Messiah In Other Hands

The Foundling Hospital committee’s reference to a score of Messiah  being procured from Ireland so that the work could be performed ‘for the Benefit of other Persons’ provides a reminder that several performances were given under other auspices during Handel’s lifetime: Handel apparently did not object to this, provided he had given his permission. In Dublin the Charitable Musical Society gave annual performances from 1744, and the score referred to in the Foundling Hospital minutes was presumably one that Handel himself had supplied (or left behind) for the Society’s use. As early as February 1744, Messiah was performed in London by the Academy of Ancient Music at their normal venue, the Crown and Anchor Tavern. In 1749, Messiah was performed in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, as part of the musical celebrations accompanying the opening of the Radcliffe Camera: further Oxford performances followed regularly from 1756. In 1750 Messiah reached Salisbury, and a series of performances in the Bristol and Bath area began in 1755. Messiah entered the repertory of the Three Choirs’ Festival in 1757: for the first two years the Festival performances took place in ‘secular’ buildings as evening concerts, but in 1759 the performance at Hereford took place in the morning at the Cathedral — probably the first performance of Messiah in such a building. Once established in festival programmes, particularly if they had charitable financial objects, Messiah quickly became a regular annual component. Other provincial centres that saw relatively early performances of Messiah were Cambridge (1759), Birmingham (1760), Bury St Edmunds (1760), Liverpool (1766), Newcastle (1778) and Derby (1788). After 1767, the year in which a full score of Messiah was finally published, general access to the music itself ceased to be a problem: before that, performances may have derived from only a handful of manuscript scores.

While it is true that performances of Messiah spread quickly outside the composer’s immediate circle within a few years of Handel’s death, a certain continuity from his own performances was preserved in London. Smith the younger continued Handel’s series of performances at the Foundling Hospital until 1768, and at Covent Garden Theatre until 1774. The Foundling Hospital performances continued under other directors until 1777. A subtle change of musical emphasis came in 1771, when the financial accounts of the Foundling Hospital performance record that thirty professional chorus singers were supplemented by ‘26 Chorus Singers Volunteers not paid’. For the first time singers began to outnumber the orchestra, and the total number of performers crept upwards. The two performances of Messiah at the ‘Commemoration of Handel’ at Westminster Abbey in 1784 multiplied the performers to such an extent that the work became a different musical experience. Though it is difficult to ascertain precise numbers, Messiah was rendered on these occasions by about 500, approximately equally divided between singers and instrumentalists. The performers in 1784 seem to have been drawn largely from those of professional status, including lay clerks from ecclesiastical establishments.

The nineteenth century
The magnitude and general style of the Commemoration set the tone for the large festival performances of the nineteenth century in which amateur singers increasingly took part. The spread of musical literacy (partly through the tonic sol-fa movements), allied with the production of cheap vocal scores, brought choral singing within the range of many more performers. The use of vocal scores was in itself something of a practical revolution: Handel’s singers, like his orchestral players, had performed from single-line part-books. Amateur or semi-professional choral singers formed the backbone of the performers for the provincial festivals that expanded in the nineteenth century in parallel with the construction of the large town halls. Messiah attained and retained its strong hold on festival programmes: often it was the only ‘classic’ work to be performed complete.

In London, the formation of an amateur choral society in 1833, the Sacred Harmonic Society, held the key to the future. In 1836 the Society determined to abandon programmes of miscellaneous selections and to concentrate on complete oratorios, beginning with Messiah Following the lead of the Sacred Harmonic Society, amateur singers took over Messiah performers were numbered in thousands and audiences in tens of thousands. The foundations were thus laid for the triennial Handel Festivals at Crystal Palace that continued into the twentieth century.

Our image of Messiah performances between 1855 and 1920 is inevitably dominated by the serried ranks of the spectacular festivals, there were certainly many more smaller-scale performances, accompanied by organ or an ad hoc orchestra, arranged by smaller choral societies and the flourishing choirs of churches and chapels, and geographically distributed throughout Britain. Choruses or sections of Messiah were also extracted for liturgical use in church as anthems or motets, a trend that had started in cathedral part-books a century before, possibly even before Handel’s death. The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus as a separate item had appeared in London’s charity services as early as 1758.

Additional accompaniments
The change in the aural ‘image’ of Messiah that came about in the nineteenth century involved orchestral sound as well as choral weight. The musical directors of the large festivals normally hired an orchestra for the duration of the programme, and specially-commissioned works by (for example) Sullivan or Dvorak naturally employed the full resources of the contemporary symphony orchestra. For the festival Messiah performances, those instruments that were currently available but had not been part of Handel’s score — flutes, clarinets, trombones, bass drum — were not left idle.

A very different path was followed in continental Europe in performances directed by Johann Adam Hiller in Berlin in 1786 and by Mozart in Vienna in 1789. Both adapted Handel’s music to the artistic conventions of the current ‘classical’ orchestra, involving some colouristic use of wind instruments that was removed from Handel’s own orchestral style. Mozart’s arrangement is naturally of independent interest. His source, a reprint of the English full score of 1767, controlled his choice of variant movements, as well as supplying a few corrupt readings in musical details. The words were translated into German, but Mozart generally preserved Handel’s vocal lines and string parts, adding parts for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trombones, trumpets and timpani. The re-writing of Handel’s trumpet parts was enforced by the change in players’ techniques. Some fifteen to twenty years later, Beethoven showed a different sort of creative interest in Messiah, copying fragments into his sketch-books. During his first visit toLondon, Haydn attended the Handel Commemoration of 1791 Westminster Abbey: his own later oratorios were stimulated by this experience.

To the present day
Although the social changes accompanying the First World War attenuated the choral festival tradition to which ‘additional accompaniments’ were practically relevant, Messiah remained resilient in both ‘small’ and ‘large’ vises as a part of the living musical repertory of Britain. Events took an unexpected turn in the 1960s with a fashion for ‘sing-in’ performances with minimum specific rehearsal, thus reviving the large-scale Messiah that had otherwise seemed to be a thing of the past. In general, however, modern festival performances are not on a scale that positively demands additional accompaniments and the choice usually falls on a strength version of Handel’s own scoring.

By the time Prout’s edition was published, trends towards a closer re-examination of Handel’s own versions of Messiah , and towards performances of an ‘authentic’ type, were already under way. The publication of a facsimile of Handel’s composition autograph by the Sacred Harmonic Society in 1868, and of a booklet concentrating on textual details of the score by the Master of the Queen’s Music (who had care of the autograph scores in the Royal Library) in 1874, show that Messiah’s popularity was inducing an interest in its original form and circumstances. By the 1890s, the conflict between the sight of Handel’s score and the sound of the festival performances was producing a strong reaction. It is interesting to compare George Bernard Shaw’s reviews of festival performances in 1877 and 1891. The first concentrates mainly on technical details of the performance, while the second concludes:

    Why, instead of wasting huge sums on the multitudinous dullness of a Handel Festival does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah in St James’s Hall with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die.

By 1894 Arthur Henry Mann had taken up the challenge with a performance of Messiah in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. In order to produce a performance as close to the circumstances of Handel’s as possible, Mann sought out all available Messiah sources: the rediscovery of the Foundling Hospital score and performing material seems to have been made at his instigations. In combining scholarship with a practical intent, Mann may be regarded as the father of modern Messiah studies: his papers and annotated score reveal that he had subjected the sources to extensive and coherent interpretation that must command the admiration of a modern Messiah scholar.

Mann’s lead was not much taken up during the next half-century. With the 1950s, however, interest in Messiah entered a new an exciting phase. Several factors contributed to this — the introduction of well-organised music study courses at British universities, the increased availability of the sources and the advent of the long-playing record. Handel scholarship revived dramatically, in the approach to the Handel anniversary of 1959. A more specialised ‘Messiah industry’ suddenly took up the study of the work in earnest.

The more recent history of Messiah has been dominated by the establishment of professional ‘Baroque’ orchestras using period (or replica) instruments played in the appropriate manner. Although it will no doubt appear in time that this phenomenon was connected with some musical need of the later 1970s, the thoroughgoing application of historical and aural imagination to Messiah was long overdue. The successful ‘authentic’ recording of the 1754 Foundling Hospital version of Messiah, released in 1980, will surely form as important a landmark in the history of the work’s performances as Shaw’s edition. The movement from performances such as A. H. Mann’s that employed numerical performing strengths comparable with Handel’s, to performances that also try to recreate the sound of his orchestra and employ musicians attempting to approach the work with the same attitudes as their eighteenth-century counterparts, is directed not merely through antiquarian curiosity, but from a desire to come closer to an understanding of the work itself. Such an understanding can only be beneficial to performances of Messiah in other circumstances. 


"Messiah In Other Hands" Donald Burrows, Academy of Ancient Music. <>

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