By Marvin J. Ward
BOSTON — During the last full week of March, Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, the nation’s oldest continuously performing arts organization, marked its 200th anniversary with several events. They began March 24 — the date of the signing of the founding documents in 1815 — with the opening of an interactive multi-media exhibit at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.
All of the materials produced for the bicentennial activities, including the 246-page book co-authored by Teresa M. Neff and Jan Swafford, bear the same title: The Handel and Haydn Society: Bringing Music to Life for 200 Years. It’s a well-conceived and well-executed show that combines sight and sound, and puts the Society in a historical context readily accessible to and understandable by everyone. The exhibition runs through Sept. 5. An accompanying brochure prepared by H+H is available there.
The exhibition gives a very good sense of the role H+H played in the development of classical music traditions in Boston and in the nation. What began as an amateur community choir evolved into what it is today an organization of professional musicians offering high-quality, historically informed performances, as well as music education through school programs and youth choirs.
Documents, objects, and photographs with captions are grouped chronologically by 50-year segments and displayed in cases in the Cheverus Room on the library’s third floor. Another case holds then-and-now photographs of the society’s primary performance venues, with indications of what is located on the sites of those no longer standing. (Google and iPhone apps are available for a walking tour to visit the society.)
A continuous loop of representative recorded samples from performances and commercial recordings provides a sonic background in the space. Also, headsets are attached to some of the display cases for visitors to listen to recordings of excerpts from H+H performances. A reconstruction, prepared at MIT, of what the first performance of an excerpt from Messiah by the volunteer chorus of 100 singers (90 men and 10 women) might have sounded like can be heard at a separate corner listening station.
The last case includes sample instruments, showing the differences between period and modern ones, because H+H has been a “HIP” (Historically Informed Performance) organization since 1986. It also includes materials about the major community outreach activities in which H+H is currently engaged.
Each of the displays’s 50-year segments opens with an introductory label giving parallel statistics: the names of the U.S. presidents, the populations of the nation and the city of Boston, the names of H+H directors, the size of the chorus, and a general characterization of the period. A timeline lists major international, national, and local events, achievements, and milestones, putting the archival materials displayed into the context of general history.
These materials include program books (beginning with the first concert, which included selections from Handel’s Messiah in December 1815), tickets (required for singers to get into rehearsals, too!), photographs, and songbooks from the H+H’s publishing house, which was established in 1821. Also on display is the program of the first concert in Symphony Hall (Mendelssohn’s Elijah) on October 21, 1900. A one-dollar bronze medal cast for the centennial in 1915, with Handel and Haydn portrayed on the front and the Seal of the Society on the back, is also there.
The selection of items is judicious and varied, including some associated with major events, such as the memorial services for Lincoln on June 1, 1865, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April 1945. A time capsule was buried in 1865 to be opened in 1915 — but was forgotten and wasn’t discovered until April 15, 1940. Its original list of contents, and some of those items (newspapers), are there.
Several of the programs included are for works whose U.S. premiere was given by H+H. Their number and nature will be surprising to many. H+H has commissioned works in every 25th-anniversary year, one of them being the Grand Mass in E-flat by Amy Beach, the first by a female composer. It was premiered Feb. 7, 1892, in a concert pairing it with Beethoven’s 1808 Choral Fantasy for solo piano, chorus, and orchestra, with Beach as piano soloist. The display for this included a photograph and label card about her, the score of her Mass, and the program for the concert.
Visitors will have a good concept of the role the organization has played in our Boston’s classical music scene. They will see representative samples and unique items, all of real interest, and will leave remembering many of them because they will not be overwhelmed with minutiae.
Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December 2009.