Adrian Hamilton: Sing Hallelujah for our Handel

He understood that the British are uniquely in love with performance

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.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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