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Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Immortal songs of youth at Christmas time

This is the composer Handel, like the King of England a German who settled in Britain, and for me it's the Messiah, a choral piece from 1742 that in a real way symbolises the relationship between the English middle class in the 18th century and its culture, and as well represents the Christmases of my childhood. My parents took us to see the Messiah performed at the Sydney Opera House on more than one occasion - if I remember correctly - but I especially recall one performance there when I was about 18, by which time I had moved on, in a way, from Classical music to the Romantics. Decades later I would spend months reading the Romantic poets and would come to understand even better the relationship between the Classical and Romantic periods, and what that shift represented - and represents - in the history of the English-speaking people. So I can safely avow that Christmas for me is best played in the Classical mode: order, beauty, balance, reasonableness. Although German, Handel was very English (he arrived in Britain in 1712) and by the time the Messiah was created he had spent decades living among the people who fulfilled the part of his audience. Because of the way artists operate the role of the audience can never be underestimated.

But I had already been moulded in a way to fit the message. Going to a private school (what the English call public schools) meant regularly assembling in a hall and singing songs, including Christmas hymns, taken from the classical English canon. There was the weekly chapel meeting, and the end-of-year services held at associated churches around the place. So standing in rows among your peers and singing was part of the way of celebrating or commemorating a special calendar event, and Christmas was the major event of the scholastic year and it strongly underlined the sense of community for the boys and their immediate families. Like the motto of the University of Sydney - Sidere mens eadem mutato (Though the constellations change the mind remains the same) - we lived in a world characterised by very English cognates and modes of behaviour. Given these things it's hardly surprising that by the age of 18 I was predisposed to like the Messiah.

And a public enactment of community like Christmas consones best with those Classical virtues of order, balance and reasonableness that Handel's work epitomises.

Further, I can take the image of someone like William Cowper and say that I was raised in the same tradition as he was; born in 1831 Cowper was just another part of Handel's primary audience. The link to the Romantics - in whose shadow we still live, reading the immortal songs - is found here, and especially in The Task, published in 1785 when the writer was about my own age (now, as I write). It was this poem that the young Romantics (walking the fields in day's lea, chronicling the tide of innovation, affirming individual agency) used as their model, especially Wordsworth for his long 1805 poem about his emergence as a writer, The Prelude. Cowper and Handel would never have thought the individual a fit subject for such a long work. For them it would have smacked of egotistical self-importance but for us it seems natural. For them a fit and proper subject for a work of art was nothing less than Christ himself. The Romantics turned the model on its head and placed the individual at the centre of the work.

And that suits the aesthetic of our own Modern age but for some events a more modest and public-spirited approach is to be preferred. (Sings) For unto us a child is born ...

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