To set the scene, the year is 1815.
James Madison is president. In Europe: the Congress of Vienna. Bismarck is a babe. Pushkin is just starting out. Napoleon will soon be trounced at Waterloo.
In music, Haydn has died six years earlier. Schubert is a teenager. Brahms is not yet born.
Meanwhile in Boston, a group of 16 men is laying the groundwork for, of all things, an oratorio society. “Too long,” they boldly declare, “have those to whom heaven has given a voice to perform and an ear to enjoy music neglected a science which has done much towards subduing the ferocious passions of men and giving innocent pleasure to society.”
They pledge themselves to improving the performance of sacred music, and “introducing into more general use the works of Handel and Haydn and other eminent composers.”
At their meetings, this group of almost exclusively amateur musicians “tunes” its voices with spirits. Then they lift them in song. By Christmas Day they are ready to perform at King’s Chapel. One thousand people turn out and hear arias from Haydn’s “Creation” and Handel’s “Messiah.” A local newspaper instantly declares it the best performance the city has ever heard.
And there we have it: The Handel and Haydn Society has arrived.
Incredibly enough, it has not fallen silent since that day. This fact makes H&H the longest-running performing arts organization in America. It also means that this month, the society finally arrives at the milestone of its 200th-anniversary season, beginning with a festive program on Friday, to be performed in what is by comparison an upstart venue: Symphony Hall.
Admittedly, one does not always stop to think of H&H in these long historic terms. On most days, the group dresses the part of other ensembles that count their history in mere single digits, or maybe decades. Like them, it has brightly lighted office space, rents concert halls, and uses e-mail marketing and brand consultants and hashtags. But it is not really like them. It has lived many lives.
The society has performed the American premiere of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” and it has jammed with Chick Corea. It has commissioned an oratorio from Beethoven. That Beethoven. And it has sung in some of the largest concerts that the world has ever seen, with a chorus of 20,000 singers, an orchestra of 2,000, and a group of Boston firemen who beat on anvils.
It has thrived and it has stagnated. It has nearly shuttered many times. It has shifted with changing fashions, and it has ignored fashions. It waited a shocking 142 years before granting women the right to membership. It performed for three US presidents in the 19th century. It has sung completely forgotten works such as Anton Rubinstein’s opera “The Tower of Babel.” And it has sung “Messiah” many, many, many times. It has needed, and sought, professional help. It has thrived again.
Over the next season, the society will be placing its vast, multitudes-containing history at center stage, with a richly narrated new coffee table book, a Boston Public Library exhibition opening in March, and a set of programs spotlighting works that the society has introduced in this country, among them the “St. Matthew Passion,” Haydn’s “Creation,” Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” and — could it be otherwise? — Handel’s “Messiah.”
To flip through these pages of H&H’s past is at once to summon the history of classical music in Boston, and in America. The society’s founders, and its later stewards, grappled with all of the big questions: How to bring a European art to American soil, and then how to make it this country’s own. Who should perform it, and who should listen. How it should change over time. How it should not change.
Within the narrower field of oratorio singing, always at the heart of H&H, the society reflected shifting tastes. In the later decades of the 19th century, its performing forces swelled to vast numbers, indulging the period’s love of grandness. In 1865, it performed with a chorus of 700. H&H preserved these aesthetic values, at times creakily, well into the 20th century, switching paths only after a sharp jolt attributed to a single lacerating review by the former Globe critic Michael Steinberg in 1965. New leadership soon arrived, and the society gradually embraced the new norms of the early-music movement, with its emphases of leaner forces, faster tempos, lighter articulations, and a rhythmic sensibility linked to older Baroque forms of dance.
The Handel and Haydn Society today stands on the shoulders of its first two centuries. Its history is a landmark for all of Boston.
Of course, one of the delectable ironies is that when H&H embraced so-called historically informed performance, it was reaching back to an era that included its own history. And judging from what we can piece together about H&H’s own earliest performances — said to have a chorus of 90 men and 10 women, with men singing alto parts in falsetto and sometimes doubling the sopranos, with German and Italian texts possibly delivered in English translation — it’s clear that these musicians of 1815 never got the memo on period performance practice.
The point is not that the past recovered by today’s early-music movement never existed, but that it was multiple, and that historically informed performance depends on whose history you are looking at. It also reflects contemporary tastes. Indeed, the most revealing exercise would be for H&H to attempt to reconstruct one of its own early performances. That would be something to hear.
In 1815, the H&H repertoire was not so distant from, well, the year 1815. Gottlieb Graupner, one of the two professional musicians in the society’s founding class, had played oboe in a London orchestra of Haydn. In 1823, the society did reach out to Beethoven himself for a work, and there were reports of an “oratorio for Boston” on his to-do list, but he never delivered. (Let’s imagine him muttering something about the late string quartets.)
In truth, far from a tale of a coolly visionary organization gliding augustly toward its own destiny, the early chapters of H&H were rough-and-tumble years, when crises came early and often. The society was saved from one near-extinction by an accidentally lucrative foray into publishing (specifically, Lowell Mason’s book of church music). The early years also featured splinter groups and turf wars, choruses like the Boston Oratorio Society, which had the temerity to go toe-to-toe with H&H, performing Sigismund Neukomm’s “Hymn of the Night” on the very same night. Talk about a provocation!
The closer you look, the more the society’s longevity seems due to a combination of foresight, the passionate devotion of its membership, and sheer good luck. Another crisis came in the mid-1840s, when the public’s tastes were shifting away from oratorios. The society was desperate for an infusion of new leadership. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, a young and idealistic band of crack German musicians, fleeing the failed European revolutions of 1848, washed up on Boston shores.
The Germania Musical Society, as it came to be known, was a sensation. Before long, its conductor was also leading H&H, bringing his two groups together for the local premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1853. That tenure was short, but another Germanian named Carl Zerrahn then took up the H&H tiller and held it for over four decades, a distinguished reign that transformed what was still basically a glorified church choir into a real performance group capable of holding its own on an increasingly crowded music scene. Zerrahn’s organist was B. J. Lang, a locally born musician who had traveled to Europe to study with Liszt, and then loomed large in musical Boston upon his return.
H&H leadership battles and internal politics spilled onto the pages of the city’s dailies and were the stuff of editorial cartoons — one of them depicting the mighty Lang shelved in a box, while Zerrahn conducts “Why do the Heathen Rage.” There were also triennial festivals that grew ever more ambitious in size.
In 1869, H&H and Zerrahn joined the efforts of an entrepreneurial bandmaster named Patrick Gilmore, who convened a National Peace Jubilee with a chorus of 10,000 and an orchestra of 500. A new building was erected for an audience of 30,000. Those Boston firemen were recruited for Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus.” Gilmore got even more audacious with his 1872 “World Peace Jubilee.” Chorus: over 17,000. This time Johann Strauss Jr. attended and led his waltzes, with the help of 100 assistant conductors. The “Anvil Chorus” was punctuated with cannon blasts. President Grant attended too. We are told he liked the cannons best. The new H&H book describes Strauss as being “mobbed much like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, or the Beatles, with hundreds of women clamoring for a lock of his hair.”
But could classical music have its own homegrown American stars? By the early 20th century, American musicians were more than ready to take the lead. Too often they were not given the chance. When Zerrahn finally stepped down in 1898, the society had an opportunity to choose a distinguished American-born leader: George Whitefield Chadwick. Instead it passed over Chadwick not once but twice, in favor of musicians with a European pedigree.
That this kind of prejudice was widely held and persisted well into the 20th century — witness how the BSO rebuffed Koussevitzky’s call for Leonard Bernstein as his successor — does not make it any less regrettable. “The H&H folks were vociferous in my praise, both as conductor and composer,” Chadwick bitterly recalled in his memoirs, “but they forgot it all a year or two later, when they needed a new conductor and sent to New York for a German singing teacher that nobody had ever heard of.”
The theme of history itself bobs and weaves through the pages of H&H’s history, its shifting awareness of its own increasingly venerable past. At the organization’s 50th season, it sealed with great fanfare an inscribed silver box, a time capsule, filled with several musical journals and newspapers of the day containing coverage of its concerts. There were strict instructions not to open the box until the organization’s 100th anniversary in 1915.
But when that centenary rolled round, no one even remembered the box, which was left languishing in a safe and discovered only in 1940. When it was then opened, one newspaper reported choristers in titters about the period ads proclaiming “The Great Invention of the Age — Hoop Skirts.” The 1940 clip appears in the newly published H&H book, allowing us to marvel at earlier generations marveling at earlier generations.
The longest directorship in the early 20th century belonged to Thompson Stone. An earnest paternalism comes through in one 1934 letter he sent to his enthusiastic charges: “The singer has a special task,” Stone instructs. “He must have a message to deliver, voice to convey the message, and a technique to express it. So-o-o-o, begin to vocalize. How’s the breadth? Does the voice sound well? Can you ‘make it behave’? Practice — every day.”
The year 1967 marked a major turning point, with the arrival of music director Thomas Dunn, who broadened the society’s repertoire beyond choral masterworks and, more seismically, began integrating principles from the burgeoning early-music movement. It was Dunn who set the society on its modern course. H&H reduced and fully professionalized its chorus around 1980, another major turning point. Five years later, Christopher Hogwood arrived, and switched the orchestra over to period instruments.
In more recent memory, Grant Llewellyn extended H&H’s range to orchestral works of the mid and even late 19th century. Roger Norrington, as artistic adviser, injected some refreshing irreverence. The society’s educational work has taken on a new prominence. And 2009 marked the arrival of Harry Christophers, a veteran of the vibrant British choral scene, who has brought new luster to the chorus.
And yet, among all these other things, the society’s history also reminds us that behind H&H’s present-day professional sheen lies uncountable hours of service from everyday Bostonians, the sedulous work and proud commitment of thousands of amateur singers faithfully invested in the rigors and joys of communal music-making. Movingly, in one H&H history compiled at the close of the 19th century, dozens upon dozens of members’ names are listed, some followed by an asterisk. A small, unobtrusive note explains this marking in deceptively clerical terms: The membership of each of these individuals was ended only by their own deaths. The list of names fills page after page. The asterisks speak for themselves.
The Handel and Haydn Society, as it now turns bracingly toward its own future, stands on the shoulders of its first two centuries. Its history is a landmark for all of Boston. Let the celebrations begin.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.