‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’: How Handel directed his oratorios
In even historically informed performances of Handel’s oratorios a conductor usually controls his forces with a baton in the modern fashion, with the soloists at the front, the choir at the back and the orchestra in between. In this paper I will investigate the ways Handel and his successors in London directed oratorios, in the hope that it might offer us alternative models. He mostly performed them in theatres, with everyone on the stage. After some early experimentation he abandoned beating time with a roll of paper (the norm up to that time for large-scale choral music) in favour of a system in which the all the singers stood at the front of the stage, with the soloists joining the choir in the choruses. He sat behind them, at a harpsichord in the middle of the orchestra, and communicated with them by means of a ‘long movement’, a contraption of trackers linking it to a large organ at the back. This explains why it was possible for his orchestra to be much larger than his choir, and it explains the nature of surviving written-out organ parts, including one for Alexander’s Feast, that double the voices rather than providing a continuo part.
Peter Holman is Emeritus Professor in Historical Musicology at the University of Leeds. He is the author of books on the violin at the English court, Henry Purcell and John Dowland. His Life after Death: the Viola da Gamba in Britain from Purcell to Dolmetsch was published in 2010. At present he is working on a study of conducting and musical direction in Georgian Britain. He is also active as a performer, directing The Parley of Instruments, the Suffolk Villages Festival and Leeds Baroque, among other groups.