Handel, who new research suggests has invested in the slave trade. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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In Search of the Black Mozart: A revealing look at Handel's investment in the slave trade

The programme slowed palpably to accept the age-old information that people who create beauty aren’t always good and frequently don’t even come close.

In Search of the Black Mozart
BBC Radio 4

Two programmes talked about Handel in shockingly opposing ways. On 30 May The Tokens and the Foundlings (8pm), about the Foundling Hospital (the Holborn home for deserted infants, 1741 to 1953), assured us that Handel had been a very generous governor, donating an original score of Messiah to the Hospital choir and committedly conducting benefit concerts. In fact, had it not been for a successful second performance of Messiah in the Hospital chapel, the composer – known for unsentimentally ditching work that hadn’t immediately ignited public and critical enthusiasm – may well have shelved the cherished oratorio indefinitely.

But In Search of the Black Mozart (26 May, 11.30am), about 18th-century black composers and performers, turned up something far less palatable: that Handel invested not just once in the slave trade, but repeatedly. A music librarian at the University of Texas made the discovery: “It was quite by chance that I came across Handel’s name in the ­investors of the Royal Africa Company – the main slave traders in the 1710s.” Then to a list of investors in the national archives at Kew; four of the stock transfer ledgers had been signed by Handel. In fact, a third of the board of the Royal Academy of Music had invested. Encouraged by Handel? He was master of the orchestra at the time.

It was stressed that no music historian had ever looked into this. For the presenter, the double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku, it all came as such a shock that she had to go over it several times. We’re talking about the Handel, right? George Frideric? Not some rotten cousin. Was he aware of the implications, the conditions on the plantations? But how widespread was such knowledge, bearing in mind that the anti-slavery movement at that time was still only nascent?

The programme slowed palpably to accept the age-old information – of a kind we are particularly reluctant to let penetrate our ivory domes – that people who create beauty aren’t always good and frequently don’t even come close. The fierceness with which we long for our great artists to be separate, isolated by a kind of sanity not available to the rest of us! Yet here Handel is, signing misery on the dotted line. And then (very possibly, I calculate, given the dates) sitting down to write The Water Music.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.