The Great Handel Triennial Festivals

Handel Festival 1857. Illustrated London News Saturday, June 27, 1857; pg. 22; Issue 866 (UL: NPR.C.313)

Large-scale choral performance of Handel had become a firmly-established feature through the work of Michael Costa and the Sacred Harmonic Society (founded in 1836) and the Crystal Palace provided an ideal location in which to develop this very English tradition. The Great Handel Festival of June 1857 was presented as a precursor to the celebrations which would mark the centenary of the composer’s death two years later. It was organised by Robert Bowley, Librarian of the Sacred Harmonic Society who, in 1858, became General Manager of the Palace. The performance space was improved, creating the Handel Auditorium and a new, massive four-manual organ built by Gray and Davidson. A force of some 2,000 singers was assembled and an orchestra of over 400 including trombones, ophicleides, serpents, drums and side drums. A world away from today’s very different approach…

The Musical Times waxes lyrical in its report (July 1 1857, p.71):

“…but never yet in the world’s history has choral music been sung to greater perfection, or its vast powers in affecting the human mind more strongly felt.”

Handbill for Messiah Day 1859 (University Library music collections: Crystal Palace programmes)

An even more extravagant June 1859 Festival was planned for the Handel centenary and preparations made accordingly. The performance space was improved, as was the organ and new, outsize, timpani were manufactured in readiness for the occasion. Thus, the pattern was set for the subsequent Handel Triennial Festivals. Monday (day one) was Messiah Day, Wednesday ( day two) presented selections from Handel’s works (Selection Day) and Friday (day three) was Israel Day, the whole preceded by an open rehearsal on the Saturday before. The festivals continued until 1926 first under the direction of Costa until 1880 and then August Manns to 1900, Frederick Cowen to 1923 and Henry Wood in 1926.

The forces involved were truly Olympian. The programme for the 1859 Festival (currently on view in the Music Department exhibition) lists all those involved: 2,765 singers, an orchestra of 457, the organist, soloists (including Clara Novello and Sims Reeves) and the 194 stewards. There is a special sheet instructing people on access routes to the palace depending on mode of transport and ticket colour. The total audience over the Festival was some 81,319. The acoustical issues for both performers and audience were a challenge and in the ensuing years changes continued to be made to improve conditions and the event became ever more popular.

Sir Michael Costa 1808-1884 (public domain)

This was in no small part due to Sir Michael Costa, conductor of the Philharmonic Society from 1846-1854 and of the Sacred Harmonic Society from 1848-1882. He was credited with bringing discipline to orchestral playing through his use of the baton and his authoritative manner and insistence on the highest-quality performers irrespective of budget to ensure a successful outcome.

From the 1883 Festival August Manns was on the podium bringing with him his extensive experience of working at the Palace (and therefore a keen appreciation of the complexities of the acoustic) and a new approach to rehearsal. He would first ensure the orchestra knew the music it was to play and then work with the choir and was at pains to convey his confidence in the musicians. Henry Saxe-Wyndham in August Manns and the Saturday concerts (London, Scott, 1909) reports the assessment of one famous music critic of the time:

“…the greatest musical machine of all time…The vast mass moved with well-nigh perfect precision, took up every point with accuracy….and made Englishmen proud of the musical resources of their country.”

Remarkably, recordings from 1888 survive.

Manns retired in 1900 and the Triennial Festival continued until 1926, the final event being conducted by Henry Wood. Whilst the fashion (and passion?) for large-scale Handel has now passed, there is no doubt that it was the Triennial Festivals which endeared the composer to the hearts of the many, whether as particpant or listener.


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