How to See God

Lucca’s greatest contemporary musical impresario, its most versatile conductor, its most energetic interpreter of music too often little known by the lucchese and, most certainly, its most multi-honoured musical ambassador reminded us last night in the wonderful acoustics of the Chiesa Dei Servi, enriched by a wooden coffered ceiling which adds the most exquisite sound nuances to great music, that the second of June is not only a victory for democracy in Italy with the foundation of its republic, now just sixty-nine years old, but is also a similar victory for the United Kingdom with the anniversary of the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on the same June second in 1953. Not only will the Queen become the longest serving monarch this November overtaking even her own great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, but she will also celebrate the world’s oldest constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system.

Which music would Andrea Colombini choose to celebrate this inspiring occasion? No Italian national anthem, no “God save the Queen” (although Colombini did speak the phrases “Viva l’Italia” and “”God save the Queen”). Which composer truly unites a European consciousness with its multifarious strands of Italian melody, British nobleness and German thoroughness? “Il divino sassone”, of course: George Frederick Handel himself.

Starting from a thoroughly north German post-Buxtehudian training, Handel loosened up and expanded his musical language under the aegis of cardinal Ottoboni in papal Rome and thence, by fortuitous accident, finished up in England where he wrote probably his greatest works, and combined Germanic counterpoint with Italian mellifluousness with French overtures with Purcellian sensitivity into a musical language which, while being entirely his own, has long become part of British consciousness among music lovers  and now is becoming ever more internationally loved.

In 1985 we were fortunate enough, during that memorable European year of music, to visit the chapel and the organ where Handel wrote his first “English” works, the Chandos anthems. Here are some pictures from that visit:

Handel’s music touches everybody. Which Welsh ex-coalminers’ choir cannot remember their “Messiah” by heart? What graduate of London’s’ Royal school of music has not taken their part in a Handel opera? What occasion of British military pomp and circumstance has not been ennobled by a Handelian March or trumpet tune?

One of the most encouraging statements I’ve received from my Italian friends was when the young, highly talented conductor of our local choir of San Pietro e Paolo di Ghivizzano stated that he would be ever grateful to me for having introduced him to Handel’s greatness. I was surprised but, of course, very pleased since Handel has coursed through my life’s blood from a very early age. I remember being enchanted by that wonderful larghetto with variation from the 12th Op 6 Concert Grosso when I was barely six and humming it to myself.

Indeed, at school when an eleven year old treble first fumbled his way through the intricacies of “Worthy is the Lamb” to the young bass who helped Mary Datchelor’s girls school, with the cooperation of the local firemen’s chorus, in “Messiah” to the later performances with the Plumstead choral society Handel has ever been a companion to me like my favourite cat, my wife, my greatest loves.

I chose music as one of my school O level subjects and shall never forget my discovery of one of the pieces we studied:  Handel’s “Semele” which combines so perfectly all those European stylistic schools from France to Italy to Germany and, especially, to England and her great Purcell.

In later years the “big band” Handel concert was somewhat superseded by our hearing historically informed performances on a smaller scale and often on period instruments by such departed greats as Christopher Hogwood. Every year one of our treats was to listen to a Handel opera, either at Sadler’s wells or in the Britten Theatre. In Italy too we were so lucky to have captured the greatest of baroque opera composers in the main courtyard of the palazzo Pitti in an unforgettable performance by Musica nel Chiostro.

But to return to “La Gloria di George Frederick Handel”, as the concert was entitled. Not Handel’s “Gloria” which he wrote while still a stripling in Rome but the “Glory of Handel”.

Audiences are, hopefully, now mature enough to appreciate both historically informed and big-band Handel. Andrea achieved the rarely realizable task of combining the two stylistic strands in an evening which also accomplished a wonderful fusion of Italian elegance and British pride which combine so appropriately well on that memorable date, June 2nd.

No added orchestration by Ebenezer Prout and his Ilk infected the performances. Not even any soft modifications by the near-God Mozart. Instead, a thorough understanding of pace, balance, timbre and eloquence informed the entire evening’s performance.

This was the programme:

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Of course, we all had our favourites. On the singing front I found mezzo-soprano Alessia Bandinotti particularly moving, her voice darkly regretful – almost a contralto I should say. On the orchestral side the trumpets were absolutely superb and so were the horn players.  Winton Dean in his book on Handel’s Dramatic masques and oratorio’s strangely demeans “The Trumpet shall sound” but the trumpet player of the Orchestra Philharmonic di Lucca together with bass Romano Martinuzzi gave it an added élan which almost made it sound as white-knuckling as that most exhilarating of passages from “St Cecilia’s day ode” sounding a truly clangourous trumpet and a doubly double-doubling drum.

Two encores had perforce, to follow and they were clearly the audience’s favourite items:” Zadok the priest “, which reminded us again of the importance of yesterday’s date to subjects north of the English Channel and the Hallelujah chorus which, this time round, we were allowed to relish sitting down.

As the great man said when he composed that chorus:  “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself”. We didn’t quite see all that that last night but as we wandered through the beautifully full-moon lit streets of a midnight Lucca we realised that not only our Handelian hearts had been softened by the glorious music gloriously performed by Colombini and his felicitous band of musicians but that those citizens of Lucca fortunate enough to attend had now realised the true worth of the “divine Saxon”.

Incidentally, Handel’s really made me travel both musically and physically, I motorcycled to his birth house in Halle in 2001. Some years ago I wandered down Fishamble Street in Dublin where “Messiah” was first performed. London’s Foundling hospital contains much Handel memorabilia. Rome, of course, witnessed the first performance of his magnificent vespers in the Barberini palace.

Next time I’m in London I’ll have to step once more inside Handel’s house now saved for the nation. I wonder what the G. O. M thought of his last days on this planet? Perhaps this?

HANDEL IN PARNASSUS

 

I am old, worn out and now gone blind too

from writing many notes. A deal of stuff

flowed from my brain. Eternally, I’m through

with all this fine music – I’ve had enough.

 

Once-young man in the Cardinal’s service

– choice place Italy and her sopranos

desirable – bright and not yet obese,

I was feted as genius among beaux.

 

Then England and qualified success,

nobility’s pretensions (no knighthood),

but a most convenient Mayfair address

near Corinthian gold and God’s common good.

 

Yet I hear cash plagues you as it did me,

my dear house up for grabs: how else could be?

 

FLP

What more can I add to this post? Only some words from other admirers…..

Beethoven:  “Handel was the greatest composer that ever lived.  I would uncover my head, and kneel before his tomb.”

King George III “Handel is the Shakespeare of Music.”

George Bernard Shaw: “Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution.  What is more, he is a sacred institution.”

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As we drove back home the new bridge over the Serchio was lit up like a transcendent vision – it was truly a bridge between brother and brother, between God and man, on this auspicious day.

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Thank you Andrea and thank you Handel!

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