Messiah by Georg Friderich Handel
Everybody knows all about Messiah. Or at least everybody thinks they do: How Georg Friderich Handel, 56, born in Halle, Germany, and then a resident of London, England, dashed off the 53 pieces that make up Messiah– Spicker, editor of the popular 1912 Schirmer’s edition, says it was done between August 22 and September 14, 1741– before he left London for a six-month series of presentations in Dublin, which had been invited by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. How the libretto was written for Handel at least two years earlier by Charles Jennens, a pious and self-important individual who owned an estate in Leicestershire. We know Handel arrived in Dublin on a cold November 18, to prepare for the series which was scheduled to run from December to early June, and that other Handel oratorios constituted most of that series. We know that Handel conducted a public rehearsal of Messiah on April 9, 1742, the first performance on April 13, and another performance on June 3, as benefits for three charities. And we know that he did not perform Messiah in London until March 23, 1743-and that he was then criticized for presenting a sacred work in a theater. And although Spicker says that Handel “…brought out…Messiah every year in London with [sic] great applause”, in fact performances stopped about 1745 and were not resumed until 1749. We know all this because, in contrast to many other Baroque composers, Handel himself, and his fans, who were many, left an enormous legacy of autograph and conducting scores, notes, letters, and the like. There are few aspects of Handel’s life and work that are not voluminously documented.
But yet there remain disagreements, controversy, and speculation among musicologists, conductors, and performers. Practically all of these relate to the performance of the work. These issues are of two types: First, whether one should attempt to achieve historically accurate performance, that is, to replicate the orchestral sound and vocal technique that Handel envisioned (and presumably achieved); and second, what those sounds and techniques actually were. The first issue is, of course, one which the conductor and/or sponsors of each presentation must decide for themselves; some will choose historical accuracy, e.g., utilizing period instruments, while others will argue that if Handel had access to modern orchestral and vocal resources he would have used them, and therefore precedent is less important. The matter of what the sound and technique were, however, is still a matter for much argument and conjecture. While there are partisans on almost every aspect of performance, the issues most in doubt are those involving tempo; dynamics; the continuity of line– that is, whether the reading should be more or less legato; and, especially with respect to the soloists, the quantity and style of melisma and appogiatura, i.e., ornamentation. In the choruses, there are differences over alteration of rhythmic patterns-for example, reducing initial eighth-note entries to sixteenths in some passages, in the belief that this is actually how Handel and his contemporaries would have performed them.
Differences in performance approach are readily observable in the multitudinous Messiah recordings. For example, the 1940’s recording featuring Sir Thomas Beecham and the Huddersfield Choral Society was famed for its stately pace, while the recording by Robert Shaw and his Chorale, made just before that group disbanded, proceeds, by previously accepted standards, at a gallop. Of course the limitations of recording media forced acceleration of some performances, and even today few choruses present Messiah whole and uncut-a feat requiring two hours and twenty-something minutes of music, even if only seconds are left between movements, and allowing no time for intermission or tuning. The Chorus’ complete performance in its premiere season (1976-77) met this challenge by presenting two complete concerts, each rendering approximately half of the oratorio (except for “Hallelujah” which was utilized in both concerts). More commonly, performances omit various numbers to keep the result ‘sittable’ (and also because of the seasonal focus of Christmastide or Eastertide schedules). Even Handel gave performances omitting some numbers. There is little consensus, however, on which numbers to omit; one reviewer, carping about a certain recording, says, “Can you imagine a performance of Messiah without ‘All We Like Sheep’?”
It should also be remembered that there are a number of different orchestrations of Messiah. The Mozart version (or Mozart as edited by Hiller) is the most common, but there are several others-even one by Leon Salzedo, whose version was substituted when the famous Sir Eugene Goosens failed to meet the deadline for a performance!
Central to all these choices-as to tempi, continuity, and cuts-is the director’s view as to the fundamental nature of this oratorio. Even in Handel’s day, some thought it a sacred work, while others placed it with Handel’s other Biblical oratoria-even though this is his only work utilizing Testament texts- which were generally understood to be primarily entertainment, rather than acts of worship. That dichotomy underlies a lot of the variability in the recorded performances. Shaw, especially, took the entertainment view. Naperville Chorus’ Assistant Director, Jon Warfel, who prepared this concert during Director Jeordano Martinez’ sabbatical, inclines toward a view similar to Shaw’s: He calls attention to the dance rhythms so prominent in many of the numbers, which in turn leads to a less legato approach. Moreover, his choice of cuts intentionally sacrifices some of the extensive solo work in order to present more of the choruses in the time available. Yet he retains some of the traditional readings as well. And he is especially concerned with diction– a difficult requirement, for example, for sopranos singing at full volume in their upper register. However, he retains enough material so that the story line, i.e., the scriptural excerpts, still flows. This performance showcases choruses from all three Messiah parts, including some lesser-known ones.
So you may rest assured that we, the Chorus, are again seeing the freshness that can be felt in this much-sung classic when interpreted with a view. And we hope that it will please you, as listeners, as much as it does us in performance.
J. R. Fancher, Oct. 2004