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Journal Article Critique: “Messiah” and Progress in Victorian England” written by Howard E. Smither

The following paper will summarize and evaluate an article called “”Messiah” and Progress in Victorian England” written by Howard E. Smither, published in Early Music Magazine.

The author starts off the article by introducing the reader to the fact that the role played by Handel’s Messiah in the life of the English people is rather big and is well reflected in various journals. Moreover, Messiah is often treated as a part of the ‘progresses of sacred choral music. Such opinions were spread in London as well as other cities of Great Britain. The rest of the article is used to explain the above arguments to the reader.

Lower I would like to present a brief summary of the facts supporting the above arguments. England has always been famous for its music festivals, good examples of such can be the festivals of Gloucester, Worcester or Hereford, or those of York, Norfolk, Norwich, Derby, Manchester, Birmingham and Hull. It is needless to say that such festivals almost always included Messiah, which had been performed annually at the festivals of Gloucester, Worcester or Hereford since 1757.

At first Messiah was considered to be an epitome of oratorio that is a genre with sacred connotations. Thus, only when the festivals had the use of a church or cathedral, oratorios were given there, rather than in a secular halls. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has made additional accompaniments to Messiah. Such adaptations were necessary as the Messiah started to rather frequently be in the provinces. The adaptations and changes made in Messiah by Mozart and other composers have been widely discussed in the Victorian Journals and have been considered by the majority to be very favorable for the genre. Though, of course, that age was not an age of no-criticism, thus such adaptations have also been disapproved. A very important aspect of the performance of Messiah at festivals was the tradition of donating the raised money for charity. Though, it has to be noted that a tradition of performing Messiah for charity had been more widely kept in provinces than in London. Such state of things is commonly questioned by the scholars researching Victorian England. This is so because now it is seen that in the past, as early as in the 17th century performing Messiah was used as a tool to generate profits rather than bring the people closer to sanctity.

From many reports made about the English Victorian festivals it is clear that Messiah performances were attended by people of various statuses. Of course, wealthier individuals had an opportunity to be seated on the better seats, thus they were able to follow the performance better. However, it is still notable that people of humble origin were allowed to attend festive orations the way their wealthier counterparts have been.

As surprising as it is, festivals and the Messiah genre in particular have been much better developed in provinces than in London itself. This can be explained by the changes in the taste of Londoners as well as slow but apparent weakening of religious ties. However, the breakthrough was made by the Sacred Harmonic Society, founded in 1832 in London. The Society consisted of unassuming group of amateurs. The Society gave its first performance the following year and was willing to participate in Westminster Abbey Festival of 1834. Their offer was declined because the festival jury favored professionals. Though, the members of the society did not give up and originated a new Amateur Musical Festival, which had been a significant event in the Victorian period. At first the Society used to play in the small hall, nevertheless in 1836 it moved to the larger one to perform Messiah. The latter was so well attended that the Society adopted it for its subsequent concerts.

With years the situation was changing and soon the performance of oratorio by amateur and professional singers in a semi-religious halls was rapidly becoming popular in London. This trend was mostly brought about by Queen Victoria that was willing to imitate the universally-enjoyed provincial festivals. Actually during the reign of Queen Victoria such choral performances have reached the peak of their trend. Finally, by the late years of Victoria’s reign music had simply become an integral part of the lives of British people, both those who lived in the capital and in provinces. This shows the outstanding development and progress and culture in the Victorian Era. Additionally, popularizing the Messiah was part of Victoria’s program launched to educate and enlighten all levels of the population.

In my opinion the article is well written and provides a reader with very detailed information about the Messiah genre in Victorian Era. The author supports his article by using the writings of journalists that in different times have discussed the performance of Messiah and the music genre in Britain in general. However, I believe that the author does not accomplish the goals he sets in the introduction of the article. He is willing to find out the role played by Handel’s Messiah in English life. Though, instead he presents the Messiah popularization history and its reasons. I also consider that the article lacks a brief insight into what the genre of Messiah really is, assuming that the reader would already possess this information. Thus, in conclusion I would like to say that the arguments used by the author, though being coherent, do not fully answer the questions put forward by the article.

June 14, 2012Tags: