Howard Jacobson: If you want new citizens to learn about Englishness, get them to join a choir

Failing which, turn up to a minimum of one performance of Handel's 'Messiah' every Christmas
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The Independent Online

Took in a stirring Messiah last week, the more solemn for being in a church and not the Albert Hall, and the more affecting for being intimate - a chamber choir of about 40 rather than the massed thousands which impresarios believe the "Hallelujah Chorus" necessitates. The church was Christ Church, Spitalfields, newly restored to its original austere handsomeness - the sort of church in which you converse with God rather than prostrate yourself before him, but in which you converse, nonetheless, with a proper regard for what is sacred.

The choir was Concordia - amateur singers under professional direction, which is just the way you want it. Nobody looking bored with having to turn out and sing it for the hundredth time this Christmas, but none of that veins-in-the-neck parochial eagerness you get with the Nether Piddleton Philharmonia either.

It helps with an oratorio, I now realise, to sit near the front. Where you would otherwise doze off briefly, you are, if you can eyeball the soprano or the bass and be eyeballed back, not only duty bound to stay alert, but too engaged to do otherwise, fascinated by the relation the voice bears to the person. Intimate's the thing. Find a small church, find a small choir, sit on the front row, and see if you can match the individual note to the individual choir member. I am not saying Handel has longueurs, but no work of art was ever fashioned that doesn't allow the mind to stray occasionally. And anyway, the singers - not to mention, in this instance, the solo trumpeter whose "The Trumpet shall sound" had us all clamouring to get into heaven - "are" the art.

I was so taken with Concordia, so grateful to them for keeping me musically on the edge of my seat and giving me a Messiah which didn't come alive only in the best bits, that I looked up their website when I got home, still humming "All we like sheep have gone astray". Go to Concordia's members' information and you want to join. All those directions mixing bus times with must-have music lists, the Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems and why it's a good idea to leave valuables at home or in the hotel safe; all those suggestions as to what, in the matter of clothing and jewellery, scarves, belts etc is or is not considered discreet; the surprising, not to say thrilling exclamation mark that follows the instruction to the ladies to wear a "Long black skirt or trousers (or short with black tights/stockings!)" - black stockings, exclamation mark, ah, why was I never in a choir when I was young and looking to go astray.

Here is an injunction we might consider adding to the British Citizenship Test - join a choir! Failing which, turn up to a minimum of one performance of Handel's Messiah every Christmas. Vehemently refuse, as a matter of respect to yourself and to your new country, any adaptation of English culture to your susceptibilities. Wherever there is a "more inclusive" or "inoffensive" version of anything English on offer, turn your back on it, for whoever would suppose you will not at the very least be curious to see how the English pray, sing, worship, marry, or remember the dead insults you to your soul.

Increasingly, as the censors and maulers and butchers of our culture assume more power, it will be to art - if we can save it - that we turn in order to remember who we once were and what we once believed. I don't know whether there's a Messiah going the rounds which has been de-Messiah'd out of respect to people of "all faiths and none" (as though any atheist would alter his atheism out of respect to a believer), but Concordia sang it Christian-Englishly intact.

God knows, there's matter in the libretto to offend some of us if we choose to be offended. "The people that walked in darkness," for example - who would they be, then, as though we didn't know. True, the line originates in Isaiah, but the people who walk in darkness in this context are those who chose not to see the light of Christ. And you could fairly argue that once you've consigned a people to darkness you have begun a process which ends in not thinking of them as people at all.

But there you are: one faith, like one culture, like one nation, like one neighbourhood or one banlieue even, inevitably defines itself against another. Non-believers do the same. We have to be grown up about it. We none of us think anyone else can see what we can see. All we can do by way of escaping this circle of mutual disdain and fear is to note with interest how various are the ways others find of saying that we are as blind as we say they are. But let no one in his heart believe that he is free of the prejudice.

Art enacts the history of the culture that makes it. In Messiah, written by a German with a taste for Italian melody, we hear something of how Christianity spiritualised the English and in turn how the English societised Christianity. A swapping of refinements without doubt, but sometimes a swapping of brutalities as well, for they too constitute a culture.

Handel is not the equal of Bach. The St Matthew Passion sounds profounder notes than Messiah, the suffering is more inexplicable and desolate, the relation of man to God more mystical. In Bach, however grand the composition of the orchestra and choir, you hear the individual at prayer.

By comparison, Handel's great work is ceremonial, a celebration of English fields and English public life. "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself," Handel said of the writing of the "Hallelujah Chorus", but the God he saw was entirely 18th century, well mannered, decorous and amenable to reason. The English 18th-century way of belief, like the English 18th-century way of death, was nothing if not worldly.

"He died much like a gentleman," my old teacher F R Leavis used to recite in illustration of the spirit in which a polite Augustan prepared to meet his maker, "and went to heaven with a very good mien." Though he was not recommending a return to Augustan decorum, I always had the feeling that that was how he hoped he would die himself - though I'm told he didn't - with a very good mien.

We celebrate something of this, anyway, whenever we perform Handel's Messiah, especially if we can find a Hawksmoor Church to perform it in. As for the stockings exclamation mark, they too minister to that greater glory we call Englishness.

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