November 9-11, 1984

Handel Commemoration:

by Howard Serwer

In the eleven days from May 26 through June 5, 1784 a group of some 500 singers and players led by Joah Bates (1740-1799) presented a series of five concerts devoted to the music of George Frideric Handel. Under the patronage of King George III and a very distinguished group of directors, English music-lovers were treated to a music festival of unprecedented size, one which proved to be the ancestor of the immense (1000 or more performers) festivals presented in London's Crystal Palace during the reign of Queen Victoria. Musicologists may frown on such ensembles as being more romantic than baroque, but choral groups around the world continue to perform and enjoy Handel's works and those of his contemporaries with forces, which, though not on the scale of the Crystal Palace performances or even (!) on that of the Handel Commemoration of 1784, are still far in excess of what the composer intended or even imagined.

Perhaps more interesting than the trend towards mammoth productions was the idea of the music festival itself, especially a festival devoted to old music. That all of the music performed at the 1784 festival was by Handel meant that it was all at least thirty years old, something quite unusual in the concert programming of the day. Attitudes towards musical entertainments in the eighteenth century were akin to our attitude today toward musical theatre, for in the eighteenth century, audiences expected something new every season. The notion of devoting one program, let alone five, to such old music ran quite counter to the normal taste of the age. Nonetheless, in London there was a society devoted to the performance of music not less than twenty years old. This society, the "Concert of Ancient Music," was directed by none other than Joah Bates. The presence of Bates with his known predilection for old music, especially that of Handel, had political overtones which Prof. William Weber describes in his article in this program book.

The musical content, the format, and, as it turned out, the performing forces of the 1784 Handel Commemoration were certainly unusual, but why did the event take place in 1784, ninety-nine years after the composer's birth? Fortunately, a book published in 1785 by Charles Burney titled An Account of the Musical Performances in Westminster-Abbey and the Pantheon. . . in Commemoration of Handel gives us considerable information about this series of events. Burney was a Doctor of Music, the author of a history of music published in 1776, and one of England's best-known commentators on the contemporary musical scene. In the preface to his book, Burney cites all the instances known to him of large groups of musicians assembled for a single performance, and though he concludes that groups of 200 and even 300 musicians were "not perhaps, very uncommon; but from the time that the present system of harmony was invented, to this period, no well-authenticated instance, I believe, could be produced of five hundred performers, vocal and instrumental, being consolidated into one body..."

Burney follows the preface with a seventy-page "Sketch of the Life of Handel," and on page 2 of the "Sketch," he states that "George Frederick [sic] Handel, was born in Halle, in the Duchy of Magdebourg, and Circle of Lower Saxony, the 24th of February, 1684." However, the baptismal record for Handel, which still exists, shows that he was baptized on 24 February, 1685. Because infants in those days generally received baptism within 24 hours of birth, the customary date of birth is given as 23 February 1685, though 24 February is certainly possible. How could Charles Burney (and everyone else, for that matter) have made such a grotesque error?

The second part of Burney's book is a description of the performances preceded by an introduction that tells, surely in a rather over-simplified way, how the 1784 Commemoration came to pass (capitalization and punctuation as in the original):

In a conversation between lord viscount Fitzwilliam, sir Watkin Williams Wynn, and Joah Bates, esquire, commissioner of the Victualing-Office, the beginning of last year, 1783, at the house of the latter, after remarking that the number of eminent musical performers of all kinds, both vocal and instrumental, with which London abounded, was far greater than in any other city of Europe, it was lamented that there was no public periodical occasion for collecting and consolidating them into one band; by which means a performance might be exhibited on so grand and magnificent a scale as no other part of the world could equal. The birth and death of HANDEL naturally occurred to three such enthusiastic admirers of that great master, and it was immediately recollected that the next (now the present) year, would be a proper time for the introduction of such a custom: as it formed a complete century since his birth, and an exact quarter century since his decease.

From Burney's biographical sketch and from the passage just quoted, it is clear that musicians and the music-loving public of Burney's time thought that Handel was born in 1684. Curiously, in a certain sense Handel was born in 1684, because in those days, some countries still operated under the old Julian calendar which changed the year number not on January 1 but on March 25, (the Feast of the Annunciation). Any date from January 1 through March 24 was counted as part of the old year. Thus it was that in Julian terms Handel was indeed born in 1684, but by the year of Handel's birth, Saxony/Magdeburg had adopted the Gregorian calendar; England, however, did not adopt it until 1752. By 1759, the year of Handel's death, the English seem to have confused the matter so that even the composer's monument in Westminster Abbey gives his year of birth as 1684. From the publication of the first biography of Handel in 1761 until well into the nineteenth century everyone thought Handel was born in 1684, and the practical consequence was the stupendous celebration of Handel's centennial-one year too soon! But at least the sponsors of the celebration were correct in asserting that 1784 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Handel's death. The Directors and Board of the Maryland Handel Festival thought that it would be fitting to "commemorate the Commemoration" in 1984.

Burney's description of the preparations for the 1784 Commemoration notes that in due course, King George III gave his blessing to the undertaking, and there is more than a hint that the Bishop of Rochester, the personage who had to approve the use of Westminster Abbey for such an event, did so at least in part because the King had lent his patronage to the program. The first event of the Commemoration was originally scheduled to take place on April 21, 1784, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Handel's funeral, but according to Burney, the sudden dissolution of Parliament led the directors to postpone the event for just over a month.

Burney also describes the practical arrangements, some of which have a bearing on our 1984 Maryland Handel Festival. One of these has to do with the disposition of performers and audience in Westminster Abbey. The Directors engaged Mr. James Wyatt, an architect, to design galleries for the musicians. These were erected at the west end of the Abbey according to Burney, "ascending regularly from the height of seven feet from the floor, to upwards of forty, from the base of the pillars.... At the top of the Orchestra was placed the occasional organ in a Gothic frame, mounting to, and mingling with, the saints and martyrs represented in the painted glass on the west window." "Level benches" were placed on the floor of the Abbey extending to the east end where boxes and a throne were erected for the King, the Royal family, the directors, and other dignitaries. For practical reasons, the Maryland Handel Festival could not reproduce the arrangement described by Burney. The other area of compromise is in the overall size and proportion of the musical forces. If contemporary accounts reflect accurately the number who sang and played on this occasion, we should have an orchestra of 275 and vocal contingent of 248. We were, however, unable to find, let alone bring together 275 players on baroque instruments, and so we have had to settle for something around 100, the largest baroque orchestra assembled in our century. Our chorus numbers about 325, somewhat larger than that of 1784.

In his introduction, Burney also writes about the unusual instruments used in the Commemoration. These included sacbuts, double-base [sic] kettle drums, and double bassoon. The program issued for the performance of Messiah lists, among other instruments, seven flutes. The difficulty is that Handel's original score does not call for sacbuts, "doublebase" drums, double bassoon, or flutes. Was the listing pro forma or did someone arrange parts for these instruments? There seems to be no answer to this question. For our Festival in 1984, we have elected to omit the flutes and double bassoon, but we will use the others.

As is well known, Messiah includes about a dozen numbers that Handel performed in various ways during his lifetime. Though Burney's description of the 1784 performances of Messiah includes appreciations of many of the numbers in Messiah, in most cases his comments do not quite tell us how they were performed. Did Bates use the soprano or alto version of this piece? Did he perform the long or short version of that? In all but a few cases, Burney did not say. But he speaks of 779 "Music-books" used in the five performances, "not one of which was missing, or mislaid." These books would have answered our questions about versions of numbers and about instrumentation, but alas, they no longer seem to exist, and even more discouraging, until a few months ago, no copies of the programs seemed to be extant.

In the course of our preparations for this year's Festival, we wrote to Dr. Donald Burrows, one of England's leading Handel scholars, and asked him to try and find the "Music-books" or, failing that, to see if any copies of programs might still exist. As of this writing, the "Music-books" are still missing, but Dr. Burrows did find, in the collection of Gerald Coke, Esq., what may be the only extant set of programs for the five performances of 1784. Mr. Coke very generously granted us permission to reproduce in our program the Messiah libretto as it appeared in the program for the third performance which took place on May 29, 1784. Though the programs give little help in the matter of instrumentation, they tell us much of what we need to know about the versions actually performed of those numbers for which there is more than one authentic form.

The plans for the 1784 Commemoration called for three concerts, but such was the success of the events, that the Directors presented two more. The fourth included some works done in the first performance together with some new items. The fifth concert was Messiah again. This year the Maryland Handel Festival presents five concerts including two performances of Messiah as a tribute to the bold English plan of two centuries ago. We hope it will prove to be a "fine entertainment" and a fitting, if slightly early, tricentennial Commemoration of Handel.

The Smithsonian Chamber Players, in their third year of association with the Maryland Handel Festival, perform on what are sometimes called "original instruments," that is to say winds, strings, and keyboard instruments which were either built in the first half of the eighteenth century or which are carefully made replicas of such instruments. The instruments produce a sound which is at once lighter, clearer, and softer than that produced by the instruments' modern counterparts. The members of the orchestra are all experts in the performance of eighteenth-century music and have come to prefer performing this repertoire on the old instruments rather than on modern ones.

This year, the Maryland Handel Festival and the Washington Friends of Handel are pleased to sponsor a lecture by Dr. Kerry Grant of the University of Oklahoma at Norman entitled "Charles Burney as Handel Critic." Dr. Grant will present his lecture on Friday, November 9, 1984 at 1:45 p.m. in the Recital Hall of Tawes Fine Arts Building, University of Maryland, College Park.

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