Monday, November 16, 2015

Messiah at the Foundling Hospital

William Hogarth
Thomas Coram by Thomas Gainsborough.
Georges Frederich Handel

Oh my God!!

Just over the past few days, my past and its effect on my present has been part of a discussion between my friends and me. Then, last night, I watched Messiah at the Foundling Hospital.

What a total mind-blowing film. I loved it even though tears gushed—GUSHED—out of me because of this past I should get over. The film presents a truly moving and shocking story.

First the backstory: The film begins explaining how Handel, at the time one of the world’s greatest opera composers, came to live in London. It then explains the social forces changing the world and the impact of those changes on opera—a rapidly declining audience—as the reason for Handel’s shift to Oratorio. Oratorio provides all the drama of opera at a fraction of the expense.

The film then shifts to introduce Thomas Coram who now has a place of prominence in the gallery of my soul. A sea captain adrift for twenty years, he is so aggrieved by the status of abandon children in the London to which he returns, he campaigns for seventeen years to be granted a royal charter to establish a Foundling Hospital to receive and care for the abandoned children.

That part of the film eviscerated me. It hit my heart and soul hard. However, the next part of the film was perfectly compensatory because it totally amazed me: One of the founding fathers of Coram’s Foundling Hospital was visual artist, William Hogarth.

Hogarth (and Gainsborough, Reynolds and other renowned visual artists) designed the logo of the hospital, painted a portrait of its first and most important aristocratic patron and donated works to be sold to assist in its financing.

The artists, using the Foundling Hospital as a gallery, made it one of the most fashionable paces to go in Georgian London. And once there, they were approached about donating and they did so generously.

This triptych of art, fundraising and a charity, now so pervasive and so global with events such as Live Aid, began with the effort to support the Foundling Hospital. And to the fray came Handel.

As the film reveals, Handel and his Oratorios had fallen into disfavor. His Messiah had debuted to great acclaim in Dublin at a charity event but had gone over very badly at its debut in London.

It was fascinating to hear why the press was so horrified: They were disgusted that sacred choral music was going to be sung by performers (actors). Actors, socially, were on a par with prostitutes. So Hogarth saw redemption for his piece by offering it as a concert for the hospital.

The rest is history.

The benefit concert was a huge musical and financial success, and soon after Handel donated an organ to the new chapel. The event was so oversubscribed, Handel was asked to repeat the concert two weeks later. To show its gratitude, the hospital made Handel a governor.

Thereafter, Messiah was performed each year in the Foundling Hospital chapel, for the benefit of the charity, a tradition that continued until the 1770s. Handel conducted or attended every performance until his death in 1759. These concerts not only helped secure the Oratorio's place in the nation's affections, they succeeded in raising the huge sum of £7,000 for the charity.

As a final act of generosity, Handel left in his will a fair copy of the Messiah score to the hospital, thus enabling the charity to continue staging the benefit concerts.

What a story, what a film and what a wreck I was at its end.

So many, many, many stories—comic books, nursery rhymes and great literature and films, involve orphans. Hence my stasis with my past; it is all around me in art and art, in many of its forms, is my passion.

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