Messiah – reflections by Simon Lindley

1 December 2018, Dr Simon Lindley

So pretty nigh universal has its use become, it is scarcely credible to think that the first vocal score of Watkins Shaw’s edition of Messiah only appeared as recently as sixty years ago. It has, generally [though by no means completely] replaced the previous most popular edition, that of Ebenezer Prout printed in 1902 by the same music publisher, Novello & Company Limited, that brought to birth Watkins Shaw’s complete editionissued over a number of years and including full score, a companion compendium, miniature score and orchestral parts as well as a vocal score, the most recent re-incarnation of which appeared as recently as 1992. Not that Shaw’s was the first ‘hat in the ring’ in terms of striving faithfully to reproduce Handel’s intentions without things such as the ‘additional accompaniments’ so beloved by Mozart as well as his later successors.

Shaw’s precursors included John Tobin, Conductor of the London Handel Society who issued an edition for Barenreiter’s complete gamut of Handel’s works as well as earlier figures such as Westminster Abbey organist Sir Frederick Bridge and the vastly under-rated Oxford-based musicologist T W Bourne [1862-1948]. Bourne it was who, in many ways, paved the way for a greater degree of historical ‘authenticity’ and accuracy, decades prior to Dr Shaw’s intervention. Shaw insisted on the proper use of a continuo player to fill out the potential of the composer’s harmonies, written with the assistance of a kind of musical ‘shorthand’ in the form of a system known as ‘figured bass’ in which the intervals that were printed with a number above the cello and bass line advised the player clearly of the composer’s harmonic requirements on important chords as much as less prominent points.

Significant recordings include a trail-blazing EMI LP under Sir Charles Mackerras with the youthful Dame Janet Baker among the soloists being joined by fledgling Nottingham-born counter-tenor Paul Esswood as well as numerous pioneering performances here in the Cathedral by Sheffield Bach Choir under the informed and inspirational direction of the late and great Dr Roger Bullivant MBE, Conductor of the Bach Choir from 1960 until retirement around forty years later.

Though by far the best known of its composer’s many religious works, Messiah is actually the least typical of Handel’s many oratorios. This is due in the main to the special genius of his ‘librettist’ Charles Jennens, who was responsible for the imaginative compilation of the verbal text – a compilation which has, in itself, probably done almost as much to establish the work in the hearts and minds of successive generations as Handel’s music.

Messiah, truly, stands in a class of its own – in some ways as much almost a liturgical observance as a concert piece; not in the manner of the Passion oratorios from the Lutheran tradition, but more as a series of scenarios and reflective tableaux.

Handel was engaged extensively in the composition and presentation of oratorio in London for the last two decades of his life. His business sense and entrepreneurial energy seem to have captured the mood of the age. Had he remained stubbornly committed to opera composition, his twilight years would have been much less comfortable and his public far less appreciative. The keeping of precise financial records, receipt books and “word books” as the programmes of the day were known, during the course of the composer’s performances arranged for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital are of huge benefit to scholars in enabling us to ascertain which selections of the solo material were heard on which occasions.

It is extremely unlikely that the composer ever heard or performed the work wholly complete, though the Bach Choir and many other ensembles are known for presenting the work “cover to cover” to quote a West Riding descriptive of an uncut version of the composer’s magnificent score.

The Bach Choir is proud of, and profoundly grateful for, the considerable support provided each December to a now traditional retiring collection at the close of the evening in aid of the Cathedral’s acclaimed Archer Project for those undergoing difficult times in their lives.

Messiah will be performed in Sheffield Cathedral on Monday 3 December 2018. Go to the current season page for further details.


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