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A Massive Messiah?

Wed Dec 5 2012

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Messiah has long fascinated those musicians who peer into musical history, largely because it healthily challenges most of our preconceived notions of ‘faithfulness to the score’ and ‘authenticity’. What, for example, is the right way to perform an ‘authentic’ Messiah? The way Handel performed it in Dublin or London? After all, there must have been striking differences in content and execution even between these chronologically close performances.

With that proviso, it’s fascinating to examine just how far Handel’s score was massaged after its initial airing. Even during the composer’s lifetime the work started to become popular with large choruses, the accompanying orchestra slowly enlarging so as not to be drowned out. In 1784 a performance was arranged in Westminster Abbey to mark 25 years since Handel’s death with a combined army of over 275 singers and 250 instrumentalists. The latter beat on three timpani and blew down six trombones, twelve horns and twelve trumpets – most of them phantom parts that Handel never wrote.

Five years after that Mozart had a go at ‘retouching’ Messiah, adding parts for flutes, clarinets, trombones and horns. And he couldn’t have claimed he needed more power in the band to balance a large chorus, because the performance in question involved a choir of only twelve!

By 1857 London had grown out of Messiahs involving piddling little orchestras in the 200s, and mounted a performance of the work at the Crystal Palace with an orchestra of 500 and a chorus that weighed in at over 2,000. A decade later those figures were spinning even further out of control, with an impatient George Bernard Shaw begging, prophetically, that a performance in a medium-sized hall be given with ‘a capable chorus of twenty singers’ so that he could ‘hear the work properly just once’ before he died. A century on, however, the supersize Messiah wasn’t extinct. Malcolm Sargent’s 1959 EMI recording of the work from Liverpool sounds magnificent with symphonic strings and warming horns, but it was probably a dying breed. These days Messiah is almost universally downsized. Do the benefits of clarity and focus outweigh those of grandeur and mass-involvement? Now there’s a subject for vigorous debate.

We’ll be performing Handel’s grand oratorio at the Royal Festival Hall on 11 December (sorry, we can’t quite fit 2000 singers into the hall…)

And thanks to Andrew Mellor for this great article.

One Comment

  • Great article.

    It’s not simply a question of numbers though – it’s all about style too – a chamber choir is still capable of producing a stodgy or soggy performance smothering the orchestra, and a large choir can be capable of singing with great clarity, grace and articulation, where all the parts can be clearly heard.

    Here in Bristol, for several years, the 100+ strong Bristol Choral Society has performed Messiah with a tiny period orchestra (most usually led by one of the OAE’s very own esteemed co-leaders), garnering very complimentary comments from the musicians.
    By having a well-drilled chorus singing in the right style (all from memory by the way!), don’t think the orchestra/choir sound is ever out of kilter, yet the grandeur in those few moments of Messiah when a really full-bodied sound is required is magnificent with a good-sized chorus.

    Bristol Choral Society Wed Dec 5 2012