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Broadcasting Handel with care

17 April 2014

This Saturday, BBC2 revisits one of the earliest known benefit concerts, the first London performance of Handel's Messiah at the Foundling Hospital. Olly Grant goes behind the scenes


Hats off, boys: the documentary's presenters Amanda Vickery and Tom Service with cast members playing foundling children

Hats off, boys: the documentary's presenters Amanda Vickery and Tom Service with cast members playing foundling children

SUNDAY 1 May 1750 was a good day to be a fan of epoch-defining choral music - particularly if you happened to own a ticket to the première event in London's social calendar. The venue was the chapel of the Foundling Hospital, the rescue home for abandoned babies established by Thomas Coram.

The event was a charity performance of Handel's Messiah, conducted by the composer himself. By candlelight, the great and good of Georgian high society thronged the still-incomplete chapel to observe a master in action - and to swell the coffers of Coram's visionary enterprise.

Popular history is good at endowing lightning-rod moments with far-reaching legacies. The concert in 1750 was undoubtedly one of those moments. Messiah has been sung more often, and heard by more people, than possibly any other piece of music of the past300 years. The Foundling Hospital became a touchstone for modern philanthropy, and lives on as the children's charity Coram.

But their success - as related by Messiah at the Foundling Hospital, a new BBC2 documentary that re-examines the concert using interviews and a dramatised reconstruction (see panel) - was far from assured. Coram's battle for sponsors was a long and bitter one, and Messiah was nearly derailed by controversy.

The full story bears retelling,the programme's producer-director Robert Coldstream says, because it explains how one of music's most significant events was born out of conflict, and how two apparently disparate movements coalesced to influence future generations.

"A few people have made documentaries about the Foundling Hospital, because it's a fascinating piece of social history," he says, "and others know about Messiah because it's such a famous work. But the interesting thing this film does is to explore how those two things came together. It's really about the accidents of history, the way things bounce off each other to create something new."

PROFESSIONALLY speaking, Messiah was something of a rebranding exercise for Handel. By the 1730s, public tastes were deserting Italian opera, the musical form that had made him famous (and famously rich; he owned a townhouse in Mayfair with a plump wine cellar).

English oratorios - populist, not confined to the opera houses, and generally devoted to biblical themes rather than arcane mythology - were on the march. Opera seemed immoderate by contrast, and Handel found himself being lampooned in the press as a corpulent bon viveur.

Like all audience-conscious artists, he responded to the prevailing winds of fashion. Oratorios on Esther and Saul arrived in 1732 and 1738. And then, in the summer of 1741, the librettist Charles Jennens sent him a text for an altogether loftier theme. Handel's accompanying music, Jennens hoped, would "excel all his former compositions, as the subject excels every other subject. The subject is Messiah."

Nothing about the emergent work suggested that it would become the best-loved choral composition in history. The classical-music expert Tom Service, who co-hosts the documentary with the historian Amanda Vickery, says: "Handel famously wrote the piece in three weeks; but that was completely typical for him.

"Four days later, he started work on an ever bigger oratorio, Samson. So he didn't exactly rest his pen at the end of Messiah, and think, 'That's it. The angels have spoken; I've written my masterpiece.'"

Instead, Handel whisked the work off to Dublin, where it was first performed in 1742, but with a crucial innovation - the takings were donated to local charities. This was significant, Service says, because it both distanced Handel from the perceived excesses of his past, and established Messiah's beneficent credentials.

"GIVING money away means that, from its very first performance, Messiah can be seen as a musical 'good work'," Service says. "And not just because the proceeds went to charity. Handel and Jennens were actually trying to make people better Christians through hearing these words set to music.

"So the task of the music is not just to create nice sounds for the words, but actually to sustain their momentum from the beginning of the piece to the end."

Not that Jennens was thrilled with the results. "His letters to Handel, and about Handel, are absolutely terrible. He talks about 'the maggots in Handel's brain', and about how the music doesn't do the words justice, how he's disappointed with it, and annoyed that Handel took it to Dublin before London. To us, it seems extraordinary. You think: How can you be ungrateful for this music?"

Yet Jennens was not the only person with misgivings. When Handel brought Messiah to Covent Garden in 1743, it caused a stormof protest. "It was seen as blasphemous, because he was taking Christ's story, and putting it into the mouths of theatre singers, who were considered to be morally dodgy," Coldstream says.

"There were angry letters in the papers, and a lot of people spoke out against it, to the point that Handel had to take its name off his posters."

An anonymous article in the Universal Spectator, dated 19 March, summed up the controversy: "An oratorio either is an act of religion, or it is not," the contributor wrote. "If it is, I ask if a playhouse is a fit temple to perform it in, or a company of players fit ministers of God's Word. . . What a profanation of God's Name and Word is this, to make so light use of them?"

THE tide of censure would not have escaped Coram, whose own foundling movement had encountered similar criticism. Formerly a shipbuilder in America, Coram had been appalled by the condition of destitute children in London after his return in 1720.

Unwanted babies, he saw, were being thrown into the street to die, or "put out to wicked nurses, who suffer them to starve". Yet whenhe offered a lifeline to dissolute mothers, critics argued that he was endorsing moral breakdown. It would be 20 years before Coram had assembled enough benefactors to fund the Hospital.

There is a further parallel between Handel and Coram's circumstances in the early 1740s. By 1743, both were facing personal crises. Handel was struck down with a "palsy", and struggled to compose. Coram fell out with the hospital governors, and was ejected from the board.

The precedents they had set in motion, however, were gathering pace. The satirist William Hogarth, a near neighbour of Coram in Leicester Square, saw an opportunity to fill the nascent hospital with paintings by contemporary artists, simultaneously showcasing their work while providing a draw for wealthy Londoners.

"Between 1743 and 1750, the hospital developed into an attraction," Coldstream says. "You could go along and see some great art, meet the foundlings, donate money, and generally go away feeling a better person."

It is not hard to see why Handel might have seen the benefits of bringing Messiah to the Hospital's governors. In 1749 - after an initial charity concert attended by the Prince of Wales - he did just that, proposing a new performance of the work in the Foundling chapel, where it would be safe from slurs over "unfit temples".

IT WAS a canny move by the composer: a chance to salvage his oratorio, and reposition himself at the centre of the fashionable set of London. But was it pure self-interest? Coldstream thinks not.

"Handel had genuinely philanthropic impulses. He had already been involved with the Fund for Decay'd Musicians, which helped families who had fallen on hard times. And, curiously, the town in Germany where he grew up, Halle, had its own foundling hospital, one of the few examples on the continent. So I don't think Handel was just thinking of himself here."

As it turned out, the May Day concert proved to be key in the lives of both the Messiah and the foundling movement. The event was sold out, double-booked, and even gatecrashed by VIPs, then restaged two weeks later by popular demand, continuing every year until Handel's death in 1759.

The relationship between charity and art was cemented: a legacy that descends to us in shows such as Live Aid and The Secret Policeman's Ball. Most crucially in the case of Messiah, Service says, the ideals are embodied in the music itself.

"It has such incredible richness that it goes on giving, no matter how many times you hear it, as if it's designed to communicate that essential message of charity, goodness, and selflessness in the hearing.

"Amanda Vickery describes it beautifully in the programme as a 'meditative purification ritual' that made you better for the experience of being part of it. And I think what's wonderful about Messiah is that that has gone on to be true around the world. In the film,we call it 'a clarion call to selflessness', and that continues to this day."

"Messiah" at the Foundling Hospital is broadcast on Saturday 19 April on BBC2 at 9 p.m.


Recreating the Foundling concert

REVISITING one of the most important musical events in history creates an obvious problem, at least for a TV documentary: how do you do visual justice to the performance at the heart of the story?

For BBC2's filmmakers, the answer was to reconstruct the 1750 concert in full perioddetail, from 18th-century choristers to bewigged congregants. "We approached itlike a military operation," the producer-director Robert Coldstream says. "It took a day to shoot, but about four months of planning."

For authenticity, Coldstream used the well-known Gabrieli Consort and Players as his musicians and singers, supplemented by choristers from the Trinity Boys' Choir. The tenor is Andrew Staples; the countertenor is Iestyn Davies. Handel is played by the artistic director of Gabrieli, Paul McCreesh, who stepped in when it became clear, during casting, that regular actors were struggling to look like real conductors.

Although McCreesh had never acted before, he took to the part. "Paul may or may not like me saying this, but he does have a certain likeness to Handel," the documentary's co-presenter, Tom Service, says. "Not in terms of podginess or goutiness, but a certain bearing and demeanour. And I think it's wonderful that he's in this, because his recording of Messiah is the one I always listen to."

Once dressed in period costumes, McCreesh's players were tweaked to conform to 1700s standards. "The musicians who wore glasses were given contact lenses, or period glasses with their own prescriptions," Coldstream says. "And since the 1750 orchestra didn't have female musicians, we had to dress some of our women as men."

The last element was the Foundling-chapel setting, originally built in the mid-1700s by the architect Theodore Jacobsen, but unhelpfully demolished by developers in 1928 after the hospital moved to Hertfordshire.

Coldstream found a decent replacement in St Paul's, Deptford, a 1730s church in the English Italianate Baroque style, once described as "a pearl atthe heart of Deptford" by John Betjeman.

On the morning of the shoot, the consort players were whisked through hair and make-up, and then filmed as they performed ten prime "chunks" of Messiah, amounting to about 30 minutes of music.

"The logistics of getting them all into costume, and recording it live on a single day made it pretty stressful," Coldstream confesses. "We were dreading the idea that there might be a fire or something near by, because we needed that location to be quiet enough for filming. So we were slightlyat the mercy of good fortune. Fortunately, everything went to plan."

Service is pleased with the results. "The danger with reconstructions is that they can look a bit 'Past Timesy'. But I think that this one gets the right combination of 18th-century grittiness on the one hand, and the complete transcendence that Messiah brought on the other."

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