StrangeLove in Bath
or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About HIP and Love Beecham’s Handel
Vol 2 No 2 (July 2023)
Staunton Music Festival takes great pride in presenting works within accurate historical context – so far as that can be achieved. Sometimes called Historically-Informed Performance, or “HIP” for short, this philosophy stands behind our motto to “Rethink Classical": presenting familiar and unfamiliar works in ways that cause audiences to take notice, to hear music in new ways. A primary effort in this mission centers on presenting Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical compositions – anything written before 1850 – on historically authentic instruments. For instance, our production of Handel’s Orlando on Friday August 11 will utilize a small ensemble of gut-stringed instruments, Baroque bows, period horns and winds, and of course harpsichord.
But another Handel work, programmed for the The Great Elopement concert on Thursday August 17, offers a curious departure from that practice. In that case we will present Handel’s music with all the power and panache of a large, 40-person modern symphony orchestra. Wait – Handel on modern violins and modern clarinets and modern trombones (!), which were not even developed until the middle of the 19th century? Have we capitulated in our mission? Where is this vaunted historical fidelity? What’s next: Vivaldi's Four Seasons for jazz band?
Rest assured: our ethos remains intact; we are still staying true to the spirit of the music’s composition. For the music presented in The Great Elopement is only partly by Handel himself. The tunes may be his, but the orchestration belongs to the great English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961).
Conductor on a Mission
Beecham was one of the most respected conductors of his generation. He led the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for decades. As such, he was involved in thousands of performances of standard orchestral literature, from the Viennese classicists to Schumann, Berlioz, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss. However, Beecham also had a deep fondness for George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), the German-born and Italian-trained Baroque composer who spent the majority of his life in London. Compared to other conductors of more recent generations, Beecham had no particular interest in restoring Handel to any kind of historical authenticity. He eschewed what he considered the pedantic opinions of musicologists and scholars, and kept his energies centered on bringing Handel’s music back to the concert hall. His esteem for the Baroque composer is obvious. For Beecham, Handel was “the great international master of all time . . . He wrote Italian music better than any Italian; French music better than any Frenchman; English music better than any Englishman; and, with the exception of Bach, outrivaled all other Germans.”
In the early 20th century, Handel’s operas had not come back into fashion, but Beecham knew and appreciated many of those obscure works. He decided to excerpt some of his favorite passages from a dozen operas and reorchestrate them for modern symphony orchestra. In the end he produced several collections, including a work originally titled The Great Elopement. The music was first performed on an American radio broadcast on April 7, 1945, just weeks before the end of World War II in Europe; audiences in Rochester, New York, enjoyed the public premiere a few days later.
Beecham's Handelian score was intended to accompany a ballet by the same name, though the projected collaboration did not materialize. Still, it had progressed far enough that Beecham himself had developed a complete plot scenario based on episodes from real life. Set in Bath, England in the 18th century, The Great Elopement centers on the love affair between Elizabeth Linley, daughter of a prominent composer, and playwright Richard Sheridan. In 1770 the real-life Miss Linley was engaged to a wealthy older man. She resisted the marriage and broke off things rather abruptly, much to her father’s chagrin. Instead, she eloped to France with the dashing Sheridan, soon to be famous as author of The School for Scandal (1777). Art imitating life, one might say....
In Beecham’s scenario, we witness various episodes from this whole social “event”, including a hunting dance, several love scenes, and the entrances and exits of persons circulating around the baths and gardens. A pompous cad, Beau Nash, presides over the action and facilitates the growing love between young Elizabeth and Richard. While the ballet was never staged, Beecham maintained a fondness for the music. He created two suites of movements drawn from The Great Elopement, by this time also known as Love in Bath. He programmed these suites extensively throughout his career. In fact, music from The Great Elopement had a place on Beecham’s final concert in 1960.
The Elopement of Beecham's Orchestral Parts
A score for The Great Elopement was published by Mills Music of New York in 1948, and a full score can be found in the music libraries of numerous colleges. But orchestral musicians, as you may know, do not play from a full score; instead they read from a “part”, that usually contains just their own music. (This eliminates the need for violinists, for example, to make nearly constant page turns.) But the performance parts for Elopement – to our best knowledge – were never printed. The Royal Phil's orchestral librarian wrote out parts by hand, and Beecham apparently toted these around to fuel his concert programs. He made a recording of the work in 1959, after which the parts for The Great Elopement disappeared as quietly as Miss Linley and Richard Sheridan. Inquiries with the orchestras Beecham himself founded or led – the Royal Phil principally, as well as the London Philharmonic and even the BBC Orchestra – came back empty. Almost certainly this music has not been performed in the United States since Beecham’s death in 1961. Moreover, it is very unlikely that American audiences would have heard it live since that Rochester concert in 1945.
You may be reading this and thinking, “But wait, I’ve heard this piece in Beecham’s arrangement.” Possible, yes, in one of two ways. Either you happened to be in the UK at one of Beecham’s concerts in the 1950s on which The Great Elopement was programmed – very unlikely but possible – or you have heard the recording he made that still circulates on YouTube and Spotify. Our performance on Thursday August 17 of Beecham’s music for The Great Elopement, or Love in Bath, may not be a world or American premiere, but it is about as close as one can get.
The Festival's performance of The Great Elopement marks an important resurrection of this music, and many hands had a role in bringing it to fruition. Enter Lady Shirley Beecham, widow of the conductor and executor of his massive musical collection. Around 1997 Lady Beecham bequeathed thousands of items to the University of Sheffield, including conducting scores, orchestral performance parts, and newspaper clippings about her husband. This donation inspired the creation of the Sir Thomas Beecham Music Library at the University. Among the cataloged items are several folders of the original handwritten parts for The Great Elopement. Progress!
As the Beecham Archive is not a lending library, access to these materials would require an on-site visit in order to inspect and potentially photograph all of the relevant music. We turned first to our friend Benjamin Gilmore, a violinist who lives in London and will be in Staunton to lead the Handel-Beecham performance on Thursday August 17. Gilmore is concertmaster of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, founded in 1945 and whose very first conductor was Beecham himself. Gilmore, in turn, connected us with Kenneth Chung, music librarian for the London Symphony Orchestra. Beecham himself had a substantial role in the early years of the LSO in the 1920s. With eager cooperation from the archive staff, Kenneth agreed to travel to Sheffield and examine these materials on a Wednesday in late June 2023. To our great relief, everything was intact, complete, and in excellent condition. After several hours photographing every instrumental part, Kenneth had secured everything needed to make our performance a reality. We will dedicate the concert to Kenneth for his diligence and expert attention to detail; to the Beecham Music Library and its staff; and to Lady Beecham for her support of the project.
Beecham's Scenario Realized
The final piece to this puzzle involves Happenstance Theater and their development of choreography to enliven the musical results. As noted earlier, The Great Elopement/Love in Bath was originally conceived as a ballet with many movements and many characters loosely based on the historical elopement of Richard Sheridan and Elizabeth Linley. In what may be the first event of its kind, Happenstance Theater will provide a visual staging – not a ballet, in truth – of Beecham’s conception at the August performance. As noted by Mark Jaster, co-artistic director of Happenstance:
Our production is a selection of music from the full suite, and we have simplified the original concept to one that could be presented by our five players on a small stage in front of the orchestra. Otherwise, the Happenstance staging pretty much follows Beecham’s original scenario. The action is set in and around a party hosted by the celebrated dandy, Beau Nash. At the party Mrs. Linley intends to introduce her daughter Miss Linley to the Squire, a rich old bachelor. Mrs. Linley hopes to marry her daughter off to this squire. Sheridan, a friend of Nash, is also in attendance at the party. Sheridan and Miss Linley meet and fall instantly in love, and Nash facilitates their elopement that very evening with the services of a drunken pastor. Mother is furious when she finds out, but ultimately accepts, and all live happily ever after… Except that historically, married life wasn’t quite that simple for the Sheridans!
And what about the musical result? Of course, the sound Beecham sought and found in these orchestral suites is a far cry from what Handel and his contemporaries would ever have imagined. Yet this is Handel as the well-spring, as the source – not the finished product. Handel is notorious for borrowing themes from other composers and, often, from his own earlier works. Here we have a later musician (Beecham) borrowing extensively from Handel, and it just so happens that his inspiration translates 18th-century musical ideas into 20th-century musical colors. Some moments make one think of antique-sounding passages in Delius, Elgar, or Vaughan Williams. In other words, by sharing the outward trimmings of a modern full orchestra, The Great Elopement stands in two worlds at once, as echoes of Handel's lyrical voice live on in later English composers. In particular, the availability of brass allows Beecham to build tremendous force. The movement titled "The Exquisites," based on material from Parnasso in festa, is a wonderful case in point. The dolorous harmonic formula grows from timid strains to powerful trombones blasts; muted trumpets add a stinging punctuation that nothing in Handel's orchestra could mimic. "Beau Nash," the colorful master of ceremonies (or at least a matchmaker), is celebrated with melodies from Rodrigo dressed now in delightful woodwind timbres, trimmed out with a sparkle from the triangle.
Among the finest moments is surely the "Finale," combining more material from Parnasso in festa with the famous "Largo" from Serse. Beecham's audiences in 1945 would have known hardly any of this music, but Handel's "Largo" had already become a work unto itself – one of the most beloved and tender themes, used in countless wedding processions and funerals. His scoring in cellos offers a beautiful contrast to the glittering music all around it. We did not need Beecham to keep that work alive; it was doing just fine on its own. But for many listeners, The Great Elopement provided their first exposure to a treasury of Handel's overlooked music. This was not Messiah. Not Music for the Royal Fireworks. And it was far more than just the "Largo" from Serse. Here was forgotten music of great beauty and wide expressive range. Yes, these were Beecham's personal favorites. I, for one, think he made an excellent selection. And if in the process he allowed thousands of listeners to know more Handel – perhaps forming one step in the gradual evolution toward a robust awareness of historical performance traditions – that alone would surely merit our effort to bring The Great Elopement back into circulation.
(c) Jason Stell, 2023