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Handel for All

Times pass and fashions fade, and a composer’s status can rise or fall with them. But what has happened to George Frideric Handel over the last half-century or so has been more like radical reconstructive surgery. The first picture I remember seeing of Handel showed him in a trance at the organ keyboard having received the inspiration for the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus. Handel then was above all the composer of ‘The Messiah’: the definite article seemed to belong to the work by divine right. Since then we have had the period instrument revolution, and the triumphant return of the operas to the world’s great stages. Today Handel seems very much a composer of this world rather than the next. It’s his depiction of human passions for which he is most valued now, rather than religious fervour – at least in Western Europe.

Handel scholar Donald Burrows has followed it all with intense interest. ‘You wouldn’t have believed, even fifty years ago, that every Handel opera would be performed, let alone recorded’, he says. ‘What has been revealed is that Handel wasn’t just a one-line composer of oratorios and festive choral works. I also think there was a misunderstanding about the religious nature of some of the oratorios. Yes they’re dramas on Biblical subjects, but they are essentially dramas. So along with the revival of the operas there has been a broadening of understanding and in the range of oratorio-type works performed. Again no one would have guessed fifty years ago that there would be such interest in works like Joshua, Esther or Theodora. People now realize that Handel was in fact a many-sided figure.’

All this poses a special challenge for Novello, spearhead of the first Great Handel Revival in the mid 19th Century. It’s easy to smile indulgently at those handsome, but often editorially questionable editions. Time to put a healthy distance between ourselves and the follies and foibles of the past? As General Editor of the New Novello Handel Edition, Donald Burrows is more charitable. ‘You have to remember that we’re part of a tradition that Vincent Novello set up. Beginning with Messiah in 1846 he produced a selection of vocal scores that really put the oratorios and odes, and Acis and Galatea back on the map – especially with the amateur choral societies. He was thinking primarily of vocal scores that were easily performable. Revisions were made, but these were often highly cut. These were the days of reverential tempos in choruses, so you had to be ruthless to get a three-act oratorio into one evening. And have you ever tried to play one of those scores on the piano? You have to have about fifty fingers on each hand. You can only manage it very slowly, which probably tells a lot about how they did Handel then.’

It was after the Second World War that the realization dawned at Novello that something drastic had to be done. The starting point was the ground-breaking Watkins Shaw edition from 1959 (revised in 1992), celebrating its fiftieth anniversary next year. ‘It was a remarkable piece of scholarship on his part’, says Burrows, ‘but Shaw was also brought up in the English choral tradition so he knew how choirs worked and what they needed. He had to tread a fine line between getting it as right as possible from a scholarly point of view while making it performable. Since I came on board in 1991 I’ve tried very hard to be faithful to that. It’s not just things like indicating double-dotting in rhythms, decoration etc. Take Samson, which we published in 2005. Handel’s first version is massive. We have to give the whole of Handel’s copperplate first version, but we also have to recognize that most choral societies are not going to manage a four-hour performance. If you look at what Handel did, there is a shorter version “hiding” in there – it’s perfectly good and historically acceptable.’

What about the accompaniments – for those of us who haven’t got a hundred fingers? ‘I’m particularly keen on having accompaniments people can play. Continuo parts are the same. You need a realization for players who aren’t used to improvising – something that the knowledgeable can improve on, while others can safely rely on it. We must remember that the job of the performer is to communicate. We must help, but we mustn’t get in the way.’

As the New Handel Edition moves towards its fiftieth anniversary (with Watkins Shaw’s Messiah its official starting point), it also – conveniently – approaches its twentieth item: a new edition of Chandos Anthem No 9, O praise the Lord with one consent. A very useful new edition of Semele follows, followed by the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day: ‘The old score wasn’t bad, but it didn’t understand performance practice. Then there’s one aria with lute - does that mean the lute is silent in the rest? There’s also a variant version of one aria that’s never been published. This is why the Preface is so important. People need to know how long the work is, how big the forces and where they’re used. So the standard practice is to give this kind of information, then the historical background, then comes the section headed “Some Practical Matters”. You do all that before you get to the scholarly element about sources, editorial method and reading. The priority has to be what it was in Vincent Novello’s day – performers first.’

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