David Gostick on Handel’s Saul with Portsmouth Choral Union and the Consort of Twelve

On Sunday 7 July at 6.30pm Portsmouth Choral Union and the Consort of Twelve are performing Saul by Handel at St Paul’s Church in Chichester as part of the Festival of Chichester. David Gostick, conductor of the PCU, tells us more.

Saul is one of these absolute masterpieces in terms of in terms of its dramatic intensity.

Handel made absolutely pots of money out of being an opera composer and composing Italian operas in London, and he produced a lot of masterpieces in that way. But at the time the format of Italian opera was very strict in terms of having to have particular numbers of da capo arias and so on. That restricted dramatically what he could do, but in the oratorio, he could throw all of those rules out the window.

And so in, in Saul you’ve got a much more free-form composition, which allows him to really shape the characters the way he wants to, and enables the chorus to be involved in a in a really unique way.

So the chorus drives the drama: the adulation of David drives Saul completely round the twist. And you really see his descent into madness, as well as his jealous rage, and all the people around him trying to deal with that and respond to that, including the chorus. So it’s got this fantastic narrative thrust that is frankly far more exciting than that in Messiah.

And I think this is the thing that we it is forget about Handel now: because Messiah has become this one big piece that everyone knows and gets performed over and over again, we ignore the fact that his works that had a big dramatic narrative were massively popular and were endlessly performed.

For me as someone with a background in opera and stage work, it’s really exciting to do these pieces that have that narrative thrust with a real dramatic development of character and plot.

Charles Jennens wrote the libretto, who was the same chap as who selected the texts for Messiah. Saul draws on the biblical narrative, but the characters are developed by the librettist in a way that sort of expands from hints in the biblical story. In his other oratorios Handel sometimes invented characters in order to heighten the dramatic tension. He particularly loved writing for female voices, and he quite often has to invent women because there aren’t enough women in the Bible. Handel has some wonderfully strong women, for example Belshazzar’s mother in Belshazzar, for example, whom he entirely created: a wonderful, interesting, complex character, and that’s what Handel really excels at.

So what can we say about the music?

He wrote on a really broad canvas with Saul, a big orchestra. So we have strings, oboes, bassoons, trumpets and timps. As well as that, he explored some less usual instruments. The tradition is that David played the harp to soothe Saul, so we have managed to find a Baroque harp.

When David comes back in after killing Goliath, he’s welcomed in with the sound of bells. Handel went to the trouble of popping down to the local blacksmith, and getting him to build an instrument. It was a keyboard instrument with bells inside, so essentially what we would now think of as a keyed glockenspiel. But again, not a sound you would associate with Baroque music, so you’ve got the sound of bells as well as trumpets and timps. There will be an incredible orchestral colour, as well as the sort of grand choruses you would expect from Handel.

There are these wonderful, varied arias: Saul’s ranting and raving, David trying to soothe him, love duets between David and Saul’s daughter. And the wonderful relationship between David and Saul’s son Jonathan. So there, the music is really wide-ranging and interesting. And because Handel did not get stuck in one trope, the da capo aria, the music passes from one thing to another, really quite rapidly at points, and so the drama is pushed forward very energetically through the music.

And of course, we’ve got the Consort of Twelve playing, who are a bit of a local institution: I think people must realise how lucky Chichester is to have this extremely accomplished period instrument ensemble. They play on copies of instruments of the time, so produce that that very blended sound from the strings and oboes from the period, that wonderfully rich sound, and that this also allows the players to play with real finesse, energy and articulation.

They will also be playing on natural trumpets which make one hell of a noise. These great long pea shooters that the brass players can only control through their lips make the most brilliant resonant sounds which will really crown the big choruses. These players are incredibly skilled – they’re like stuntmen, being able to make this range of sound from something that is essentially such a basic instrument.

We’ve got some fabulous soloists as well. Our bass, Jamie Wooland, is a Jette Parker soloist at the Royal Opera House. Kieran White, tenor, is all over Europe, doing all sorts of amazing Baroque things with some really established groups. Charlotte Bowden and Joe Bolger are specialist Baroque singers.

Ada Witczyk is playing violin: she has a wonderful sideline in playing contemporary music for the Baroque violin, which is quite niche. There are various sort of concertos and sonatas that people have written very recently for her exploring the sonority of the Baroque violin, but using modern contemporary compositional techniques. She’s a really interesting artist, and she and I have worked together with the Consort a few times before. It’s lovely to perform with these musicians that I know so well: I very often play harpsichord with the Consort.

I think this is the ninth Handel oratorio that I’m performing because I’ve sort of made it a bit of a personal mission to explore these other great works: they’re not neglected works, they’re very well known and very well recorded, but they don’t get performed very often by choral societies as much as they should. Why is that?

I think we’ve got stuck on Messiah for various reasons. The tradition of big performances with the annual big festivals of it started early on. Of course, we all love the familiar and the solid, and Messiah has fantastic music. It’s an absolute masterpiece. But we’ve lost sight of how much more Handel has to offer than just Messiah. These dramatic oratorios allow the choir to be personalities.

So in Belshazzar, for example, a fantastic piece I did with the PCU a few years ago, you get have the Babylonians, who are fun loving and drunken and disreputable; the Persians, who are very disciplined and warlike and upstanding, and the Jews who are frankly miserable most of the time because they’re under the Babylonian yoke. The chorus sings music that is completely different for each character. Handel manages to characterise these three choruses really well.

It’s the only oratorio I can think of where sarcasm plays a really big role. So at the start the Babylonians are on the wall and yelling “oi, oi, Cyrus loser.” And you’re just mocking, throwing insults around. And that is just so exciting for a choir to be able to enter into the drama. So, with all my choirs I really encourage them to take on these other Handel pieces and discover the excitement of all that.

In my academic work I recently finished a doctorate on music in Wimborne in Dorset in the 18th century. A part of that was looking at how these oratorios were filtering out from the big centres of London, Bristol and Southampton into the provinces and finding performances of Judas and Maccabeus and Acia and Galatea in Wimborne, which is a pretty small town in the mid-18th century. Handel has been such a big part of our cultural life without pause since his lifetime.

It’s nice to focus on one town: Wimborne is an unusual place because the church is very old, founded in 705, probably on the site of an older church. It became a royal peculiar, with a charter from Elizabeth I, which was renewed by Charles I, which allowed for choral music in the church. It was one of only four parish churches that actually managed to get choral music up and running again straight away after the Restoration of 1660. So it had this very strong choral tradition and that made it something of a cultural centre: artistically it punched well above its weight because of this this church and these larger events, which essentially comprised the gentry of the area coming together to fraternise and enjoy some Handel.

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