"Grand Miscellaneous Acts": Observations on Oratorio Performance in London after Haydn

From: About Bach

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“Grand Miscellaneous Acts” Observations on Oratorio Performance in London after Haydn Mark Risinger I n the early weeks of Lent, 1814, the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, London, presented a concert featuring Part I of The Creation, “composed by Dr. Haydn.”1 It was followed by “Two Grand Miscellaneous Acts” consisting of arias and choruses by various composers. Although the choice of the word “Acts” for Parts II and III of the program on the title page of the libretto suggests a dramatic performance, nothing about the sequence of numbers constitutes a thematically consistent—much less dramatically unified—musical experience. A number of the selections in Parts II and III of the program were drawn from the works of Handel, both in their original versions and in their later guises as “pasticcio oratorios” arranged by other hands. A significant portion of the remaining music, however, seems to have been chosen for the evening’s soloists, with only passing concern for thematic or dramatic relevance. A libretto from this performance (Plate 1), located today in the collection of the Harvard University Library,2 provides a glimpse of the breadth and variety that constituted an evening’s entertainment for the London public in the generation after Haydn. In addition, the text suggests that by this time, the driving organizational principle behind oratorio performances in London was no longer the veneration of the composer as musical icon, as it had been in the past, but rather the cult of the individual performer. The concert that took place at the Theatre Royal during Lent, 1814, reflects a trend that had been developing over several decades in the late eighteenth century. During the half-century following Handel’s death, performances of his works proliferated both in England and on the Continent, particularly in the aftermath of the Handel Commemoration of 1784. Within a relatively short period, however, performances of complete oratorios became more the exception than the rule, and by the end of the century they had all but vanished. Music historian Simon McVeigh, while acknowledging the persistent popularity of Messiah and Judas Maccabaeus, nevertheless 181 risinger 182 traces the beginnings of the decline of complete oratorio performances to the middle of the century and provides a concise summary of their demise at the end of it: But in general the tide was against Handel’s biblical oratorios, even if Samson and other Old Testament dramas were never completely forgotten. Instead, the lighter secular works (Alexander’s Feast, L’Allegro,Acis and Galatea) were clearly favored . . . A Plate 1. First page of the libretto from the Theatre Royal concert of Lent, 1814. Harvard University, Eda Kuhn Loeb Library of the Harvard College Library, Merritt Room, Mus 573.563.7. Reproduced by permission. Observations on Oratorio Performance in London 183 more ominous development was the practice of making selections from the oratorios . Admittedly Handel had initiated the concept with his Occasional Oratorio (1746), but this had had a special purpose . . . Several new libretti were fitted out with Handel selections in ensuing decades; even the Concert of Ancient Music unambiguously put on miscellaneous programmes. Despite all these experiments, support for public oratorios was waning by the early 1780s . . . It seems likely that the oratorio season would have died altogether had it not been for the Handel Commemoration.3 The “special purpose” of the Occasional Oratorio, the original “pasticcio oratorio,” was the celebration of the English victory at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. To commemorate this occasion, Handel used music borrowed from a number of his own works, including Samson, Judas Maccabaeus,Athalia, Israel in Egypt, and various instrumental concertos. The Occasional Oratorio relates more closely to the pasticcio oratorios arranged in the 1760s, 1770s, and 1780s by the younger John Christopher Smith and Samuel Arnold than it does to the “miscellaneous programmes” that became popular a bit later. The compilers of the pasticcio oratorios made an attempt to find a unifying theme when crafting a libretto, to which Handel’s music was then refitted. In the miscellaneous programs, movements from Handel’s works, usually in their original form and with their original texts, were extracted and presented ad seriatim alongside the music of other composers. Little effort was made to provide a continuous narrative. The movement away from performing complete oratorios and toward extracting Handelian movements and presenting them in “anthology concerts” was not limited to the London oratorio series: it became increasingly popular on the Continent as well. In Germany, Handel’s reputation initially rested...