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Messiah

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: George Handel
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Handel's Messiah Dec. 19 - 22, 2013
© Thomas May

It's possible to view the entire career of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) as an illustration of that symbol so favored by eighteenth-century England: the wheel of fortune. After reaching delirious heights of success as an opera composer, fashions turned against him. Handel, on the brink of ruin, managed to reinvent himself by cultivating the English oratorio: opera in disguise (or, rather, opera without the costumes). Soon he was at the top of his game once again.

Handel actually took another gamble with Messiah. Its allusive and indirect approach-there's almost no dramatic impersonation-makes it strikingly different from his other oratorios. The first performances in Dublin (during Eastertide in 1742) were a triumph. But London audiences deemed Handel's choice of subject matter for this decidedly non-liturgical work-setting actual scriptural texts arranged by Charles Jennens-to be too sacred. As a "novel entertainment," it uncomfortably blurred the line between sacred and secular. After several revivals by the composer, however, the controversy blew over and Messiah won favor. But Handel could hardly have foreseen the strange posthumous turn of the wheel that would position this atypical oratorio as his signature work. The vast bulk of his output was left to tumble into oblivion for almost two centuries, before the Handel revival began to reveal how much we were missing.

Indeed, Messiah had long since become a victim of its own popularity when the colorful and legendary conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) proposed giving the score a facelift to mark the bicentennial of the composer's death in 1959. In a famous but bizarre essay, he argued that advances in the sphere of orchestral music had so shifted public taste that audiences were no longer willing "to tolerate a collection of voices singing...with little or no relief from the orchestra" for the duration of a full-scale piece. Beecham commissioned Sir Eugene Aynsley Goossens (1893-1962)- his younger (and recently knighted) colleague, who was also a composer-to reorchestrate the entire score for a fee of £1,000.

Goossens came from a renowned family of musicians that had migrated from Belgium to England. After Beecham jump-started his conducting career in the teens, Goossens developed into a celebrated and influential figure, particularly as a new-music champion. A series of globe-trotting posts kept him at the helm of American orchestras for over two decades (where he commissioned Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man), followed by important positions in Australia. Noël Coward even gave him a nod in his lyrics for "Russian Blues" ("My heart just loosens when I listen to Mr. Goossens").

But just a few years before Goossens' former mentor came calling with his Handel project, scandal triggered an abrupt fall from grace for the esteemed maestro. The precise details remain murky, but they involve a suitcase of pornographic materials that allegedly linked Goossens to Rosaleen Norton, an Australian occult artist and practicing witch. (The made-for-tabloid scandal went on to inspire a novel, a play, and even an opera.)

The whole affair was a career train wreck for Goossens, who spent his last years back in England. There he prepared his massive Messiah score: 364 pages of 30-stave manuscript that dwarfed Handel's original autograph of 259 pages. A team of five copyists clustered nearby, madly scribbling away to meet Beecham's deadline. Even though the project was conceived to enhance performances in large concert halls, Beecham conducted a single live account (at the Lucerne Festival, on September 12, 1959). Ironically, the best-selling studio recording he conducted for RCA is what gave the new version its iconic status. In fact, the first public performance of the reupholstered Messiah in the UK happened only forty years later, at the Proms, where it was billed as a "Messiah for the Millennium."

In the interim, Goossens's central role as orchestrator of this version had been glossed over. Carole Rosen, an authority on the Goossens family, shot down persistent rumors that a dissatisfied Beecham had retouched most of the orchestration. "Apart from a few passages," she argued, "the whole of the rest of the work as recorded by Beecham was orchestrated by Sir Eugene Goossens."

The basic premise of retooling Handel's score-in this case, to "modernize" it by applying the template of a grand, late-romantic symphonic ensemble-now seems taboo. Yet Messiah's long, rich tradition is mostly a story of doing precisely that. For his annual revivals, the ever-pragmatic Handel himself frequently tailored the score to adapt to particular performers and venues (his revival of 1751, for example, used a boys' choir for the treble voices). Mozart introduced the work to Vienna audiences in 1789 by clothing it with a full complement of classical woodwinds. A tendency toward expansion snowballed in the following century. Festival performances reached circus-size proportions, featuring choruses sometimes numbering in the thousands.

In fact, despite its reputation for being "over the top," the Beecham/Goossens edition was intended as a middle-of-the-road approach in the face of some truly wayward distortions. "If Handel is to be brought back into popular favor," Beecham declared, "some reasonable compromise must be effected between excessive grossness and exaggerated leanness of effect, and this is what has been aimed at in the present version."

To audiences who have absorbed the insights of the early-music movement in the half-century since, the jingling triangles in "For Unto Us" or march-band cymbals and piccolo in the "Hallelujah" Chorus might seem like the definition of excess. Yet it's also an adventure. Aspects of its palette impress with a captivating freshness. This version isn't merely about "adding" sonority: It alters the overall effect of Handel's music. Flowing harp accompaniment, pizzicato strings, a fortress of brass, and brightly chattering woodwinds: Taken together, these trigger a tipping point toward a qualitatively different experience of what seems so familiar. Messiah reminds us that a genuine classic is not an immutable, tamper-resistant object. Its vitality comes from its inexhaustible capacity to surprise.

--Thomas May is a contributor to the National Symphony program books and writes frequently about the arts.