Handel’s Missing Audience

With dozens of Handel’s operas being recovered, what are his legions of fans missing today? Michael Oliver travels back in time and discovers less may be more.

Let’s take a walk through Georgian London. We’ll get lost, of course – so many new roads have been built since then, so many others have disappeared – but enough buildings survive of that period and earlier to help us find our bearings. We could start at Covent Garden: here indeed is the theatre, on the same site as the present opera house, but occupying less than a quarter of its space. We’d be amazed to learn that it seated almost as many people as it does now – about 1800 – but some would be standing, others crowded very close on narrow benches, even the wealthy in their boxes barely had room to move.

Should we ask a member of the audience where we might hear a concert rather than an opera, he’d probably suggest – if we’re visiting London in 1720 or thereabouts – the Great Room in York Buildings, Villiers Street, right down by the River Thames. This was the first purpose-built public concert hall in London, dating from 1680. It seated just 200: when it was demolished in the mid-eighteenth century it was replaced by ‘two small houses’. Concerts were occasionally given elsewhere, in city livery halls or large rooms attached to inns. But it was in the 200-seater Great Room that London got its first taste of oratorio, when Handel’s Esther was performed there in 1732.

The Great Room was supplanted as London’s principal concert hall by Hickford’s Room, originally the ballroom of a dancing school in the Haymarket. Mozart played there in 1765: the hall, 50 feet long and 30 broad, must have held about 600, at a severe pinch. At a concert in the similar-sized room at Spring Garden, by the north-east corner of St James’s Park, Mozart’s father hoped for a capacity audience of 600; he in fact made a handsome profit from selling no more than 200 tickets.

We think, and we’re probably right, that we’ve got pretty close to authenticity so far as period instruments and playing techniques are concerned. Voices are more problematic: people were smaller in Handel’s day, and boys’ voices broke later. It might help when imagining what Handel’s singers sounded like to realise that although in opera they might have to sing to close on 2,000 people, those people would be crammed into a theatre which, in modern conditions, would seat under 1,000. At a concert in the Great Room or even Hickford’s they would hardly have needed to raise their voices. London didn’t get a concert hall of a size we’d think of as normal until the Pantheon in Oxford Street opened in 1772. For one of the Handel Commemoration concerts in 1784, 1,600 people were in the audience, but only because extra benches had been installed in every available square inch, including places with no view of the platform; the crowd was ‘closely wedged together, in extreme heat’.

But what about the audiences? ‘Authenticity’ must surely take account not only of how small concert halls were, but of how the concertgoers listened. That will have depended on how much music they knew. It’s often said that until the nineteenth century most people going to a concert would have heard only recent or modern music. Not quite true. When Concerts of Antient Music were founded in London in 1776, their main object was to ensure that Handel’s music wasn’t forgotten; the practical definition of ‘antient’ was ‘more than 20 years old’. They performed Corelli, Purcell and Gluck as well as Handel, even the occasional English madrigal, but nothing of what we’d call ‘early music’. In many ways the famous Thomas Britton (known as ‘The Musical Small-Coal Man’ because he gave concerts in the room above his coal store in Clerkenwell – the first truly public concert series in London’s history) was more scholarly and antiquarian. When he died in 1714, a sale of music used at his concerts included choral pieces by Tallis and Byrd, viol fantasies by Gibbons and Ferrabosco, chamber music and concertos by Corelli and Vivaldi, as well as nearly everything that Dowland and Purcell had ever published. Handel, who attended Britton’s concerts, owed a fair part of his knowledge of earlier English music to what he heard there.

Even so, eighteenth-century concertgoers knew far less music than we do. They had little experience of dissonance and none of complex rhythm. Most of the new pieces that they heard were in a recognisably similar style, whatever the nationality of the composer. The orchestra they heard was small, and by our standards not at all colourful: strings, organ or harpsichord plus a couple of flutes or oboes was the norm. that audience would have been startled by a solo horn, disconcerted by an expected repeat being omitted, shocked by an unprepared change of key. A friend of mine grumbled the other day that one of Handel’s oratorios contained ’30 indistinguishable arias’. To his audience they would have been dazzlingly, absorbingly different. That’s the missing element in authentic performance – the ‘authentic audience’. There’s also the problem of what ‘listening’ means. Had Palestrina heard that you’d been to S. Maria Maggiore in Rome to listen to one of his mass settings, he would probably have been shocked: the function of the music was to inspire your reverence for the words and the mystery of the sacrament. Even Handel, who knew perfectly well that people thronged to his oratorios as a substitute for opera during Lent when theatres were closed, probably expected a more intent listening to some of his works. Congratulated by Lord Kinnoul on the ‘great entertainment’ he had given the public with Messiah, he replied, ‘My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.’

Classic CD magazine, 1998

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