Sunday, December 23, 2012

Comfort Ye My People

Like many I grew up with The Messiah as a Christmas tradition - either in its full version as broadcast each year on CBC from Massey Hall with the TSO under Sir Ernest MacMillan or snippets at our local church if the choir master was particularly adventuresome.   Both Handel and Charles Jennens would be puzzled by our tradition of their oratorio being presented in concert halls, town halls, school auditoria and churches at Yuletide.  It was premiered at Eastertide in Dublin in April 1742 and Jennens' text is an extended reflection on Christ as the Messiah; only Part I addresses the Prophetic Coming and Nativity, Part II and II portraits the Passion, Resurrection, Accession, Last Judgment and Final Victory of Christ the Messiah.

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...
Though Jennen's text has been little changed, if at all, over the years the same cannot be said for the musical settings around it.  Shortly after its premiere Handel himself was busy at work adapting the work to the changing vocal and instrumental forces at his disposal.  And he was to make further changes, additions and deletions until the last performances he attended eight days before his death in April of 1759.  After his death other hands began to "adapt" and even "improve" upon Handel's work - on the Continent Hiller in Berlin expanded the orchestration, and in 1789 Mozart in Vienna re-orchestrated the oratorio to bring it more in line with modern tastes.  Larger forces came into play both in Europe and North American but nowhere more than in the United Kingdom.  Larger and larger choruses and orchestras were employed until in 1857 at the Chrystal Palace a chorus of 2,000 sang their Hallelujahs with the backing of an orchestra 500 players strong.  This tradition of the "grand" Messiah was carried on - though with fewer numbers - by British conductors well into the later part of the 20th century.  Certainly the versions I first heard where with full 19th century symphony orchestra and a larger chorus backing singers such as Lois Marshall, Maureen Forrester and Jon Vickers.  The performances that conductors like Sir Ernest MacMillan, Sir Malcom Sargent and Sir Thomas Beecham led were full blown affairs with nary a whiff of "period practice" about them.  By the last quarter of the 20th century tastes had changed and Bernard Shaw's desire to hear a performance in a small venue "with chorus of twenty capable artists" was being fulfilled and more and more presentations reflected the desire for "historically informed performances".  It has now come to the point that no one would dare go for the Beecham style.
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.
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Debra She Who Seeks said...

Over the years, I've seen The Messiah performed with large choirs, small choirs and everything in between. The largest choir I ever saw used was once in Winnipeg, when Bramwell Tovey gathered a 500-voice massed choir to perform with a full WSO. Talk about a wall of sound! The final pause in the Hallelujah Chorus hit you like a brick wall. And then the sound of 500 sets of lungs simultaneously breathing in to sound the final H in Hallelujah -- yowza!

David said...

Went to one last night at St John's Smith Square which was as perfect as any I've heard - smallish choir, Polyphony, which could pull out the big stuff when needed, four ideal soloists (tenor and bass far from bloodless, soprano and countertenor - the peerless Iestyn Davies - exquisite) and orchestra gutty. But no doubt you'll read all about it on The Arts Desk.

That Vickers is quite something!