This picture comes from the tomb of the 19th century Bishop Selwyn of Lichfield. It’s in the Lady Chapel at Lichfield Cathedral, and this tiled rendering of a pit on the nearby Staffordshire coalfield is the backdrop to a fabulous Victorian confection of stone Gothic tracery, brass lettering and a gleaming, life-sized marble effigy of the great Bishop himself. No-one saw anything odd about putting this image in a mock-Medieval tomb in a real Medieval cathedral. The scene – so recognisable to members of the Bishop’s flock – was part of the flesh and blood of his life and ministry; being truthful, it couldn’t be incongruous. (At the other end of the tomb, similar painted tiles show a Maori war-canoe and tree-ferns – Selwyn spent much of his career in New Zealand).
It came to mind because on Saturday night, Birmingham Post business (and to be honest, a fair bit of personal pleasure) took me to a performance of Part One of Handel’s Messiah by the Lichfield Cathedral Chorus, accompanied by the Staffordshire Brass Band. My review of the performance is here; but even before the night, I was surprised by the way musical friends reacted to the very notion of a brass band accompanying Handel. “Christ, no!” exclaimed one. “This is all wrong” declared another. At which I could only think: how could something wrong, sound so right?
Wasn’t Handel’s music once the staple of amateur ensembles across the UK, performed with enthusiasm by groups of all sizes and skills? Isn’t that still the case – and isn’t that a good thing? Aren’t we glad that performers and listeners feel able to co-opt a great work of art into their own musical lives and traditions? And talking of traditions, haven’t we all now accepted that the brass band movement in this country is our very own, original, “Sistema” – a grass-roots, community-based musical movement capable of producing virtuoso players of international calibre, and an inspiration to composers from Holst to Robert Simpson?
The performance was sincere, the playing bright, precise and wonderfully fresh; I’m ashamed to say that I heard harmonies in the overture that I’d never noticed before. But then, I’ve been a gigging cellist. I know how under-rehearsed scratch string ensembles feel about the annual Messiah with their local choral soc. This was very different.
I’m not saying that I’d always trade a smart, sensitive period-instrument orchestra for a brass band or even a Beecham-esque full symphony orchestra; just that no one performance style or tradition can ever have the final word on a work as limitless as Messiah. Also that it’s not every day you get to hear a really cracking countertenor singing against tenor horns and cornet. Plus, those tubas sounded like they were having the time of their lives. It felt right; it felt real; and I think that’s a feeling that Bishop Selwyn – not to say Handel himself – would have understood.