The Handel Institute
The Handel Institute

Issue 5: May 2002

Interview with Tess Knighton
(Editor of Early Music and Early Music advisor at London's South Bank Centre)

Introduction: Tess Knighton ("TK") is a Cambridge musicologist who specialises in the Renaissance, although perhaps she is best known as the Editor of the academic quarterly Early Music. Tess has also collaborated with her husband Ivor Bolton's Handel performances at the Lufthansa Baroque Festival, and is currently Early Music Advisor at London's South Bank Centre (SBC). David Vickers ("DV") spoke to her about the SBC's recent "Discovering Handel" concert series, and her enthusiasm for Handel.

DV: What is your role at the South Bank, and what does this actually involve?

TK: I was appointed Early Music Adviser to the South Bank Centre last October.  They've never had such a person before, but they wanted to raise the profile of early music at the SBC and to give the programming more coherence. Currently the programming is based around the in-house artists, that is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) and the New London Consort. The OAE will continue to put together their series, and Philip Pickett (director, New London Consort) will continue to do his annual mini-festival in September, but both will be in contact with me, and already I have been involved in the planning of the OAE Haydn series for next season.

DV: How have you contributed to the structure of the Handel series?

TK: The Handel programme was already fixed when I was taken on, so I worked with the SBC on ways of promoting the Festival, pulling out themes etc, and was chair for the Handel Study Day which I put together with the OAE. I advise about other EM groups that might be booked, and overall programming in general.

DV: Have you had any thoughts about Handel's life and music while preparing the program notes and study day?

TK: Yes, many - where to start? I think the main thing I have been thinking about are the performing traditions for Handel. His is an absolutely exceptional case, because in a sense the performing of Handel's music - at least a certain clearly defined number of his works - has been continuous, essentially uninterrupted since his own day. I am thinking of Messiah, possibly Judas Maccabaeus and Israel in Egypt, but also the Water Music, "Zadok the Priest" - all those works that have entered the national consciousness.

DV: Can you tell me about the recent OAE study day?

TK: The study day was meant to be a forum for people interested in Handel and who love his music rather than for the scholarly community. Clearly there are many of these: it was sold out for weeks in advance of the event! It was basically organised by the OAE, and I was invited to chair the day. I invited Ruth Smith to speak as she has so much insight into the oratorios and what they meant to people in Handel's own day. So the morning consisted of me giving an overall introduction to the Handel series at the South Bank and a brief disquisition on performing traditions in Handel, followed by Ruth talking about some of Handel's patrons, librettists and other colleagues.

DV: Was this supported by live music?

TK: In the afternoon, members of the OAE illustrated the instruments they use to play Handel's music (with live examples of trio sonatas etc), and then there was a final discussion session. As you know, I'm not a Handel scholar, though I am generally very interested in performance practice and recently gave a similar talk about performing Bach. Ruth is a Handel scholar, and she is also a great communicator which is probably equally important: we, the lucky few, who can spend our lives thinking about such things should communicate whenever possible, and especially with those outside the academic community but who are genuinely interested in wanting to appreciate the man and his music that bit more. So the study day was a great opportunity. The OAE have done several of these study days before, and they're obviously quite popular, and I think it's a great way for the South Bank to enrich the audience's musical experience.

DV: You are a Renaissance music scholar, so what is your "take" on Handel?

TK: Yes, I work on music in the Iberian Peninsula and the New World in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods. My take on Handel is very much what I've described above in terms of wanting to know more about the context for Handel's music, what did he have in mind, what was he trying to do, what did listeners then make of it all? Both performance and listening practice, I guess. The other thing which is perhaps still more important is that I, like so many people, just simply love his music.

DV: What is your earliest memory of Handel's music?

TK: My first introduction to it was learning to play his flute sonatas as a child, then hearing and playing in local amateur choral society performances of Messiah and singing excerpts at school (in an all girls' choir!) - all experiences almost everyone with any involvement in classical music shares. Then, while I was Artistic Director of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, we put on a different Handel oratorio every year (for 15 years now!), and since the early 90s my husband Ivor Bolton has been conducting Handel opera and oratorio everywhere, but especially in Munich, Florence (fascinating that Florence has a very long Handel tradition too!) and Paris. I have thus been lucky enough to hear a great many of the operas and oratorios many times in some truly great performances. And I never, ever tire of the music, it has so much depth, so much humanity to it. 

Relevant Links:

The South Bank Centre:

Tess Knighton's Introduction to the Discovering Handel Festival:

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment:

Early Music:

The Lufthansa Baroque Music Festival:

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