I wanted to rant about Messiah, but now I realize that any dislike I have of the ‘Messiah epidemic’ is indicative of a much larger problem. We’re a full half-century removed from classical music’s original ‘Early Music’ craze, yet Early Music is still subject to an enormous dose of over-reverence. Whether the undue reverence is for 19th century gigantism or for the composer’s original intentions, neither is particularly deserved - and both probably have led to centuries of extremely boring performances. Let’s just take the example of Handel’s Messiah, the Christmas nightmare, as perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon. Few pieces of music seem to attract stodgy reverence to it like Messiah - the result being thousands of performances that sound almost exactly alike. Most Messiah performances sound either bloated and tired after the manner of 19th century pomp, or brittle and arthritic after the manner of the 20th century’s obsession with recapturing the past. Neither does justice to the Handelean fire which the greatness of this piece requires. So here is a quick history of how this came to be (with enormous help from wikipedia, so any resemblance to scholarship is purely accidental):
Handel’s Messiah was premiered in Dublin, 1742 with a chorus of 32 and soloists mostly drawn from the ranks of the chorus. One journalist immediately hailed it as the greatest oratorio ever written: ‘far surpass[ing] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom.’ Another declared "...The best Judges allowed it to be the most finished work of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic, and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear..." Yet even this piece, already hailed as the greatest music(k) ever written, was subject to endless re-tinkering by Handel. Handel very much aspired to great art, but he was also a showman and businessman, probably the best combination of those qualities among great composers until Verdi. And as a businessman, he always had one eye upon what was feasible, and as a showman, he always had an ear on how best to achieve effects. When the oratorio had a repeat performance in Dublin two months later, there were substantial revisions made to accommodate different soloists and passages thoroughly recomposed to better tailor to his own satisfaction. For every subsequent performance in Handel’s lifetime, Handel made new emendations, additions and deletions, some of which he made after he went blind, and seem to keep occurring until a performance eight days before his death.
Thirty years after Handel’s death, it was common in London to hear performances of Messiah at Westminster Abbey with an orchestra alone of two-hundred-fifty musicians, including twelve horns, twelve trumpets, six trombones, and three pairs of timpani (that were made larger than average for just such an event). In fact, there is an advertisement from 1787 for a performance at the Abbey which promises "The Band will consist of Eight Hundred Performers."
Messiah performances were still stranger in Europe. In 1788, Johann Adam Hiller conducted a performance in the Berlin Cathedral consisting of 287 performers. Compared to Westminster Abbey, this probably sounds downright reasonable. But if you look at the instrumental composition, it gets still stranger: 87 strings, 10 bassoons, 11 oboes, 8 flutes, 8 horns, 4 clarinets, 4 trombones, 7 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and organ. By the rules of modern acoustics, an orchestra of 142 could easily drown out a chorus of the same number, especially one with 7 trumpets and 8 natural horns. But even in Handel’s time, it was common to have more instrumentalists than singers. At at least one performance, Handel conducted an orchestra of 37 and a chorus of only 19.
In 1789, none other than Mozart made an arrangement for performance in Vienna. He eliminated the organ continuo, added parts for flutes, clarinets, trombones and horns, simplified the trumpet parts, reorchestrated much of the piece to accommodate larger forces, and thoroughly recomposed some passages. And yet Mozart’s performance used a chorus of twelve.
To make matters still more confusing, many of Mozarts changes were worked back into the standard editions which the English speaking peoples used in the 19th century for their ever larger performances of Messiah. In 1853, New York heard performance of Messiah was given with a chorus of 300. In 1865, Boston heard one with a chorus of 600. In 1857, London heard (or sang) a performance with 2,000 singers and an orchestra of 500. These mass performances became more and more frequent, with choruses numbering 3,000, 4,000, even 5,000 singers.
But fashions always change, and lots of music lovers were getting tired of the musical gigantism which Messiah seemed to always ensure. George Bernard Shaw wrote: "The stale wonderment which the great chorus never fails to elicit has already been exhausted" he later wrote, "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 Hall with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die."
Even in 1902, when one of the first scholarly edtions that consulted Handel’s manuscripts was printed, it was taken as a given that Messiah could never again be presented with Handel’s original scoring. Even for a scholarly edition, many of the accumulated changes made by Mozart, Hiller and others were deliberately left in. Its editor, Ebenezer Prout wrote:
“[T]he attempts made from time to time by our musical societies to give Handel's music as he meant it to be given must, however earnest the intention, and however careful the preparation, be foredoomed to failure from the very nature of the case. With our large choral societies, additional accompaniments of some kind are a necessity for an effective performance; and the question is not so much whether, as how they are to be written.”
(From 1926, Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder, with a chorus and orchestra of 3,300. Probably a lot louder in person, no less messy though.)
But even as scholarly performances became more frequent, the “Massiah” was still the norm. One of the first recording of Messiah excerpts comes from 1926 at the Chrystal Palace Handel Festival with an orchestra and chorus numbering 3,300. Recordings from that period can’t possibly give us the full effect of an orchestra and chorus numbering 3,300 and the results were predictably sloppy.
(probably the most dramatic rendering of the Hallelujah chorus I’ve ever heard … save Beecham’s later recording. But this one doesn’t strike you as bizarre.)
The forces with which Messiah was performed were gradually dwindling. A 1922 performance in Handel’s hometown of Halle caused a bit of a a choir of 163 and 64 instrumentalists. In 1927, Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the first virtually complete recording of Messiah. For it’s time, it was considered quite controversial. Beecham aimed closer to the style of Handel’s period, with tempos far faster than what was once the norm. The result was an orchestra, chorus and style that would sound completely at home in a Mendelssohn oratorio. The result is far lither than his infamously exciting but bloated 1959 recording (more on that later). And apparently Beecham made a 1947 recording that is even more musicologically correct. I wish I could find it. In Thomas Beecham’s chosen repertoire, he was absolutely unbeatable, and I can only surmise that both those two recordings must number among the greatest ever set down.
While Sir Thomas was showing us a new vision of Handel’s Messiah, his friend and rival Sir Malcolm Sargent clung obstreperously to the old traditions. Between the 20’s and 50’s, Sargent released four different recordings of Messiah, and at least the last two with the Huddersfield Choral Society - a choir of well over 200 voices. I’m familiar with what I can only guess are their last two recordings. Their 1940’s recording is far better than the stereo remake. There are a few magnificent moments, which almost completely result of good soloists (in the 40’s recording) and from Sargeant preparing his own edition of Messiah for a traditional 19th century orchestra of proportions that probably would have been recognizable to Berlioz. Unfortunately, the chorus is cumbersome and not accomplished technically, which drags both performances down to another iteration of Messiah’s bloated 19th century presentation.
(Go to 4:00. This Amen section must be the slowest performance of the finale on record)
It wasn’t until 1954 that listeners heard Handel’s Messiah in its original orchestration from the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by the always fascinating Hermann Scherchen. Scherchen’s performance is typically eccentric, not always convincing but fantastically provocative. By the standards of today, it’s still quite a large-scale performance, and the ensemble is certainly ragged throughout, but Scherchen channels his own personal vision which makes this a performance that sounds utterly unlike any other. You can also find a performance on youtube of Scherchen performing the Hallelujah Chorus in which he accomplishes a gradual acceleration through the whole piece. What we hear in this recording is the thoughts of a very great (and still underrated) conductor.
Far less interesting is the second recording to be done according to the original orchestration. Adrian Boult’s 1961 recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus is far better played than Scherchen’s. It’s also one of the most predictable performances, with no new insights, thoroughly Victorian-era tempos, a well-trained chorus that sounds far too large. What’s the point of using Handel’s orchestration if you’re just going to create a Victorian performance exactly like every other?
(The Hallelujah Chorus, as you’ve never heard it.)
And then,... there's The Beecham Messiah. There are three Beecham Messiah recordings, but when you say 'The Beecham Messiah' to a music lover, they always know about which you're speaking. The Beecham Messiah has got to be one of the most bizarre recordings ever made. For this recording, Beecham got composer/conductor Sir Eugene Goossens to reorchestrate the piece for a 130 piece orchestra that dwarfs anything in Richard Strauss. The chorus alone must have easily numbered 400-strong. In some ways, this may still be the most modern Messiah ever performed - closer to the spirit of the 19th century than virtually any 19th century performance. So far as we know, no 19th century performance had the audacity to reorchestrate Handel with the express intention of making his music sound resemble Elgar. This is Messiah heard through the lenses of William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast and Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand. Passages that once were done with a few singers, strings, and winds are now heard with the full weight of 530 musicians with an overflowing complement of brass and percussion at full volume. Yet what comes through most clearly is the ebullience with which all the players obviously threw themselves into this venture. It comes down to us almost like a statement of defiance against a prevailing fashion, as though they knew that they would never participate in an event quite like this one ever again. Musicological scholarship was already making performances like this one entirely verboten. In no way is this recognizable as Handel in any form we know from today, and it's certainly an acquired taste. The other day, I badmouthed this recording on the excellent Boulezian blog. I immediately regretted writing it, and went back to listen. This is Handel as an Elgar oratorio, with all the pomp and loftiness that implies. Yes, it can make for dreary listening. So can just about every Messiah recording. But when met on its own terms it works more magnificently than nearly any other recording.