Friday, October 1, 2010

Happy birthday, Handel and Haydn!

Well, it's not actually their birthday, but they're invited to the party.
When I ask people what the oldest continuously performing classical group in the world is, they often imagine it's some European symphony or ensemble. But no, it's actually our own Handel and Haydn Society, which was founded nearly 200 years ago, on March 24, 1815, in order to "promote the love of good music and better performance of it." [Note: the Leipzig Gewandhaus and the Dresden Staatskapelle, as well as the Royal Danish Orchestra, were founded earlier - much earlier - but it's my understanding there are interruptions in their performance histories.] In the pursuit of that goal, H&H soon commissioned work from Beethoven (a piece which, alas, was never completed), and gave the first American performance of Messiah (now an annual staple).  And over the years it offered American or Boston premieres of Bach's St. Matthew Passion and Mass in B Minor, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Mozart's Requiem, Mendelssohn's Elijah, Verdi's Requiem, and countless other major works.

Even more remarkably, for much of its history, the group was also entwined with - well, history; the Handel and Haydn chorus sang at the memorial services for John Adams, Thomas Jefferson (at which Daniel Webster spoke) and Abraham Lincoln.  The chorus raised funds for the Union Army, and performed at the official celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation (with Ralph Waldo Emerson as orator; Julia Ward Howe, composer of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," was singing). In recent decades the Society has had less of a political profile, but has become known as a leader in period performance - arguably the most important development in classical music in the last generation - while also exhibiting a remarkable freedom in its programming, collaborating with artists as varied as Chanticleer, Keith Jarrett (yes, believe it or not), and Mark Morris.

Now, of course, the Society is grappling with how, precisely, to celebrate its remarkable history - a history that, frankly, isn't all that well known in its hometown.  The group's first salvo in what looks to be a two-year campaign/party has been to simply get the word out about just how vital an organization it really is.  And that vitality is hard to argue with - Handel and Haydn has vibrant community outreach and educational programs, which this year will be organized in tight coordination with the concert season (Handel's Israel in Egypt, for instance, will be the focus of a special outreach to the Jewish community).  Partnership programs with the MFA and MIT are likewise gearing up.  And new artistic director Harry Christophers promises more recordings (like the lovely one of Mozart's Mass in C Minor which just came out), and there are rumblings of a tour in the works.  But right now you can join the party - and become a part of history - by checking out this weekend's performances of "Mozart: A Musical Journey," featuring period violinist Rachel Podger.  I'll report back next week on the concert itself, but given Christophers's command of the chorus, and the way he has subtly transformed the H&H orchestra, I expect the results to be dazzling.


  1. The Leipzig Gewandhaus and Dresden Staatskapelle have much longer continuous performing histories than the Boston ensemble.

  2. It's my understanding that there are interruptions in the performance histories of both those organizations, but I'll amend the post to mention them.