Bad Nights at ‘The Libertine’

Keith Walker

  • Handel’s ‘Messiah’: A Celebration by Richard Luckett
    Gollancz, 258 pp, £18.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 575 05286 4
  • The Rise of Musical Classics in 18th-Century England: A Study in Canon, Ritual and Ideology by William Weber
    Oxford, 274 pp, £35.00, July 1992, ISBN 0 19 816287 1

Kwabena Nketia tells us, in his book African Music, that ‘music’ is defined in Africa through the social uses to which it is put. Some native African languages don’t have a word for music as a thing in itself (which, of course, it isn’t, looked at socially), but instead have different words for cradle-rocking-to-sounds, pounding-maize-to-sounds, music-for-hunting-to and so forth. But is there such a thing, anyway, as ‘music: a system of organised sounds which give pleasure, and obey’ – ‘obeying’ may include ‘flouting’ – ‘the conventions of its grammar’? The organisation of pop music is imperceptible to me, its grammar foreign, and its pleasures non-existent. I readily concede that this is not the experience of everyone. The phenomenon is widely-known, but doesn’t get much noticed. A woman I was talking to at a party recently thought that I was playing a complicated sort of game and simply could not believe me when I said I had never heard of, let alone heard, the particular rock group all her children were listening to.

In the 17th and 18th century, music (by which public music is meant – what went on by way of private music-making is not much known about apart from indications in Pepys’s Diary) was necessarily modern and in many respects followed the African model outlined above. The idea of allowing a measure of unpredictability (improvisation) in the performance is common to both the early and the African model, but absent from what is misleadingly called ‘classical’ music today. ‘Necessarily’ modern, too, since 18th-century music was usually performed, or directed from the keyboard, by the composer (conductors were a 19th-century invention). Thus it had a very short life – I suppose fifty years was the maximum. The question of how the performance of early music came about – in short, of how works were collected into a canon – is addressed by William Weber in The Rise of Musical Classics in 18th-century England. Strictly, the classics did not rise: the notion was invented, as Weber notes.

Public music in England (tabors, crumhorns and shawms apart) began with commercially managed concerts in the 1670s. A narrow tradition had existed before that in the church traditions of the Chapel Royal and the cathedrals, and there was theatre music, which developed into opera – a Venetian invention from the early 17th century. It’s interesting that at much the same time as the activities of the Academy of Ancient Music were the canon-establishing activities of Jacob Tonson, whom Weber doesn’t mention: Tonson, a ‘bookseller’ (the word used in the 18th century for what we would call a publisher), published collected editions of 17th-century poets such as Spenser, Milton, Dryden and playwrights like Shakespeare, Jonson, Dryden, Shadwell and Congreve. The backward-looking move in music was given impetus in a way Weber doesn’t make entirely clear: by the Jacobites, the rise of gentlemen’s libraries, the Academy of Ancient Music, and music festivals, with their notorious taste for oratorios.

Which brings us to Handel and Messiah, for Handel became the modern classic par excellence. (The expression ‘modern classic’, which contained an element of paradox even in the 1960s, isn’t in OED, although Weber quotes a mid-18th century use.) Messiah is Handel’s grandest work – though many musicians feel they ought to seem rather sniffy about its popularity and accessibility. I suspect that they feel an admiration for the undoubted operatic qualities of the work, while agreeing with Ernest Walker that Handel ‘took originally to oratorio-writing simply as an experiment toward recapturing the favour of his patrons ... who had grown tired of Italian opera’ – which was regarded as the apotheosis of everything effeminate and un-English. The experiment ‘secured the virtual extinction of original English music for more than a hundred years’.

Richard Luckett will have no truck with cultural snobbery of this sort, even if he fastidiously forgets ‘Hallelujah’ when he writes that in ‘For now is Christ risen’ Christ is ‘named for the first time in Messiah’. His quirky, learned, acerbic book around and about Messiah is fascinatingly gossipy: you feel that Luckett would be able to tell you where any given European composer was likely to be at four o’clock on any given Friday afternoon. Sometimes he does.

On Messiah, his leisurely digressive manner wonderfully conveys the circumstances of the Dublin performance. Dublin was a large and cultivated city worthy of the music that was written for it. It also boasted a theatre, the Smock-Alley theatre, which kept on falling down. Unsurprisingly, this could bring heavy loss of life, as it did during a performance of Shadwell’s The Libertine in 1701. (When The Libertine was revived above a Hampstead pub in 1992, the only thing that fell over, and downstairs, was the present reviewer.) Messiah was first given on 13 April 1742 at a charity concert in the Fishamble Street Musick Hall (London had nothing to equal this at the time). We so much associate it with church performance that it comes as a surprise to learn that it was first performed in a church only years later, after Handel’s death.

In one chapter of his book, Luckett explores the text of Messiah, a matter of tremendous moment for some. Luckett takes a fairly relaxed view of the matter. Once you regard the several scores as a record of performances, with different acoustics, soloists of varying abilities, different orchestral forces, most of the difficulties disappear. He rightly compares with this the various texts of Hamlet.

Both books are peopled with colourful characters. Weber mentions Henry Aldrich, Dean of Christchurch, who was in the forefront of the movement for ancient music, and who seems to have had an affair with ‘a student named Edmund Smith’. The ‘student named’ Edmund Smith is the subject of the funniest of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Weber worries away at the political orientation of the scholars with whom he deals, without convincing me that it’s all that important. He produces one tremendous eccentric of whom I hadn’t heard, Arthur Bedford, whose Great Abuse of Musick (1711) is a work of dotty erudition. It discusses the music of antiquity, chiefly Hebrew, with tirades such as:

But in this degenerate Age, [musicians] make themselves mean and contemptible by their own Works. The Playhouses are so many Synagogues of Satan, whose chief Design and Tendency is to corrupt the Age, to banish all serious Thinking and Reflection, and to lull the Conscience asleep, or smear it with an hot iron. The Poets are Servants to the Players in composing such Plays, and in them such impious, lewd, and blasphemous Songs, as serve for this Purpose; and the Masters of Musick are Servants to the Poets, to compose such Musick which shall be proper for their songs, as if the Curse of wicked and immodest Ham was fallen upon them.

The great commemoration of Handel in Westminster Abbey occurred in 1784. Before I read Luckett’s book, I had thought large choirs accompanied by large organs were the peculiar property of the North of England in the 19th century, but not at all: ‘The Commemoration performances were to give a license for almost any kind of maltreatment of Messiah in the future.’ Still, the Commemoration was an inportant musical event and also a political event, and here Weber convinces: ‘because it arrived on the heels of the American war, and the constitutional crisis between Crown and Parliament’, it became ‘a celebration of the end of crisis and the expression of hope for a harmonious new order’.

When Classic FM went on air on 7 September, their first work was Handel’s ‘Zadoc the Priest’.