Re-visiting Handel’s Messiah
Most choral singers love Handel’s Messiah. Of all choral works it is the one which has entered cultural consciousness to the extent where a movement such as the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, with all its attendant myths and traditions, is recognisable enough to be used across an immense range of genres and traditions. It is a piece of music that it is assumed will be recognised immediately. This success was similarly immediate in Handel’s day; Handel was, in some ways unlike his contemporary JS Bach, celebrated in his own time and continued to be so after his death. Haydn was stimulated and influenced by the great Handel commemorations held in London at the end of the eighteenth century; they are echoed in his own oratorios. Handel had a gift for universal relevance. Messiah is perhaps the archetype of this trait (although many would argue for other oratorios being even greater works). Unlike Bach’s Passions and Cantatas, Messiah has relevance at any point in the Church’s year. Treated as a compendium of movements on different aspects of Christianity’s development, as it often is, it can be made to point in relevance to Christmas or Easter, as the season demands. Nor, in adopting this approach, can a conductor be accused of marring Handel’s concept. The composer himself presented versions of the work with altered versions of arias and choruses, and some omissions, to suit the occasion. While he might have baulked at Beecham’s version with triangle and cymbals, Handel would perhaps take in his stride performances with just organ, or on ‘modern’ strings.
This November, Chester Bach Singers present Handel’s masterpiece with all the Christmas music complete, followed by the majority of the ensuing movements which trace the Crucifixion story and the glory of Christ’s Resurrection. Thus, familiar movements, such as ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ and ‘The trumpet shall sound’ remain in place. They follow Handel’s tracing of the Christmas story from Old Testament prophecies, through the experience of the shepherds to the joy of the releasing of burdens that the appearance of the Messiah brings. These are presented with instruments as near as possible to the types with which Handel would have been familiar, played by the 18th Century Sinfonia. A quartet of highly promising young singers brings a freshness to the arias and CBS places its strong choral technical skills at the disposal of Handel’s memorable choruses.
Recordings of Messiah are too numerous to mention and selection is probably invidious. Suffice to say that the listener can find all types of performance to suit their inclination, whether from established groups such as The Sixteen, Polyphony or Cathedral and Collegiate choirs, usually with ‘original instruments’, or larger-scale groups, such as the celebrated performances over the years by the Huddersfield Choral Society.