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Harrogate Choral Society – St Aidan’s Messiah

Handel’s Messiah is frequently performed in churches, chapels and town halls throughout the land, but rarely will it have been given in such appropriate surroundings as the concert to be given in St Aidan’s, Harehills, on 5th December given by Harrogate Choral Society.   The church is exceptional in having extensive murals, illustrating the life of St Aidan, which offer a visual accompaniment to Handel’s sublime music.   (Almost no parish church has been adorned with frescos or murals since the mid-17th century.)

St Aidan was a 6th century Irish monk who was working at the monastery on Iona when the King of Northumbria sought help in converting his subjects to Christianity.   Aidan took up the challenge, and the murals on the apse of the Church show four phases of his life: his landing in Northumbria; feeding the poor; preaching the gospel; and his death.

The murals, which are actually mosaics, were designed by the eminent artist Frank Brangwyn, and were completed in 1916, a few years after the church was built.   Originally he had intended painting the scenes, but as he was proceeding he realised that the polluting atmosphere in Leeds would soon disfigure his work, (he was quite correct; clean air would not be seen until the late 1960s) so he suggested the more durable mosaic format.

The life and work of St Aidan offer an arresting counterpoint to The Messiah, which is composed around a selection of texts from the Bible.   The chorus ‘Their sound is gone out to all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world’ underlines the Saint’s purposes in going to Northumbria.   The second panel is illustrated musically by the contralto solo ‘He shall feed his flock like a shepherd’, whilst the chorus singing ‘The Lord gave the Word’ conveys the truth behind the third.  Aidan’s death is covered in the whole of the oratorio’s Part III, from the chorus ‘Since by man came death’ through to the mighty concluding chorus ‘Worthy is the Lamb’.   In the two lateral walls of the chancel leading to the altar Brangwyn portrayed two groups with expressions of sorrow and toil: ‘Come unto me … and I will give you rest’.

The organ, which will be used in the HCS performance, together with small orchestral resources, is by J J Binns, who were so pleased with it that they used it for publicity for their work for years after it inauguration.   A three-manual instrument with 31 stops, it is comparable with those in many cathedrals.   It is set within splendid casework of carved wood and gilded pipework, designed by the church’s architect.

The church has other features which contribute to the sense of a fine choral occasion.   The pulpit has alabaster panels which show more scenes from Aidan’s life, and a significant Yorkshire touch is added in the Confessional and an oak lectern – both works by Thompson of Kilburn, with his famous mouse trademark.   The Rood, poised high above the Chancel, shows Christ supported by Mary and John the Apostle; the inscription reads I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me, sentiments echoed in the Messiah’s chorus ‘Lift up your heads’.

The Harrogate Choral Society has a tradition of giving superlative performances of The Messiah, with professional soloists, and the resonant acoustic of St Aidan’s should do it full justice.   In one sense the ‘visual aids’ of Brangwyn’s mosaics provide a focus for the eyes to accompany the ears, but in a more profound way the whole ambience of the church should lead, dare one say it, to a profound musical  and religious experience.

Thanks to Mr Barrie Pepper and Mr Lloyd Davies of St Aidan’s for providing background information on the mosaics and the church.