Christopher Howse

Handel’s Messiah is as much a Christmas tradition as pantomime

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It was 9.45 p.m. and yellow light beamed from the church windows into the rainy night. As I opened the door the last bars of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ reverberated from the chancel. This was a rehearsal by the London Docklands Singers.

‘Everyone knows the “Hallelujah Chorus”,’ said the conductor, Andrew Campling. ‘It’s in the DNA of the public.’ In his 33 years’ conducting he has put on Handel’s Messiah ten or 12 times. 

He can’t help laughing at the judgment of the librettist of Messiah, Charles Jennens, who in 1743 wrote of Handel in a letter: ‘His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho’ he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d.’

Handel made a few revisions, and the two men soon worked together again (on the oratorio Belshazzar). Messiah has never fallen out of popularity. It’s as English a thing to go to hear it at Christmas as to go to a pantomime. This year, Hereford Choral Society is performing it in the cathedral by candlelight and on the same day Harrogate Choral Society will sing it in the Royal Hall of the spa town. It works with vast choirs or almost as a chamber work.

Campling started the London Docklands Singers in 1992 with eight or nine members. Now there are 65. It is certainly not a Canary Wharf bankers’ hobby choir. Singers from many backgrounds live on the Isle of Dogs or travel from elsewhere in London on the good transport connections. Ages run from students to pensioners. His father still sings, aged 95. 

‘Singing is a way of communicating to other people when ordinary words sometimes fail’

There are no auditions, but new members are expected to be able to read music, turn up regularly and not put off the others.

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