Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Handel’s Messiah and the Dunedin Choral Society 1863 - 2013

Dunedin Choral Society, 27 November 1956, after a performance of Handel’s Messiah.
Of all the works in the repertoire of the Dunedin Choral Society (presently performing as ‘City Choir Dunedin’), Messiah has central place. Although few of the performances have been entirely complete, 118 concerts have been devoted solely to its presentation, and numerous excerpts have been included in other programmes. Elijah and Creation, the two next most frequently performed works, have had only 25 and 20 performances respectively. The same pre-eminence is seen in the repertoire of almost every choral society in the English-speaking world with roots in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.

Messiah is Handel’s only New Testament oratorio. Its structural symmetry around the three central choruses ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’, ‘And with his stripes’ and ‘All we like sheep’ – as well as its original purpose as a replacement for opera while the theatres were closed – places it firmly in the context of Lent for religious as well as practical purposes. However, the unequal division of the three parts and the narrative form which distinguishes the first part from the more abstract second and third parts, perhaps explains the shift of association of the work to Christmas. Because of its subject matter Messiah has been perceived, since soon after its composition, as peculiarly suited to performance for charitable fund-raising, while from a choral perspective its perfect balance of chorus and solo work adds to its popularity. Probably no other work in any genre has excited such passions in so many people over its correct interpretation and performance.

Well before the middle of the nineteenth century the belief that oratorio required large choral forces had become universally entrenched. The performance of Messiah at the Handel Commemoration Festival in Westminster Abbey in 1784 had involved over 500 performers, but nineteenth-century performances at the Crystal Palace topped 1000 – a very far cry from Handel’s own small opera chorus of 12. The sheer unwieldiness of these forces, allied with a predominance of amateur performers and an over-weighting of reverence for the text of Messiah in particular, combined to slow tempos to a point where a complete performance would have taken something like five hours. Since this was plainly impractical large cuts were essential and by the time the Dunedin Philharmonic Society gave its first performance in 1863 the accepted ‘complete’ Messiah consisted of the first half more or less as written, cuts to the rest of the second part, and the third part either severely truncated or omitted entirely.

Cuts were formalised as early as 1789 in the arrangement made by Mozart at the behest of Baron von Swieten. Mozart redistributed, cut and rewrote solos, altered the harmony, and replaced the harmonic background provided by the continuo with a full range of wind and brass (including a piccolo in the ‘Pastoral Symphony’). Later editors made further rearrangements of it, and Mozart’s version was universally adopted not least because it provided a better – and more imposing – balance for a large choir in the absence of the 24 oboes of the 1784 Handel Festival. As a result, the Dunedin Choral Society’s performances of Messiah bore only superficial resemblance to Handel’s original conception, for a full two-thirds of the Society’s existence.

The first three Dunedin performances of Messiah, given by the Philharmonic Society in 1863, 1864 and 1866, were small-scale in all respects. The first was little more than excerpts – not all presented in Handel’s intended order – performed by a choir of between 52 and 80 (depending on source) ‘… ranged in a semicircle at the back of the platform, and formed a very striking coup d’oeil on entering the room’. The performance was accompanied by a ‘powerful double manual harmonium’, the instrumentalists of the first few rehearsals having apparently either dwindled or proved incompetent. The reviews made overtly generous allowances for the newness of the Society, but the Daily Telegraph noted ‘that we are hardly of the opinion that the execution of the various items of the programme was much improved by the too noisily energetic use of [Mr Flood’s] baton, which frequently disturbed their effect very provokingly.’ By the following Christmas the chorus had settled at about 45, and the Society had progressed to presenting the ‘whole’ (meaning ‘customary version’) of the oratorio, accompanied by a piano with a violin ‘to lead the trebles.’ The third performance was given on Good Friday 1866 with the assistance of the professional singer Julia Mumford and accompanied by a piano and a harmonium, thus returning it (temporarily) to Handel’s own Lenten context.

The Dunedin Choral Society (1871-88) gave 12 performances of Messiah at irregular intervals. The first of these, on 28 December 1871, provides a clear illustration of the changes in Dunedin’s musical life in the intervening five years; the Choral Society could field its own band, ‘though wanting several instruments,’ and even the amateur soloists were identified by name. Unfortunately the priorities of the performing members were not all that they might be, and although the performance was advertised as a late 8:30 pm start, and was further delayed by 10 minutes, only 54 of the expected 100 members turned up, having been delayed, the Otago Daily Times supposed, by the interprovincial cricket match. No such difficulties attended the performance two years later; it was a Vice-Regal performance, and Miss Fannie Carandini and Henry Gordon of the visiting Carandini Company were engaged as soloists. Both audience and stage were packed, the choir having been opened to all comers regardless of ability – even so, the band was easily the weakest part.

The band in these first performances probably included whatever instruments were available (a thoroughly eighteenth-century attitude) rather than any rigid adherence to Handel’s oboes, bassoons and strings. After an interval of four years, reformation of the Society and concentrated attention to the orchestra, now a separate organisation entitled the Dunedin Orchestral Association, the two 1877 performances were advertised as using Mozart’s accompaniments – largely by adding a harmonium on this occasion – establishing a practice which persisted almost unbroken until 1961. These performances included the first Dunedin presentation of ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’, made possible by the presence of R.W. Kohler, trumpeter with the visiting US Minstrels. Having broken the ice, the aria was included the following year at the Society’s performance at the New Knox Church, but it was somewhat marred by the unfortunate amateur obbligato player, whose trumpet was ‘nearly half a tone sharp throughout,’ and it was not performed again in Dunedin until the performance at the Exhibition in 1889. The use of Knox Church as a performing venue solved a number of practical problems but revealed difficulties over the behaviour of a public audience in a church, with ‘boisterous expressions of applause’ and the use of opera glasses to quiz both performers and audience causing particular offence.

From 1879 Part III of Messiah was discarded entirely, and in the performances conducted by Benno Scherek (1880-4), the first two parts were cut still further – in 1880 they were reduced from 44 items to a mere 31 – which still took two hours in performance. Scherek had formed a new band within the Choral Society, but reinforcement by both harmonium and piano was essential, and the overture and the Pastoral Symphony were omitted, though they were reinstated in subsequent performances once the band had improved. Under Arthur Barth’s conductorship in 1885 items from the third part were reinstated, and the performance took some three hours – it was reported as a mark of the improved quality of performance that no one left before the end.

Augmenting both choir and orchestra for Messiah was now accepted practice as, while a choir of ‘only’ 60 was regarded as advantageous for the clarity of the fugal movements, only a greater mass of voices could convey the majesty and grandeur of choruses such as the ‘Hallelujah’. The desirability of an annual Christmas performance of the work was also accepted, and where the Choral Society’s calendar did not include it, large excerpts were increasingly performed by church choirs, tacked on to services, with organ or piano accompaniment. With the abandonment of the Choral Society in 1888, the gap was filled in 1889 by a performance at the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition (with a choir of 450). The Dunedin Musical Association (successor to the Choral Society) was responsible for the 1890 performance, but as it had collapsed by the next Christmas, the large-scale performances of the next few years were supplied by ad hoc groups of about 100 – consisting largely of the same people – mostly for charitable purposes.

Although the 1897-14 incarnation of the Dunedin Choral Society began with the advantage of a standing army of Messiah singers, it did not produce its own performance until 1898, at which point the performing membership stood at 362. Because Messiah generally attracted a large audience it was now removed from the subscription and given as a public concert, with a view to generating extra income for the Society. Costs had risen, and although the 1889 Exhibition had lifted performance standards it had had the unfortunate side-effect of raising audience expectations of the soloists, so that the Choral Society rapidly found itself caught in a spiral of expenditure on the importation of soloists from out of town, partly to compensate for the falling standards of the Society itself. Nor were local amateur soloists, even those who were members of the Society, content to sing for glory alone.

Until 1906 the majority of the Society’s performances were given in His Majesty’s Theatre on staging owned by the Society, which had to be erected and taken down for each performance. The 1904 performance was interrupted by screams as the choir platform collapsed without warning, and there was a pause of some minutes while a shaken choir rearranged itself. Only a few were brave enough to get back on the platform – their presence there proving a considerable distraction to the audience who were waiting for the next collapse – and the rest had to jam themselves into the small remaining space as best they might.

By the end of 1912 the Choral Society was paralysed with debt and Messiah was performed by other groups, including the Southern Musical Society, conducted by Sidney Wolf. The first public appearance of Wolf’s new Dunedin Choral Society was a performance of Messiah in aid of the Red Cross Society, Belgian Relief, and Local Distress Funds in 1914. Annual performances followed, interrupted only in 1918 when restrictions on public gatherings during the influenza epidemic forced cancellation. Under Victor Galway’s direction (1922-5) the oratorio acquired a more balanced form, although extensive cuts remained. He also initiated the practice of inviting the Dunedin Male Choir – which he also conducted – to join the Choral Society for Messiah performances (dramatically improving the balance of parts), and of requesting the audience to respect the nature of the work and restrict applause to the end of ‘sections’, to wait for the end of the orchestral accompaniment before applauding, and to either stay till the end or leave at the end of Part 2.

The perception of Messiah as a trophy work made it the subject of bitter dispute in the preparations for the NZ & South Seas International Exhibition in 1925. The formation of a separate Exhibition Choir at the end of 1924 with W. Paget Gale as choir master, took many of the Choral Society’s best singers, and had a severe financial impact on the Society. The Society used this situation to secure agreement at an early date that it would give two performances of Messiah with the Dunedin Male Choir at the Exhibition in December, but Gale (the Choral Society’s former conductor (1905-8), and now Galway’s rival), egged on by a vocal minority of the Exhibition Choir, persuaded the Exhibition Music Committee that a performance by the Exhibition Choir – to be conducted, of course, by Gale himself – was essential. Faced with the alternative of financial ruin, the Choral Society was obliged to accept the participation of the Exhibition Choir in their concert, retaining Galway’s conductorship, but losing the second performance. It is possible that parts of the Exhibition performance were broadcast; the next year’s performance was relayed live from His Majesty’s Theatre by the new 4YA station, one of several broadcast performances by the Society that year. This performance was intended to be a blockbuster production with an advertised choir of 3-400 drawn from various choirs, as well as the Choral Society, but the reality was a choir of roughly 150, and in fact even 300 could not have been fitted on the stage of the theatre.

The long-awaited opening of the Town Hall in 1930 opened up new possibilities for large-scale performance, as well as removing the need for two performances to accommodate the audience, and was celebrated with a Messiah performance by the Choral Society, with representatives from five other choirs. The Town Hall also offered new possibilities for accompaniment. By this time the Society had re-established its own orchestra and now the organ could be used to supply missing parts, or replace inadequate ones. Galway resigned as the Society’s conductor in 1931, but became official organist and that year’s Messiah was accompanied by organ alone.

The Society’s new conductor, Alfred Walmsley, had recently returned from study in England, and immediately set about modernising the Society’s performance of Messiah. The city’s first uncut performance took place in 1932 – a three-hour-plus marathon with only one short interval. Howls of outrage both within and outside the Society greeted the increases in tempo which made it possible, though the objections to the expectation that an audience would be prepared to sit through the ordeal were easily countered – as in the 1885 performance – by the observation that in fact no one had left before the end. The division of the accompaniments between organ and orchestra was also the subject of considerable adverse comment. By the next year it was clear that this had been an attempt to solve major issues of variable pitch disparity between organ and instruments. It was reported that some of players had bought new instruments ‘thus enabling organ and orchestra for the first time to join in a perfect combination.’ Vigorous correspondence on the subject further revealed that the orchestra had its own internal tuning problems, which could leave it with as much as a semitone’s disparity. As the choir itself was increasingly unbalanced to such a degree that even the addition of the Royal Dunedin Male Choir could not reverse the soprano supremacy, it is perhaps not surprising that audience numbers declined sharply. Messiah was not performed in 1934, and even though it was reinstated by popular demand in 1935, turnout was relatively small.

In the face of continuing low audience numbers, even after the choir had been through a very thorough cull, the Society was forced to concede that Messiah would not necessarily balance the accounts for the year, and reduced both the scale and frequency of performances. Public indifference to Messiah disappeared with the outbreak of the Second World War, however, and the work was regarded as the Society’s single indispensable annual production, however reduced its activities might become.

Wartime performances involved extensive collaboration with other choirs – Christchurch Harmonic Society (1939), Oamaru Choral Society (1939, 1940, 1943), Royal Dunedin Male Choir (1940), Returned Soldier’s Choir (1940) and any members of church choirs who cared to join in. The 1944 performance involved a combined choir of 250. The establishment of the 4YA Concert Orchestra in the late 1930s solved the issue of accompaniment, though the quality could be variable, and serious problems with rising pitch as the organ warmed up, continued throughout the 1940s. Walmsley had resigned from the Society in 1943, but continued to act as principal guest conductor until 1946, by which time both audiences and choir had become accustomed to his relatively brisk approach to Messiah. It took several years to adjust to the more conservative interpretation of his successor Charles Collins; the choir tended to bolt.

Under W.H. Walden Mills’s direction (1954-8) the performances achieved a stable plateau of reliable quality, with equally reliable accompaniment by the 4YA Concert Orchestra. This came to an end with the departure of Walden Mills from Dunedin in 1958, and the disestablishment of the 4YA orchestra in 1959, leaving the Choral Society no option but to manage with organ alone. They were able to assemble an orchestra for the following year, and this turned out to be the last performance of the Mozart version of Messiah in Dunedin.

The appointment of Peter Platt as the Choral Society’s conductor in 1961 brought a new approach to baroque repertoire in general. The organ-only accompaniment of the 1959 performance had provoked a lively discussion in the papers of its benefits in allowing greater clarity in the chorus work by reducing the competition, but the decision to discard Mozart’s arrangements in favour of Handel’s autograph version with strings and continuo (organ and harpsichord) was met by the critics with extreme disfavour. It is notable that critical attitudes to tempo had undergone a radical alteration, with Platt’s faster speeds now eliciting such words as ‘buoyant’, ‘exultant’, and ‘exhilarating’ where Walmsley’s reviews had implied a lack of respect for Handel’s intentions. Oboes and bassoons – also used by Handel – were added by Jack Speirs in 1967, though the organ was lost from the continuo group. Variations in annual performances over the next 20 years took place in the inclusion or exclusion of the organ, tempo, and ornamentation – with a remarkable number of complaints in the press of slow tempi after Platt’s departure. From 1986 the organ disappeared altogether, and since 1987 the performances have been bi-annual.

The 1997 performance, with guest conductor David Vine, was the first uncut performance since 1932, and saw the organ returned to the continuo group. Since the appointment of David Burchell in 2000 both these features have become usual practice, with performances directed from the harpsichord, as Handel would have done. A new challenge for the choir has been the presentation of an increasing number of choruses from memory, adding to the immediacy of the performance. This in itself completes a circle – requiring a choir to sing from memory was a trick of George R. West, chief founder of both the Philharmonic Society (1863) and the Dunedin Choral Society (1871).

Tonight’s performance both closes our year of celebration, and launches the Society on a new cycle.

By Dr Jenny Burchell

Published in the programme book for the Handel's Messiah concert, Tuesday 10 December 2013, in the Dunedin Town Hall. Performed by City Choir Dunedin and Southern Sinfonia, conducted by David Burchell. Soloists: Lois Johnston (S), Amanda Cole (A), David Hamilton (T), Jonathan Lemalu (B).

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