Messiah - Arranged By Mozart

In 1789, a performance of "Messiah" that was to have a radical effect on the course of the oratorio's performance history was given in Vienna. Baron Gottfried Van Swieten, who later translated and edited the text for Haydn's "Creation", had, as a diplomat in London during the late 1760s, become an ardent Handelian. Among other Handel scores, he took back to Austria a copy of the first edition of the full score of "Messiah", published by Randall and Abell in 1767. Beginning with "Judas Maccabaeus" in 1779, he introduced works by Handel into the annual oratorio series given for the benefit of the Tonkunstler Society, a Viennese musical charity. In 1789, he presented "Messiah" and, for this Viennese premiere, commissioned Mozart to fill out the accompaniments, largely dispensing with keyboard continuo and replacing the tromba parts practically unplayable for late 18th century trumpeters.

Using the Randall and Abell score and a German translation of the text by Daniel Ebeling, Van Swieten had a copyist prepare a score containing the vocal lines and Handel's string parts, together with the original dynamic and tempo markings. Onto the staves left blank for his use, Mozart added his woodwind, brass, and string parts; those of Handel's woodwind or brass parts that he chose to retain, he copied from the Randall and Abell score. Since that score contains some, but not all, of the alternative versions either in its main body or in an appendix, Van Swieten had to decide which of the various forms to use. He doubtless chose the versions that he had come to know in London 20 years earlier; by and large he selected the versions favored by Handel in the last years of his life and subsequently by his successors in presenting the annual Foundling Hospital performances, John Christopher Smith the Younger and John Stanley.

Van Swieten reassigned some of the solos to voices other than those that Handel specified. He divided the six tenor numbers beginning with "All they that see Him" between the two soprano soloists (There was no alto soloist per se; those solos he allotted to the second soprano.), assigned the 4/4 form of "Rejoice greatly" to the tenor, and gave the Guadagni version of "But who may abide" to the bass. Ironically, the only one of these reassignments with no precedent whatever in Handel's own practice, namely, the last, is the one that became "standard" during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th .

And this seems as good a place as any to deal once and for all with the "problem" of the various versions of "But who may abide the day of His coming". Handel originally set this number as an aria for bass in 3/8 time without the vibrant prestissimo sections that distinguish the bravura rewrite for Gaetano Guadagni. At Dublin and in other early performances, a recitative setting for bass was on occasion substituted, and, in at least one season, Handel gave the original bass version, transposed up a step, to the tenor soloist. After Guadagni returned to the continent in 1753, Handel assigned the setting of "But who may abide" that is now so familiar to a female alto or, as we have seen, to a soprano. There is not a scintilla of evidence that he ever assigned this version to a bass.

Since Mozart's version of "Messiah" was to become the basis for most, if not all, further accompaniments added to the oratorio throughout the 20th century, Van Swieten must also take credit (or shoulder the blame) for initially shaping the "standard" score that was finally codified by Sir Ebenezer Prout in his performing edition of 1902. Neither Mozart nor Van Swieten, however, can be blamed for turning "Why do the nations" into a da capo aria; they were merely following the indication in the first edition. As Walsh's heirs, Randall and Abell had reused the plates from his "Songs in Messiah" in order to hold down costs in assembling a full score. Since no choruses figured in that collection, a da capo was indicated at the end of the aria to provide a return to the tonic key; Handel had used the chorus "Let us break their bonds asunder" as an exciting and dramatic substitute for a reprise of the aria's opening section. Walsh's da capo expedient was carried over into the full score in error.

Van Swieten and Mozart also made a few cuts. They omitted the chorus "Let all the Angels of God" and the aria "Thou art gone up on high". Mozart replaced the aria "If God be for us" with an accompanied recitative of his own composition. His abridged version of "The trumpet shall sound" gives most of the demanding tromba part to a horn. Perhaps most surprisingly, Mozart made wrote no additional accompaniments whatever for quite a few numbers. "He trusted in God", for instance, is utterly free of added instrumentation.

Mozart's woodwind complement includes paired flutes (piccolo in the "Pifa"), oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns. In addition to two trumpets and tympani, his scoring calls for three trombones in the "Overtura" and the chorus "Since by man came death". The original performance materials, which have been preserved, show that the trombones also doubled the alto, tenor, and bass lines in the tutti choruses, according to the standard Austrian practice at that time. [Because these additional, colla parte trombone parts were not specifically indicated by Mozart in his score – since he knew that the copyists would understand the performing convention and draw the parts for the doubling trombones out intuitively, they are – inexplicably – not included in the Neue Mozart Ausgabe score. The trombones appear in that full score only in the two places where Mozart wrote them out because copyists would not have intuitively assumed their presence. Those two places are the "Overtura" and the chorus "Wie durch einen die Tod" {"Since by Man came Death"}. The original and authentic doubling trombone parts are described and included only in the Kritische Bericht {Critical Report} volume that accompanied the full score when acquired as a part of a subscription to the Neue Mozart Ausgabe. The purchaser of the individual volume not only does not get a copy of the Critical Report, he is rarely, if ever, aware, that one even exists! Hence, the vast majority of modern performances of the Mozart arrangement are flawed because the overwhelming majority of the trombone parts are omitted.]

addition, these original performing parts show not only that portions of some choruses were sung by the soloists, but also that the tutti choir – and this is confirmed by annotations on a surviving word book – consisted of but twelve singers!

Precisely because Mozart's additions were so exquisite in and of themselves and were written by a universally acknowledged master unabashedly working in the style of his own age, their validity and propriety have been debated. The negative view was perhaps best expressed by Moritz Hauptmann, who complained that Mozart's arrangement "resembles elegant stucco work upon an old marble temple, which easily might be chipped off again by the weather." Perhaps; but to extend the architectural analogy, I for one, find Mozart's work as congruent with and as complementary to Handel's as Sir Christopher Wren's late 17th-century additions are with the original Tudor portions of the palace at Hampton Court.

The arrangement was published by Breitkopf und Hartel in 1803, with editorial assistance from Thomascantor Johann Adam Hiller, who had done much to promote "Messiah" in Germany. Influenced no doubt by reports of the 1784 Westminster Abbey commemoration, he had presented the oratorio, with additional accompaniments of his own, using enormous forces; at the first performance he directed, in Berlin in 1785, 302 vocalists and instrumentalists participated.

Editing Mozart's arrangement must have been a bittersweet task for Hiller, who surely would have preferred to have seen his own performing edition, for which both the score and the performing parts now appear to be lost, published. Still, Hiller's alterations to Mozart's arrangement were nowhere near as extensive as Prout, Franz, and others believed, (The autograph Mozart score and the original performing materials turned up only in the mid 1950s, and the arrangement was not published in Urtext form until 1961.) Apart from the substitution of a German text that is a combination of the Klopstock and Ebeling translations, Hiller's only crucial change was to substitute his own arrangement (with bassoon obbligato!) of Handel's "If God be for us" for the accompanied recitative that Mozart had written.


"Messiah - Arranged by Mozart" Teri Noel Towe, Classical Net. 1996.  <>

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