sing Hallelujah] has two main intentions: 'The thing about the Messiah, and the Hallelujah Chorus, is that it introduces so many people to the world of classical music. I wanted to see even more people coming to classical music through the Hallelujah Chorus, so what we did was to produce a version of the score suitable for children's choirs and amateurs - it's just for voices and a very simple piano part - and though we charge people pounds 10 for it, they're then welcome to photocopy it for as many singers as they like.

'The other thing we wanted to do, through selling the score and through ticket sales, was to raise money for two children's charities, the Thomas Coram Foundation, once known as the Foundling Hospital, and the Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund for Children.' Though eminently laudable, this latter plan may sound like a typically late-20th century motive for promoting musical events.

Curiously enough, though, the idea of giving proceeds from Messiah to good causes for children began with Handel himself. 'The English didn't really like the Messiah at first, and there were a lot of protests when he staged it at Covent Garden - people said, 'How dare Mr Handel have sacred texts sung by actors', and the press slated it. It was only in about 1750, when he produced a new version of the score for the Foundling Hospital, that the piece really became popular. So Handel carried on using the Messiah for charitable purposes, and raised about pounds 6,000 for the Foundling Hospital in his own lifetime.'

Gadd also hopes that Sing Hallelujah] will show young people and beginners just why the chorus is 'the most magnificent piece of music I've ever heard' - to strip it, that is, of the grimy encrustations left on it in the popular mind after years of mishandling by televison commercials, comedians' skits and even rock videos (MTV has a Christmastime promo in which a choir substitutes suitably scanning artists' names for the true words - 'Guns N' Roses - M C Hammer . . .' etc). It seems doubtful in the extreme that any of next week's converts to the cause of Handel will ever match Butler's extraordinary pitch of hero-worship. Some, though, may begin to have an inkling of what he meant in the words of one of the coolest of all his tributes: 'Handel is so great and so simple that no one but a professional musician is able to understand him.'

To celebrate 'Sing Hallelujah]', EMI Classics is releasing an 18-minute CD single containing six popular highlights from 'Messiah', priced pounds 3.99. Part of the proceeds from each sale will go to the two children's charities involved. We have 50 copies to give away. Send your name & address, on a postcard, to: Sing Hallelujah, Arts, The Independent, 40 City Rd, London EC1Y 2DB. CDs go to the first 50 names out of the hat next Friday

(Photograph omitted)