At this time of year, concerns about the relevance (or lack thereof) of classical music are set aside for once. We can all relax and enjoy seasonal favorites like Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, whether at home or in the concert hall. Relevance guaranteed – it’s Christmas for God’s sake – so they need absolutely no special pleading.
Still, that didn’t stop a brand new concert promoter called Classical Everywhere from creating a flamboyant multimedia show called Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience with the goal of making the 1741 work “more suitable for a younger audience.” At its premiere at the Theater Royal in London’s Drury Lane earlier this month, Handel’s oratorio was enveloped in an elaborate performance featuring dancers and a screen displaying images evoking shining suns, menacing asteroids and (possibly) an unidentified fetus.
Between familiar arias and choruses, the two narrators announce a newly written dramatic dialogue about a son separated from a grieving mother.
The experience was met with ecstasy by some and stone-faced silence by others. Whatever your opinion, there was no escaping the fact that making Christ “fit” for Classical Everywhere meant draining the work’s specifically Christian content and replacing it with a vague universal message about the oppression that led to salvation. And while removing Christianity from Christ may seem like an unusual game, it was just one example in recent years where performers have made extraordinary efforts to “save” classical music from its dire state of “irrelevance.”
This is not to say that musicians of the past did not update and “enhance” works to make them more suitable for contemporary tastes. Christ is an example of this. When it was first performed in Dublin in 1742, the number of performers was quite modest: around 60 singers and instrumentalists. But within a few decades, Mozart began to amplify Handel’s masterpiece with wind and brass instruments, and a tradition for “monstrous” performances emerged as early as the Handel Memorial celebrations in 1784. This peaked at the Crystal Palace in south London in the 1850s, when up to 4,000 musicians performed for crowds of 80,000.
Many later musicians, in fact, took a look at earlier works and adapted them to the tastes of their era. Mahler rearranged Mozart’s operas and Schumann’s symphonies. Twentieth-century conductors produced massive versions of earlier works, such as Leopold Stokowski’s flamboyant orchestral arrangement of Bach’s organ Toccata and D minor Fugue. Advances in music technology opened up new ways to reimagine old music: In 1968, Wendy Carlos, the virtuoso of the Moog synthesizer, recorded her best-selling album, Switched-On Bach.
But there is an important difference between these and contemporary attempts to make classical music more appealing. In the past, no one was concerned about the “relevance” of classical music, as the continuity of the classical tradition was intact. Between the original work by Handel or Bach and the latest polished version by Stokowski or Sir Thomas Beecham, you can trace a steady progression in performance fashions. Therefore, it never occurred to anyone to doubt whether this ancient music could still appeal to modern audiences.
But from the middle of the 20th century something started to go wrong. For many listeners today, especially the younger ones, there is a huge gap between the sound and language of classical music and contemporary ways of thinking and feeling. It’s not just the religious content of works like Christ that suffers from this cultural distance: the musical language itself feels like it’s completely disconnected from ancient, popular culture.
Today’s efforts by musicians to make classical works contemporary are different in kind from what Liszt did to Bach or Beecham’s to Handel. One way to do this is to create a detailed context for staging.
Sometimes, as with multimedia pre-performances created by Gerard McBurney for the London Symphony Orchestra and others, the intent is clearly educational and genuinely helpful. Through excerpts from contemporary diaries and letters, grainy old photographs, and small dramatic scripts, we learn about the cultural context that helped compose Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or a Beethoven symphony.
More often, the performance itself is made noticeably different, often more theatrical. The young novice among London orchestras, the Aurora Orchestra has made a specialty in this regard. Actors often perform without music, which allows them to act. I’ve seen the performers perform in almost complete darkness, where streaks of light under their feet transform in shape and intensity along with the shapes and rhythms of the music. We both see and hear music.
Another method is to add a light show or video footage to help the music “speak”. Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (“Winter Journey”), which tells the story of an abandoned lover’s obsessive walk through a snowy landscape, has become a particular favorite of this treatment. Years ago, tenor Ian Bostridge gave a performance where much of the stage was filled with sad refugees carrying shabby suitcases. Just this month, Allan Clayton’s performance at London’s Barbican was accompanied by mirrored images of landscape paintings by Australian artist Fred Williams. In both cases, the goal was to take something local and special – a Vienna winter in the 1820s – and make it appealing to a contemporary audience by saying, “This journey is not local, it is universal.”
Another way to achieve this is to remove the historical or dramatic context and project music onto the plane of intermittent “immersive” experiences. The term spread like wildfire: It seems that now every other classical concert promises immersion. I heard “immersive” string quartets playing in pitch darkness in Donaueschingen, Germany, and a “immersive” full orchestra in a similar darkness in Huddersfield. The bottom line for me was the Philharmonia’s “immersive” soundstage – by wearing a VR headset, you could get close enough to see the scratches on the players’ shoes.
The danger here is that the music becomes only a means to reach the end, an auditory backdrop that causes a pleasant trance-like state – combined with fascinating, fantastical images. The next step in this process will be to change the music to make it more dreamy and less dramatic to better suit the purpose of creating an “immersive” situation – and you can already hear the signs of that. The hugely popular recomposition of Max Richter’s Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The sharp earthiness of the original gives way to a rippling otherworldly feel created by repetitive patterns that are closer to Philip Glass than to the Red Priest of Venice.
Could it be too far away when Handel’s Christ received the same treatment? Probably not, but all things considered, the prospect of an “immersive” Messiah should not worry us unnecessarily. First of all, the piece is deeply rooted in the culture of practical music making by hundreds of amateur choir ensembles – it’s hard to tolerate someone messing with something you’re actually saying. And, as with Schubert’s Winterreise, attempts to tie the piece to contemporary or “universal” themes lack power. For dramatic urgency, nothing beats the original nativity story. Christ was spared nearly 300 years of well-meaning tampering. My guess is we’ll still be singing the Hallelujah Choir at Christmas 300 years from now.