A few weeks ago, myscena.org published a short post on Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum & Jubilate. Two years ago I had the chance to perform that work with the European Union Baroque Orchestra on a tour which was to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War.
As an artist within the sphere of Early Music, the political significance of a particular work is just as important in my mind as its performance conditions or practices. While creating a moving entertainment is my first priority, programmatically speaking I believe that stripping work of its context in order to avoid controversy does a disservice to my art. Take a look at what I wrote on 24 June, 2014, to understand what I mean.
Today I leave Basel to perform with EUBO and the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, in a program titled Peace and Reconciliation to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of The Great War. Though I cherish another opportunity to play with such a fantastic group, the presentation of three works on the program have given me cause for concern.
Art and politics came hand in hand in the 17th and 18th centuries and George Friedrich Händel was no exceptional case. In fact, much of Handel’s most recognizable output (Wassermusik, Music for the Royal Fireworks, the Coronation Anthems, Eternal Source of Light Divine, The Utrecht Te Deum & Jubilate, etc.) was performed with the intention by its patrons to uphold England’s political establishment. Of course there were benefits to dedicating great works to some of the most powerful artistic patrons in western Europe, but Handel and most of his contemporaries made a choice to do so. Whether it was out of financial necessity or not, composers and their music often served to uphold systems of hegemony at this time.
We look back at events with the eyes of the most privileged and I’m sure it is much easier for you to picture life in Queen Anne’s court rather than on the poorest corners of early 18th century London. This problem compounds itself the farther we go back in history as literacy was reserved for only the most elite of Europeans, further distorting our understanding of the access to, and power of art.
The Utrecht Te Deum & Jubilate was written in commemoration to the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. Though peace is central to the works themselves, their historical significance is what bothers me. The treaty itself was the first major victory for the new British Crown and its terms displayed the beginnings of a political system which has caused blood to be shed across the globe ever since: Imperialism. With significant gains in territorial holdings in North America as well as the opening up of trade with North American Aboriginals further west, colonial concerns were now intricately linked with continental politics. Anne, who reigned during the war, was the first to be styled as monarch of the “Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” and many after her death saw her as the matriarchal figure of “Britannia.”
As Anne’s birthday ode, Eternal Source of Light Divine, and The Utrecht Te Deum & Jubilate make up the bulk of our program I believe that we have a responsibility to point out that, however noble its intentions, EUBO’s marking of the centenary of The Great War in fact displays music which upheld and glorified a political system that, to a certain extent, allowed for an assassination in Sarajevo to escalate into all-out war affecting a global population practically overnight.
I’m not saying that this music shouldn’t be performed, quite the contrary. Its presentation, however, could be better geared to outlining the complex nature of its creation and allow for us to better appreciate our own history through live performance. What I am advocating for is an embrace of the whole truth to a work, even if that means acknowledging certain facts which may run contrary to the intent of its performance. So long as we take works at more than their face value, a performance for the purpose of marking an historical event such as the 28th of June can be a noble activity. Unfortunately, this sort of approach hasn’t been adopted by the mainstream.
These works are powerful expressions by England’s foremost musical personality of the 18th century, there is no doubt about that. Furthermore, what endears us as artists and audiences to them is the complexity and craftsmanship they display. In that spirit, let us also consider the significant impact those works made for their patrons, as well as what that means for us today.
- Read more of Andrew Burn’s work on his blog, The Heckeler.