The other evening I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah. It’s a work that always moves me, and this was an inspiring performance. At the opening of the Halleluja Chorus, I stood up as I’ve always done, and most of the audience followed suit. Afterwards a middle-aged woman I didn’t know came up to me and said she’d noticed me leading the rest, and asked, with genuine curiosity, why I’d got to my feet.
I explained that it was a custom going back to one of the earliest London performances of the oratorio, in the 1750s, when, inspired by the glorious music, the whole audience, including King George II, had spontaneously risen to their feet. (To be accurate, this took place, actually, at the words ‘For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth’ – not at the start of the chorus.) I was surprised, even a bit shocked, that so well-known a tradition had lapsed from the corporate memory.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. The culture created by television and many other modern forms of communication has transformed society and what people know and remember. Of course there have been some gains, but in the rush of innovation much that was valuable of our past has been erased. The shift has certainly affected our use of our language, in countless ways that this column sometimes endeavours to trace. The longevity of the late Queen also, understandably, led to our taking certain things for granted, as though they were the permanent norm. Now, the change of monarch and the forthcoming Coronation of King Charles III are making us think about many things that have been nowhere near the forefront of our minds for a very long time.
And as with several aspects of the post-Elizabethan, not to mention post-Covid world we now inhabit, I realise that we’ve all forgotten many things that had been established over many generations. The technicalities attaching to a change of monarch, for example. I’ve several times lately read of our new King’s ‘ascension’ to the throne. I immediately register that this is wrong, but it takes me a moment to work out why. And I’ve just read in the latest edition of a City Company journal about ‘the ascendancy of Prince Charles to the throne’. No, that’s wrong too. The right word, which was out of use for so long, has suddenly become topical again, and we discover we’ve forgotten it.
The last time we talked about a new monarch in this country was in 1952 when George VI died; the Coronation of Elizabeth followed in 1953. We all knew then that a monarch succeeds his or her predecessor and accedes to the throne, a process called accession, not ascension. (That last word is more usually applied in a technical Christian sense, to the ascent into heaven of Christ after His resurrection.)
But we may very well speak of the monarch ‘ascending’ the throne (without proposition). ‘Ascendancy’, on the other hand, means superiority over another individual or group, and tends to be used in political contexts: for instance, the ascendancy of the English in Ireland during the century or two before Irish independence carried with it an implication, regrettable and with regrettable consequences for Anglo-Irish relations, of the relatively inferior position of the indigenous people.
In that context it’s cheering to know that Handel’s Messiah, first performed in Dublin in 1742, was a popular success in Ireland almost a decade before Londoners caught up with their neighbours. I would like to think this was because of the inborn musicality of the Irish. But the audience at that historic premiere was probably made up predominantly of members of the Protestant ascendancy, rather than the native (and Catholic) Irish themselves.
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I hope I can take it for granted that another Handelian tradition, the singing of his anthem Zadok the Priest, sung at every coronation since 1757, will continue as part of the new king’s Coronation service on May 6.
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