Adrian Hamilton: Sing Hallelujah for our Handel

He understood that the British are uniquely in love with performance

Related Topics

Cometh the season, cometh the Messiah. All over Britain, amateur choirs and professional orchestras are limbering up to perform Georg Friedrich Handel's evergreen work in this the 250th anniversary of the death of the Saxon who came to live among the Anglos.

Why this unique love of a work by a German? Handel himself was in no doubt. Asked by the composer Christoph Gluck, who had been commissioned to write an opera for Covent Garden, for his advice on what English audiences liked, Handel reputedly replied: "Oh, that's simple enough, what they like is music they can beat time to."

Tapping her feet is what the lady next to me at the Barbican performance did last week. What is more, the audience, to my surprise, still stood for the Hallelujah chorus which climaxes not the end of the piece but its second of three parts. Only Handel would have dared put his most magisterial chorus in the middle of the work and get away with it.

But then the popularity of Messiah, contrary to its critics, is not because it is a collection of "tum-tee-tum" tunes. Far from it. What astonishes, however often you've heard it, is the way it builds as choir, soloist and orchestra, and the sections within the choir, bat back and forth the themes through its expressions of faith and fulfilment. Although the Saxon composer certainly seems to have had a rock of Protestant belief, he was never overtly religious nor sentimental about it.

What he was was humane, an artist who loved the foibles and fancies of men and women, and what he understood about the British was that we are a people almost uniquely enamoured with performance.

Our humour derives from it as we take on the role of cynical bystander, passionate participant or whatever. And that British trait of expressing fondness or intimacy through teasing stems from an assertion of complicity. All life is an act. You know it. I know it, and I like you all the more for it so long as you don't take yourself too seriously.

That sense of role-playing, the adoption of a stance and emotion, is particularly suited to baroque opera, with its long static arias, and is what drives Handel's operas, now being revived in such profusion after decades of neglect. He understood absolutely the vanity, tantrums and mood changes of the diva, castrato or soprano.

The Messiah, written in Dublin and premiered in 1742, belongs to the beginning of Handel's great sequence of oratorios, a form to which he turned after opera fell out of fashion in London. With it he created a uniquely British musical tradition of concert hall drama.

Handel never lost the sense of the operatic in the biblical. But he also never lost the warmth of his humanity. His contemporary J S Bach may be more measured and more spiritual, Joseph Haydn may be the more musically inventive, but Handel is on our side, actors as we are. Which is why all over Britain they are still playing his song.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Marketing Manager - Central London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (Campaigns, Offlin...

Head of Marketing - Acquisition & Direct Reponse Marketing

£90000 - £135000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing (B2C, Acquisition...

1st Line Service Desk Analyst

£27000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client who are...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Miller, 24, and Hannah Witheridge, 23 were killed on the small island of Koh Tao on 15 September  

Now we know whose fault it is if you end up being murdered in Thailand

Chloe Hamilton
Women-only train carriages would be an insult to both sexes  

Women-only carriages would be an insult to both sexes

Katie Grant
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style