After the unexpected and overwhelming success of the Harmonic’s first performance of Messiah in 1943 it soon became an annual event for the choir and ‘an Oxford “occasion” for which the Society was best known’. The 1943 performances were in Lent but thereafter it was usually performed in the run-up to Christmas in the Town Hall on Sunday afternoons with ‘Tea and Refreshments obtainable in the long interval’.
In its first decade audience sizes were phenomenal – often well over 1000 per concert. Today it is difficult, and rather alarming, to imagine such numbers shoehorned into Oxford Town Hall which under modern fire regulations is deemed to have a safe audience capacity of 750! Right up until the 1970s audiences were frequently over 900 and never dipped below 700, far outselling any other work the choir performed. This meant that Messiah also became the choir’s financial mainstay – when nearly bankrupted by a concert with LSO in 1949, its solution was to mount two performances of Messiah at the end of the year, which together sold over 2000 tickets and saved the day.
Why was the Harmonic’s Messiah so hugely popular? It is impossible to say, but interesting to speculate. Messiah had been performed in Oxford by other groups pre-war but not with the same impact, possibly overshadowed by a strong Bach revival in the city. Isobel Baillie was certainly a draw, but it seemed to be just as popular with less famous soloists. Perhaps its first performance in the depths of wartime offered the familiar comfort of an age old favourite in a time of adversity. Perhaps it was helped by the patriotic enthusiasm for English music inspired by the war. And maybe its novel approach appealed, offering a rare chance to hear Messiah in full and close to Handel’s own interpretations, which remained unusual for several decades until ‘authentic’ performances became the norm rather than the eccentric exception.
George Thewlis continued to base his interpretation on his own manuscript research (see previous blog post) until his retirement in 1961. His successors had the advantage of the newly published Watkins Shaw score (1959), the first to reproduce many of Handel’s own various versions as accurately as possible for use by modern performers, and they promptly seized it. This was still a radical thing to do – in the music world in general the edition ‘at first aroused suspicion on account of its attempts…to break the crust of convention surrounding the work in the British Isles’ (David Scott Grove Dictionary of Music). But by 1981 Shaw could remark in his revised edition on how ‘the climate in which Messiah is performed has changed…perhaps in modest measure on account of this very edition’ and on his death in 1996 The Times described it as “now in universal use”. The choral ranks of the land had finally caught up with the Harmonic’s long pioneering tradition.
Successive conductors continued to explore the rich variety of Handel’s own performances. In later years Handel had occasionally used a male castrato soloist instead of his usual female altos and in 1971 Peter Ward Jones caused a minor stir when he sought to reproduce this using a counter tenor, James Bowman, not entirely to the approval of the critics.
In 1988, his successor Philip Cave presented Handel’s original 1742 Dublin version using another new edition hot off the press from Dr Donald Burrows – quite literally, as shown by the programme note thanking the publishers for their ‘speedy preparation of the orchestral material’! This edition, while still providing the music for eleven of Handel’s versions, gave more coverage to the Dublin premiere and other early performances than Watkins Shaw, who leaned more towards the later ones. In the introduction he provided for the Harmonic’s concert Dr Burrows explained that ‘In approaching the present version it is better to put aside thoughts of [Handel’s] later additions and to recall the work’s early development.’
However, there were some rumblings within the choir about doing Messiah every year. As early as 1949 a member bemoaned ‘doing performances…year after year after year, almost to the point of losing old and valued members’. But it was not until 1971 that Peter Ward Jones persuaded the Committee to programme a different Christmas concert every third year. Although he remarked in his 1980 leaving speech that breaking the annual tradition of Messiah ‘had not bankrupted the Society’, it had given the treasurer a couple of anxious years!
Despite this, at the start of the 1980s under Philip Cave the Harmonic’s Messiah was still going strong, both financially and in performance:
Sunday afternoon’s Messiah in the Town Hall was the Society’s nimblest and safest in my memory. Fast tempi for the choruses were in the main imaginatively carried through, transparent textures prevailed in both choir and orchestra. (Oxford Times, 1982)
With a chorus and orchestra of such manageable (and authentic) size, all heaviness of sound was avoided at climaxes and the levels of tone were admirably varied and controlled (Oxford Mail, 1982)
But the next Messiah in 1984 was a shock with ticket sales not much above 500, excellent for any other work but unprecedently low for the choir mainstay. It was attributed to a steep drop in the tickets sold by choir members, which may be explained by the concern expressed beforehand ‘that it would be hard in rehearsals to hold the interest of choir members who know Messiah very well’ and indeed a number of them seemed to have skipped the term. It was not performed in concert again until 1988 but in the meantime the conductor, by then Philip Cave, introduced a new idea – a ‘Come and Sing’ Messiah. Members of the public were invited to sing with the choir and local soloists in the Town Hall. The first, held in 1987, went down well:
Singers far outnumbered those who had come to merely watch the event and all had a lot of fun. While some of the faster movements nearly came to grief, the choir at times produced a splendid sound, ending with a rousing rendition of the Amen chorus. It is a tribute to the greatness of Handel’s music that it can be subjected to such treatment and still come out on top! (Oxford Times)
The committee’s verdict was that it had ‘brought the choir before a wider public and satisfied a latent desire to sing Messiah; it had been a valuable source of enjoyment and income.’ (Whether the latent desire was in the public or choir is not known).
Another Come and Sing Messiah was held in 1988 but, though deemed successful musically, it barely broke even and was never repeated. Worse, audience numbers for the Messiah concert in the same year slumped to a mere 400 and it made a loss for the first time ever. This suggests much more than member boredom affecting sales. It may have been simply because, as a member at the time later recalled, ‘lots of other choirs were doing it’ and it was certainly the case that the number of concerts in general, both professional and amateur, had been burgeoning in Oxford over the previous decade. Perhaps too the fervent post war public enthusiasm for Messiah had petered out for more intangible social and cultural reasons. After 1988 the choir only performed it on three occasions in the next 33 years, two of them being its 80th and 90th anniversary concerts when it performed Handel’s Covent Garden 1743 version. But the decades when Messiah was a fundamental part of the identity of the Harmonic, and its financial health, were over.
Our next post, by Jo Parker, will complete the story of Isobel Baillie’s association with the choir.