In Praise of Handel’s Messiah

Attending one of the performances of this oratorio that proliferate around this time of the year reminded me of just how enjoyable it is. Handel could certainly write a good tune, and there’s something of the Broadway musical about the way in which the numbers keep coming; from ‘Comfort ye’ onwards there is sustained melodic pleasure. And the music is beautifully appropriate to the words of the Authorized Version, sometimes wittily so. The performance had three good soloists, and a large, appreciative audience that knew when to stand. Nevertheless, it raised a couple of issues.

It can be hard to get the role of the choir right. The performance we heard was one with a large group of about a hundred voices, nuch larger than that envisaged by Handel. Now this has the advantage of volume, allowing a large space to be filled with a wall of sound. But there is a concomitant loss of clarity and fuzziness about words that, in Messiah, are far more important than they are in, say, opera, and should be comprehensible. A small chorus of good voices, if necessary amplified, is surely the way to go.

Secondly, we heard the oratorio in the version reworked by Mozart.  Composers often produce variations of the works of their predecessors, and there’s no doubt that Mozart’s genius was greater than Handel’s. Nevertheless, some things are lost in his setting, in particular at one of the climaxes. Towards the end the bass soloist sings ‘The trumpet shall sound’, and in Handel’s original score a trumpet immediately begins to play a stirring melody; one of the instruments becomes part of the narrative. Not so in Mozart’s version, where the melody is played by trombones and horns. Apparently by Mozart’s time trumpets could no longer play the high notes they could in Handel’s day. But now they can again, and I don’t see why the original can’t be reinstated.

Not long after the concert a live broadcast of another performance was advertized, and I decided to listen to it to refresh my memory of the original version. But it too was of Mozart’s orchestration. Bring back Handel, I say!

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