On Christmas Day in 1815, about 945 Bostonians filed into King’s Chapel for the very first concert of the newly formed Handel and Haydn Society. Two hundred years later, in what will be the culminating event of H+H’s yearlong bicentennial celebration, Bostonians will once again file into King’s Chapel for a concert of great significance and remarkable beauty.
It all began on Feb 22, 1815, when a celebratory concert was held at King’s Chapel in honor of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which effectively ended the War of 1812. A choir of over 100 performed selections from Handel’s oratorios. The gala was so successful that members of Boston’s first orchestra, the Philo-Harmonic Society, felt that a new singing society should be formed. Just one month later, on March 24 at the home of co-founder Gottlieb Graupner, the Handel and Haydn Society was officially born.
By April 20, there were 31 H+H members, most of whom were middle-class men that were members of their local church choirs. Rehearsals and preparations for the inaugural concert continued through the summer and fall of 1815.
On Dec 25, the concert began at 6 pm and lasted about three hours. Tickets were $1. An orchestra of 12 plus an organist joined the 100-person chorus, comprised of 90 men and 10 women; women were considered invited guests, and were not able to join as members until 1967.
The concert was a terrific success, with the Boston Centinel exclaiming: “We have no language to do justice to the feelings experienced in attending … those who are judges of the performance are unanimous in their declaration of the superiority to any ever before given in this town … the excitements to loud applause were frequently irresistible.”
Like the inaugural concert of 1815, the bicentennial concert on Nov 21 will include “The Heavens Are Telling” from Haydn’s The Creation, “Lift Up Ye Heads, O Ye Gates” and “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. Also on the bill are works by Kent, Mozart, and Byrd. “While some of these compositions are less well-known today, all are not only a part of H+H’s history, but are also beautiful music. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday evening,” said Teresa Neff, an MIT musicologist and the Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow at H+H.
H+H has performed ever since that momentous Christmas evening in 1815, making it the oldest continuously performing arts organization in the United States. “Before H+H began performing,” Neff said, “there were few regular concerts of classical music in Boston” (the Boston Symphony Orchestra wouldn’t be founded until 1881). The historical and cultural significance of H+H is tremendous: Not only were other Handel and Haydn Societies around the country inspired by it, but it was responsible for the US premieres of works like Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, Verdi’s Requiem, and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Around 1823, H+H even commissioned Beethoven for a composition, which was unfortunately never completed.
“H+H is coming home,” said Neff. “It is wonderful that King’s Chapel today is so very similar to how the space was in 1815. For H+H to perform in 2015 some of the same pieces that the first audience heard in 1815 connects past and present in a special way. There will never be another celebration like this one.” That Bostonians get to claim H+H as their own national treasure is indeed why we must be a part of the celebration, as always, with our ears to the past and our eyes to the future.
HANDEL + HAYDN SOCIETY BICENTENNIAL CONCERT. KING’S CHAPEL, 58 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. 11.21 AT 7 PM. HANDELANDHAYDN.ORG