Saturday, December 8, 2012

Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at St Paul’s Cathedral, 6th December 2012

I’m not sure if I really ‘get’ classical music.  Sitting in a huge room full of serious looking people,  wrapped in very serious concentration and engaging in serious appreciation of some music makes me feel a bit left out in the cold.  Don’t get me wrong, I like classical music well enough, but I don’t really have the necessary critical framework or the ears to be able to really get to grips with what I'm listening to.  It's like I'm a dog cocking its head in front of Picasso painting.  It knows there's something fun there, but it's never going to be able to work out what it is.

So, with that in mind why did I book tickets to go and see a performance of Handel’s Messiah in St Paul’s Cathedral?  There are two reasons, firstly because I know Messiah has that one famous bit where everyone sings ‘Hallelujah!’ really loudly, and secondly because going to a performance in St Paul’s Cathedral on a cold December pre-Christmas night feels like something intrinsically ‘London’.

There are many places that can claim to be the heart of London, but St Paul’s has a better claim than most.  Londoners have been congregating here since at least 600AD, and there’s argument that the cathedral occupies the site of a Roman temple to the goddess Diana.  The building more than lives up to this ancient continuity, walking through the doors you’re knocked flat by the grandiosity of the place.  Importance, continuity and a slightly oppressive but all pervading security radiates from the walls.  When the stern looking, suited men dotted around the building ask you to do something, you instantly jump to attention.

A pretty good venue.  Terrible bathroom facilities though.
I’ve been inside St Paul’s a few times, but never when its completely full of people before.  Cathedrals are dead when there’s only a few people scattered about the place, so there’s a transformation when the building is filled with the hubbub of people chatting to each other happily.  I was ushered to my seat, sitting right next to the jutting big toe of Britannia who was perched mournfully on a grand memorial to Charles Cornwallis, a general renowned for, among other things, hanging 200 captured prisoners in Ireland.  The joys of British imperialism, folks!

When you’re somewhere like St Paul’s, you begin to get a sense of the sheer weight of the British Establishment.  This is a building intended not only to inspire religious devotion, but also to underline the insurmountable power of the state.  There’s a contradiction both here and throughout Portland stone built, imperial London.  The state erects statues to those who serve it most effectively, and more often than not this means killing a hell of a lot of people.  If there is an intersection of state, church and military then either St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey is it.  This is after all the place where men like “the Butcher of the Somme” Field Marshall Haig are given a funerals of enormous pomp and circumstance.  It is also the place where Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven will soon be memorialised at vast state expense.  All of this, and from an institution that putatively preaches charity and good will to all men.

It’s easy to let the mind wander while you’re watching a performance like this.  You can follow along with the programme, but I find it nicer to sit back and let yourself zone out a bit.  Looking around, I notice that a lot of smartly turned out people in the audience are doing the same, many of them actually being asleep.   There’s a large contingent of weathered old women dozing in large coats with silly hats on, women that could have stepped out of time any time between 1950 and now.  Going to see Messiah at Christmas in St Paul’s is something that Londoners have been doing for maybe 200 years, and it’s nice to participate in this historic continuity. 

This was my view when I looked up.  Hard to get bored looking at that.
The musicians and singers are without amplification, save that of the building around them.  This adds a feeling of truth to proceedings; when a young boy chorister stands alone at the front singing, it’s undeniably moving.  Even when the boy is singing about his corpse being eaten by worms it manages to remain pretty sweet.  But it’s when the choir properly gets going that the full force of just what this building can do is utilised.  The whole place becomes one big musical instrument, voices reverberating around the room and effortlessly filling the space.

The big moment of the night is the “Hallelujah” chorus - the part everyone knows.  This isn’t the fastest moving production, so my anticipation builds and builds as I follow the torturous build-up to it.  I’m excited because there’s a big tradition of the audience rising to its feet at this point.  Apocryphally this is because King George II was so moved by the beauty of what he was hearing that he stood up without thinking, with the result that the entire theatre stood up too.  An alternate theory is that he just had a cramp in his leg, and needed to stretch it out.  Another one is that this is all a load of nonsense and someone made it up sometime in the Victorian era.  I don’t think the reason matters, it’s a nice little quirky tradition that I’m more than happy to go along with.  It gives the pinnacle of the piece just that little bit more grandeur.

At the end of all this I still feel like a fish out of water.  I don’t have the right vocabulary to say why I enjoyed the music, or what this particular performance’s technical merits were, but enjoy it I did.  For me, hearing classical music like this in environments like these let me get close to a meditative state.  It’s calm, relaxing and free of distractions.  I strolled out in the cold and wet December night feeling like my brain had had a nice massage.  Feeling a bit more Christmassy now.

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