Why Handel would have approved of a high-tech, immersive Messiah

Lavish: the elaborate spectacle of Messiah – The Live Experience - Craig Fuller
Lavish: the elaborate spectacle of Messiah – The Live Experience - Craig Fuller

At this time of year, worries about classical music’s relevance (or lack of it) are for once set aside. We can all relax and, whether at home or in the concert hall, enjoy seasonal favourites such as Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Their relevance is guaranteed – it’s Christmas, for heaven’s sake – so they surely need no special pleading.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a brand new concert promoter called Classical Everywhere from creating a lavish multimedia show, Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience, with the aim of making the 1741 work more “relevant to a younger audience”. At the premiere earlier this month at the Theatre Royal in London’s Drury Lane, Handel’s oratorio was swathed in an elaborate spectacle involving dancers and a screen that showed images suggestive of glowing suns, threatening asteroids and (possibly) a dimly outlined foetus.

In between the familiar arias and choruses, two narrators declaimed a newly written dramatic dialogue about a son separated from a grieving mother.

The experience was greeted with rapture by some and stony-faced silence by others. Whatever your opinion, there was no escaping the fact that for Classical Everywhere, making Messiah “relevant” seemed to mean emptying the work of its specifically Christian content and replacing it with a vague universal message about oppression leading to release. And while taking the Christianity out of Messiah may seem an unusual stratagem, it was only one example in recent years of performers going to extraordinary lengths to “rescue” classical music from the dreaded condition of “irrelevance”.

This isn’t to say that musicians in the past didn’t update and “improve” works to make them more palatable for contemporary tastes. Messiah is a case in point. When it was first performed in Dublin in 1742, the number of performers was quite modest: about 60 singers and instrumentalists. But within a few decades, Mozart was beefing up Handel’s masterpiece with wind and brass instruments and as early as the Handel Commemoration celebrations in 1784 a tradition arose for “monster” performances. This reached its peak in the 1850s at Crystal Palace in south London where up to 4,000 musicians performed for crowds of 80,000.

Hallelujah! Handel’s Messiah has lived on through all manner of versions - Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images
Hallelujah! Handel’s Messiah has lived on through all manner of versions - Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

Many a later musician, in fact, has cast a beady eye over earlier works and made them suit the tastes of their own age. Mahler re-orchestrated Mozart’s operas and Schumann’s symphonies. Twentieth-century conductors made colossal versions of earlier works, such as Leopold Stokowski’s lavish orchestral arrangement of Bach’s organ Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Advances in musical technology opened up new ways of reimagining old music: in 1968, Wendy Carlos, the virtuoso of the Moog synthesizer, recorded her best-selling album, Switched-On Bach.

But there’s a substantial difference between these and contemporary attempts to make classical music more appealing. Back in the day, no one was worried about classical music’s “relevance”, since the continuity of the classical tradition was still unbroken. You could trace a continuous progression in performance fashions between the original piece by Handel or Bach and the latest buffed-up version by Stokowski or Sir Thomas Beecham. Because of that, it never occurred to anyone to doubt whether this old music could still speak to modern audiences.

From the mid-20th century, however, something began to go wrong. For many listeners today, especially younger ones, there’s a great gulf between the sound and language of classical music and contemporary ways of thinking and feeling. It’s not only the religious content of works such as Messiah that suffer from this cultural distancing: the musical language itself feels antique, completely divorced from popular culture.

The efforts made by musicians nowadays to make classical works seem contemporary are different in kind from what Liszt did to Bach, or Beecham to Handel. One way to do this is to fabricate an elaborate context for the staging.

An illustration in The Illustrated London News of the Festival Pavilion's Messiah performance in 1864 - DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/De Agostini Editorial
An illustration in The Illustrated London News of the Festival Pavilion's Messiah performance in 1864 - DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/De Agostini Editorial

Sometimes, as in the case of the multimedia pre-performance shows created by Gerard McBurney for the London Symphony Orchestra and others, the aim is overtly educational and genuinely helpful. Through excerpts from contemporary diaries and letters, grainy old photos and little dramatic scenarios, we learn about the cultural context that helped to form Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, or a Beethoven symphony.

More often, the performance itself is made arrestingly different, usually more theatrical. The Aurora Orchestra, the young upstart among the London orchestras, has made a speciality of this. The players often perform without music, which allows them to move about. I’ve seen them perform in almost total darkness, while strips of lighting beneath the players’ feet transform in shape and intensity, in tandem with the music’s shapes and rhythms. We see the music as well as hear it.

Another method is to add light-show or video images to help the music “speak”. Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise (“Winter Journey”), which tells the story of a jilted lover’s obsessive walk through a snowy landscape, has become a particular favourite for this treatment. Years ago, tenor Ian Bostridge gave a performance in which most of the stage was filled with processions of sad refugees carrying shabby suitcases. Only this month, Allan Clayton’s performance at the Barbican in London was accompanied by projected images of landscape paintings by the Australian artist Fred Williams. In both cases, the aim was to take something local and particular – a Viennese winter in the 1820s – and make it seem appealing to a contemporary audience by saying: “This journey isn’t local, it’s universal.”

Yet another way to achieve this is by eliminating historical or dramatic context and projecting the music on to a plane of spaced-out “immersive” experiences. That term has spread like wildfire: it seems that every other classical concert now promises immersion. I’ve heard “immersive” string quartets played in total darkness at Donaueschingen in Germany and an “immersive” full orchestra in a similar inky blackness at Huddersfield. The nadir for me was the Philharmonia’s “immersive” sound-stage – in donning a VR headset you could get close enough to the players to see the scuffs on their shoes.

The danger here is that the music ends up becoming a mere means to an end, an aural backdrop that – together with the bewitching, fantastical images – induces a pleasantly trance-like state. The next stage in this process would surely be to change the music itself by making it more dreamy and less dramatic, so as to fit in better with the aim of producing an “immersive” state – and you can hear signs of this already, in Max Richter’s hugely popular re-composition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The pungent earthiness of the original gives way to a floating otherworldly sensation engendered by repeating patterns closer to Philip Glass than the Red Priest of Venice.

Can the time be far off when Handel’s Messiah receives the same treatment? Probably not, but on balance, the prospect of an “immersive” Messiah shouldn’t worry us unduly. For one thing, the piece is deeply rooted in the culture of practical music-making by hundreds of amateur choral societies – it’s hard to tolerate someone messing with something you’ve actually sung. And as with Schubert’s Winterreise, the attempts to yoke the piece to contemporary or “universal” themes lack force. For dramatic urgency, nothing beats the original nativity story. Messiah has survived nearly 300 years of well-meaning tampering. My guess is that, in another 300 years, we will still be singing the Hallelujah Chorus at Christmas.