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George Frideric Handel

Messiah - Arranged by Mozart

What follows is a slightly revised and expanded version of the section of the Handel-Mozart Messiah that appeared in my critical discography of Handel's "Messiah" that I wrote for Alan Blyth's anthology "Choral Music on Records", which was published by the Cambridge University Press:

Handel at the time the Messiah was composed, 1741

In 1789, a performance of "Messiah" that was to have a radical effect on the course of the oratorio's performance history was given in Vienna. Baron Gottfried Van Swieten, who later translated and edited the text for Haydn's "Creation", had, as a diplomat in London during the late 1760s, become an ardent Handelian. Among other Handel scores, he took back to Austria a copy of the first edition of the full score of "Messiah", published by Randall and Abell in 1767. Beginning with "Judas Maccabaeus" in 1779, he introduced works by Handel into the annual oratorio series given for the benefit of the Tonkunstler Society, a Viennese musical charity. In 1789, he presented "Messiah" and, for this Viennese premiere, commissioned Mozart to fill out the accompaniments, largely dispensing with keyboard continuo and replacing the tromba parts practically unplayable for late 18th century trumpeters.

Using the Randall and Abell score and a German translation of the text by Daniel Ebeling, Van Swieten had a copyist prepare a score containing the vocal lines and Handel's string parts, together with the original dynamic and tempo markings. Onto the staves left blank for his use, Mozart added his woodwind, brass, and string parts; those of Handel's woodwind or brass parts that he chose to retain, he copied from the Randall and Abell score. Since that score contains some, but not all, of the alternative versions either in its main body or in an appendix, Van Swieten had to decide which of the various forms to use. He doubtless chose the versions that he had come to know in London 20 years earlier; by and large he selected the versions favored by Handel in the last years of his life and subsequently by his successors in presenting the annual Foundling Hospital performances, John Christopher Smith the Younger and John Stanley.

Van Swieten reassigned some of the solos to voices other than those that Handel specified. He divided the six tenor numbers beginning with "All they that see Him" between the two soprano soloists (There was no alto soloist per se; those solos he allotted to the second soprano.), assigned the 4/4 form of "Rejoice greatly" to the tenor, and gave the Guadagni version of "But who may abide" to the bass. Ironically, the only one of these reassignments with no precedent whatever in Handel's own practice, namely, the last, is the one that became "standard" during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th .

And this seems as good a place as any to deal once and for all with the "problem" of the various versions of "But who may abide the day of His coming". Handel originally set this number as an aria for bass in 3/8 time without the vibrant prestissimo sections that distinguish the bravura rewrite for Gaetano Guadagni. At Dublin and in other early performances, a recitative setting for bass was on occasion substituted, and, in at least one season, Handel gave the original bass version, transposed up a step, to the tenor soloist. After Guadagni returned to the continent in 1753, Handel assigned the setting of "But who may abide" that is now so familiar to a female alto or, as we have seen, to a soprano. There is not a scintilla of evidence that he ever assigned this version to a bass.

Since Mozart's version of "Messiah" was to become the basis for most, if not all, further accompaniments added to the oratorio throughout the 20th century, Van Swieten must also take credit (or shoulder the blame) for initially shaping the "standard" score that was finally codified by Sir Ebenezer Prout in his performing edition of 1902. Neither Mozart nor Van Swieten, however, can be blamed for turning "Why do the nations" into a da capo aria; they were merely following the indication in the first edition. As Walsh's heirs, Randall and Abell had reused the plates from his "Songs in Messiah" in order to hold down costs in assembling a full score. Since no choruses figured in that collection, a da capo was indicated at the end of the aria to provide a return to the tonic key; Handel had used the chorus "Let us break their bonds asunder" as an exciting and dramatic substitute for a reprise of the aria's opening section. Walsh's da capo expedient was carried over into the full score in error.

Van Swieten and Mozart also made a few cuts. They omitted the chorus "Let all the Angels of God" and the aria "Thou art gone up on high". Mozart replaced the aria "If God be for us" with an accompanied recitative of his own composition. His abridged version of "The trumpet shall sound" gives most of the demanding tromba part to a horn. Perhaps most surprisingly, Mozart made wrote no additional accompaniments whatever for quite a few numbers. "He trusted in God", for instance, is utterly free of added instrumentation.

Mozart's woodwind complement includes paired flutes (piccolo in the "Pifa"), oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns. In addition to two trumpets and tympani, his scoring calls for three trombones in the "Overtura" and the chorus "Since by man came death". The original performance materials, which have been preserved, show that the trombones also doubled the alto, tenor, and bass lines in the tutti choruses, according to the standard Austrian practice at that time. [Because these additional, colla parte trombone parts were not specifically indicated by Mozart in his score – since he knew that the copyists would understand the performing convention and draw the parts for the doubling trombones out intuitively, they are – inexplicably – not included in the Neue Mozart Ausgabe score. The trombones appear in that full score only in the two places where Mozart wrote them out because copyists would not have intuitively assumed their presence. Those two places are the "Overtura" and the chorus "Wie durch einen die Tod" {"Since by Man came Death"}. The original and authentic doubling trombone parts are described and included only in the Kritische Bericht {Critical Report} volume that accompanied the full score when acquired as a part of a subscription to the Neue Mozart Ausgabe. The purchaser of the individual volume not only does not get a copy of the Critical Report, he is rarely, if ever, aware, that one even exists! Hence, the vast majority of modern performances of the Mozart arrangement are flawed because the overwhelming majority of the trombone parts are omitted.]

addition, these original performing parts show not only that portions of some choruses were sung by the soloists, but also that the tutti choir – and this is confirmed by annotations on a surviving word book – consisted of but twelve singers!

Precisely because Mozart's additions were so exquisite in and of themselves and were written by a universally acknowledged master unabashedly working in the style of his own age, their validity and propriety have been debated. The negative view was perhaps best expressed by Moritz Hauptmann, who complained that Mozart's arrangement "resembles elegant stucco work upon an old marble temple, which easily might be chipped off again by the weather." Perhaps; but to extend the architectural analogy, I for one, find Mozart's work as congruent with and as complementary to Handel's as Sir Christopher Wren's late 17th-century additions are with the original Tudor portions of the palace at Hampton Court.

The arrangement was published by Breitkopf und Hartel in 1803, with editorial assistance from Thomascantor Johann Adam Hiller, who had done much to promote "Messiah" in Germany. Influenced no doubt by reports of the 1784 Westminster Abbey commemoration, he had presented the oratorio, with additional accompaniments of his own, using enormous forces; at the first performance he directed, in Berlin in 1785, 302 vocalists and instrumentalists participated.

Editing Mozart's arrangement must have been a bittersweet task for Hiller, who surely would have preferred to have seen his own performing edition, for which both the score and the performing parts now appear to be lost, published. Still, Hiller's alterations to Mozart's arrangement were nowhere near as extensive as Prout, Franz, and others believed, (The autograph Mozart score and the original performing materials turned up only in the mid 1950s, and the arrangement was not published in Urtext form until 1961.) Apart from the substitution of a German text that is a combination of the Klopstock and Ebeling translations, Hiller's only crucial change was to substitute his own arrangement (with bassoon obbligato!) of Handel's "If God be for us" for the accompanied recitative that Mozart had written.

There have so far [as of the writing of this analysis in 1990] been four recordings of the Mozart "Messiah". The first [Messner, Josef, conductor. Anneliese Kupper (s), Rosette Anday (a), Lorenz Fehenberger (t), Josef Greindl (bs), Salzburg Cathedral Choir, Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra. Remington (3LPs) (6*, omits 7, 9 [solo section], 21, 23 [da capo reprise], 26-28, 31, 32, 34-36, 49-52), recorded live in Salzburg in 1953 under the direction of Josef Messner, is based on Mozart-Hiller. Crippling cuts (Can you imagine a "Messiah" without "All we like sheep"?), lugubrious tempos, dry and wan singing, and cramped sound make this out-of-print recording expendable for all but the archivist. The second recording based on Mozart-Hiller [Goehr, Walter, conductor. Cole (s), Krap (a), Larsen (t), Hoekman (bs), Handel Society Chorus and Orchestra [Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra]. Musical Masterpiece Society (2LPs) (6*, 23+, 48+, omits 7, 21, 25, 34-39, 49-52] is of a similar limited appeal. Like the Messner, it dates from the early 50s and is marred by crippling cuts and mediocre singing. The conductor, Walter Goehr, also favors slow tempos, but his come off as loving and caressing rather than stodgy, and he leads a rousing "Hallelujah". The score is sung in English, not German.

DG Archiv Galleria 427173-2

By contrast, the third recording [Mackerras, Charles, conductor. Edith Mathis (s), Birgit Finilla (a), Peter Schreier (t), Theo Adam (bs), Austrian Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra. DG Archiv Galleria 427173-2 (2CDs) (Authentic Mozart arrangement complete: 6*, 48+, omits 35, 36] glorious in almost every way, is essential to the library of anyone seriously interested in "Messiah" or Mozart. Conducted by Charles Mackerras (his second "Messiah") and produced by Andreas Hohlschneider, who prepared the Urtext edition for the "Neue Mozart Ausgabe", the recording accurately represents the original production in all important respects save two: Firstly, the chorus consists of 52 singers rather than twelve, and the solo passages Mozart indicated in some choruses are sung by a "Favoritchor" rather than by the soloists. Secondly, the second soprano's part is divided between soprano Edith Mathis and alto Birgit Finnila, who, with tenor Peter Schreier and bass Theo Adam, make up one of the finest group of soloists to grace any recording of "Messiah". Overall, the performance is indescribably charismatic and atmospheric and, despite the use of modern instruments and other minor inauthenticities, succeeds admirably in conjuring up images of the Palffy Palace premiere in Vienna on March 6, 1789.

Early in 1988, Mackerras recorded the Mozart arrangement a second time, with the Huddersfield Choral Society, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and a group of the finest oratorio soloists in Britain today. [Mackerras, Charles, conductor. Felicity Lott (s), Felicity Palmer (a), Philip Langridge (t), Robert Lloyd (bs). The Huddersfield Choral Society, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. RCA Red Seal 77862RC (2CDs, re-issued as Signum 74) (48 +, omits 35, 36, 39, 49-52) Philip Langridge's account of the tenor solos is especially sensitive, and his voice has nearly as much bloom as it did nearly 15 years earlier when he made so worthy and valuable a contribution to the Marriner recording of the 1743 London version of "Messiah". Felicity Lott's soprano may be a bit tender at the top, but her interpretation is both elegant and mature. Felicity Lott, who has become a mezzo since she recorded "Messiah" with Raymond Leppard in the mid '70s, and Robert Lloyd both turn in more than satisfactory performances. As is to be expected from this greatest of the British provincial choruses, the Huddersfield Choral Society sings this music with gusto and empathy; the Royal Philharmonic provides support of equivalent quality.

Still, as exhilarating though it may be as a performance, Mackerras's second "go" at the Mozart arrangement is, alas, a disappointment. This English language performance with a large orchestra and chorus is neither fish nor fowl. Nineteenth century forces and authentic performance practice (the scrupulous observance of the appogiatura convention and the final chords of recitatives played as written, for instance) rub shoulders uncomfortably. This interpretation is further compromised both by cuts and by an uneasy melange of Handel-Mozart and the original score. Besides making the standard cuts in Parts II and III, Mackerras omits "Their sound is gone out". "The trumpet shall sound" is performed without the central section and the da capo reprise, rather than in Mozart's reworking. In addition, with the exception of the assignment of the "Guadagni" version of "But who may abide" to the bass, the "traditional" vocal assignments are preferred to Mozart and Van Swieten's occasional reallocations. Mackerras's decision not to follow either pure Handel or pure Mozart in its entirety is particularly regrettable because he passed up a perfect chance to fill an important gap in the "Messiah" discography by recording the Mozart-Hiller setting as it was known in Britain in the latter half of the nineteenth century thanks to the Novello full score, published in 1859 with the original English text.

I have not stayed abreast of all the subsequent recordings of the Mozart arrangement, but I would like to add a mention of two subsequent recordings of the Mozart version that I have added to my "Messiah" library (and I intend to pick up the others!) that are worthy of consideration:

  1. A complete recording of the "pure" Mozart-Hiller edition of 1803, including the rewrite of "If God is for us" with the bassoon obbligato, has subsequently appeared on Koch International [SC 100 308 K3 {2 CDs}]. It is sung in English, and it gives a very good idea of what "Messiah" sounded like to late Victorian audiences. A group of American soloists, The Oratorio Society of New York, and the Sinfonia Rubinstein are conducted by Lyndon Woodside. It is a fine performance all round.

  2. A period instrument performance, recorded in concert in 1993, by La Grande Ecurie et La Chambre du Roy under the direction of Jean-Claude Malgoire. There is an excellent group of soloists and a fine choral ensemble, the Choeur de Chambre de Namur (22 strong). The trombones, however, alas, do not appear to be playing, colla parte, the choruses. It is, nonetheless, a most enjoyable undertaking. [Astree/Auvidis E 8509 {2 CDs}]

For me, the clear choice remains the Mackerras Archive performance.

This lengthy disquisition is probably much more than anybody really wanted on this subject, but I hope that it is of help to those who share my enthusiasm for this wonderful meeting of two great musical minds: Handel & Mozart.

Copyright © Teri Noel Towe, 1996.

[The image of Handel above appeared on the cover to "A Collector's Messiah" (Koch Historic KIC7703 2CDs produced by Teri Noel Towe) which includes historic Handel Oratorio Recordings recordings from 1899-1930. This image was used as the frontispiece for the first biogaphy of Handel, by John Mainwaring, which was published in 1760. It depicts Handel at the age of 56 (the year he wrote Messiah). What painting or drawing it is derived from no one seems to know, and the original apparently no longer exists.]