For Jennen's it was not a Christmas message but a Christian one (howbeit skewered to his particular beliefs) that he was delivering. And though at various times his libretto has been denigrated as a mere cobbling together of text from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer it is now recognized as what Watkins Shaw describes as "a meditation of our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief". And despite his dislike for Jennens as a person, Shaw conceded that the finished text "amounts to little short of a work of genius". And that literary genius was wedded perfectly to Handel's musical genius.
|This copyist's manuscript from 1743 repeats a text error|
from the original in the bass aria The Trumpet Shall Sound.
It reads "And the Death shall be raised..." of course it shoud
read "And the dead shall be raise...
|The Messiah during the Great Handel Festival of 1857 at the Crystal Palace in London|
- a chorus of 2,000 and 500 musicians made sure that the Hallelujahs were well and truly heard.
Though I have several versions of The Messiah - including Der Messias, the Mozart arrangement in German and several period instrument performances - for some reason every year I go back to my old Sir Thomas Beecham recording on RCA Victor. It uses the very "unauthentic" and apparently contested arrangement Sir Eugene Goossens made for Beecham in 1959 for performances at the Lucerne Festival. It is grand perhaps even grandiose, the forces are large - Beecham's Royal Philharmonic and the Huddersfield Choral Society at full throttle. The four soloists come no where near giving us "authentic performances" - a phrase which always brings to mind Anna Russell's comment: "terribly pure if a trifle bloodless". There is nothing period or bloodless about the young Jon Vickers and I dare anyone not to be thrilled when his voice cries out in the wilderness.
In a letter in May of 1959 Beecham admonished Goossens: "You will not forget, I am sure, that Hallelujah must lead off with the most glorious and crashing noise, everybody going all out - hell for leather!" Fulfilling Sir Thomas's wish Goossens uses cymbals to start of the thing with a big bang. When challenged about his arrangement by Records and Recordings in 1960 Sir Eugene turned the question around. "And why not?" he asked the interviewer: "Aren't we exhorted in the Bible to 'praise the Lord with the sound of cymbals'?" And praise the Lord Sir Thomas and his forces certainly do. It may lack a certain subtlety but its is joyous and guaranteed to bring an audience to its feet hoary old tradition or not.
Now this is not The Messiah as I always want to hear it - at some point this week the Gabrielli Consort CD will go on the player or the Charles Mackerras Mozart will be clicked on iTunes. The wonder is that Jennen's and Handel's glorious work can take all those interpretations and still move us to tears, joy and contemplation.
23 December - 1823: A Visit from St. Nicholas, also known as The Night Before Christmas, is published anonymously.