t took George Frideric Handel three weeks to writeMessiah and performances can last three hours (with a suitably long interval). In a little over three decades it will be three centuries old and there is no sign of its popularity waning.
For reasons not entirely clear to me, it has become associated with Christmas and (in Scotland especially) New Year. As a celebration of the life of Christ it is equally, if not more, suited to Easter, the season in which it was premiered in Dublin, six months after Handel had dashed it off. Nonetheless, the nation’s bigMessiahs are on Tuesday. In the Usher Hall at noon the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union and the Caledonian Chamber Orchestra will be conducted by John Pryce-Jones, while at 3pm the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and chorus are under the baton of Stephen Layton.
Both fixtures are more than a century old and are described as traditional performances – which is very different from “authentic”. For that you had to be in the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh before Christmas to hear the Dunedin Consort perform the original Dublin score under the guidance of Professor John Butt. We are entering controversial waters here, ones which Handel himself did much to muddy.
One of my most treasured possessions is a leather-bound monogrammed edition of the score of Handel’s oratorio, which belonged to my father. Messiah was the first piece of classical music I knew well. I was a regular attender at the Usher Hall concerts, then on New Year’s Day, from the age of eight. My father was one of the elite – and even then diminishing – corps of first tenors in a choir which then occupied the whole of the organ stalls behind the orchestra platform.
Although the interval chat, when the posher Edinburgh folk sat on the stairs and produced bottles of bubbly and neat salmon sandwiches from wicker baskets, was of the quality of the soloists “the Choral” had engaged that year, the focus was really on the chorus. For many, it included a family member or friend, and the powerful sound produced for the famous Hallelujah chorus or the mighty concludingWorthy is The Lamb/Amen was the cobwebdispersing experience that we all came to enjoy. Recent recordings (no fewer than three excellent ones, including one by the Dunedins, were released at the end of this year) all use smaller forces, but you can still hear the majesty of a bigMessiah on budget label Classics for Pleasure in a 50-year-old recording by Sir Malcolm Sargent with the Huddersfield Choral Society and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
My dad’s score is a 1951 printing of Novello’s 1902 edition, edited by Ebenezer Prout – a name to delight any eight-year-old. It has a number of alterations in my father’s hand, because by the time I was sitting with another copy of the score on my kilted knees, Prout was not much in favour. The edition becoming standard was that prepared by Watkins Shaw, the first musical academic to painstakingly recreate the performing scores that the ever-pragmatic Handel made for the performances he himself supervised. Instrumentation had varied greatly, and solos were rescored for different voices. Even the libretto by the clever, if pompous, Charles Jennens was not sacrosanct.
“Authenticity” now is highly specific and each of the new recordings is based on a different early version. If none of these is more true than any other, it is surely equally permissable to value those large-scale productions with the significant participation of amateur voices. An uplifting start to 2007 is guaranteed.