Messiah: Understanding and Performing Handel’s Masterpiece

by Helmuth Rilling in collaboration with Kathy Saltzman Romey
Carus-Verlag (CV F 24.070), 2015.
128pp, €16.50.
ISBN 978 3 89948 223 2.

This strikes me as the work of an old-fashioned conductor born in 1933 – six years older than me. However, I kept my eyes on the musicology, and was refreshed when the early-instrument movement became common. I sang the work regularly in my teens, at first in the old-fashioned way from the Novello Prout edition of 1902 and later in the over-marked Watkins Shaw edition of 1959. Later I played continuo in the more fashionable style, generally reading from a complete score. I was honoured to be asked to produce a new edition of Messiah by Oxford University Press, published in 1998.1 I haven’t done any work on it since then.

Rilling has some good points, especially in pointing to Jennens’ complex and skilful arrangement of the Biblical text to inspire the composer. But two basic points are not discussed. (a) How many singers are appropriate for a choir? Information from the Foundling Hospital in the mid 1750s gives fairly accurate details of the forces concerned. I’m surprised that Rilling did not quote them – around 13 singers including soloists: perhaps stage performances may have had a few more singers. Rilling gives no attempts of the size of the choir or the orchestra, yet he quotes specific smaller groups without relating them to the full-scale modern orchestras that he seems to anticipate. (b) What pitch is being used? Rilling comments on high parts without referring to the lower semitone pitch, which must make some difference. And (c) he misunder­stands the presence of dynamics. The general indication of volume in the period is that the opening of a movement uses the full forces played with confidence, but piano is basically to make oboes and bassoons silent and the strings play at a lower level (though not necessarily as soft as piano).

In fact, Rilling fails by adding markings other than those that are obvious for the score but not necessarily for individual forte and piano. What he needs to think about is the shaping of individual phrases. That’s why there are so few indications of musicality within music of the period. More important than marking dynamics is the shaping of the phrase. The first Accompagnato begins with four bars of strings. The dynamic is quite low (but not low enough to warrant piano). The tenor enters on the chord in bar 4 with Com-fort ye. This has three notes: the singer requires presence, but not particularly high volume. The other half of the bar – for two violins & viola – contrasts, but the absence of a bass makes it plausible to keep the strings at a moderate volume: the two sounds are different but the strings do not need to be echoes. Bar 5 starts with the strings, but con Rip (added in 1749) implying a louder volume, but probably not a forte.2 The voice enters on a top E on the second minim, with a longer phrase: Comfort ye my people. The long Com– should have a brief accent from the first letter (C), then cutting back lower at once followed by a crescendo –om– then lightening fort, semiquaver #f and #g, continuing noticeably to ye my leading slightly on to the semiquaver at the end of the bar ye, ending the phrase with a slight rise on the first note of bar 7 people, followed by diminuendo. Throughout there’s a vast pattern of shaping small phrases.

Similarly, choruses should sing in the same way. The opening of the Hallelujah Chorus presents problems since the crucial word has no fixed stress. Bars 4 & 5 make sense with a strong first syllable, but more plausible is accenting the third syllable in bar 6, but in bar 7 the strong point is the first note in the bar again, with a slight diminuendo for the strings to follow more quietly. I’m not necessarily following the accents on the Hallelujahs; they need to be shaped.

This sort of detail is rare. I think that the shaping of most baroque music is discovered within the phrases, without dynamics that became essential in the 19th century, and we eventually find modern 20th-century scores that can have a separate dynamic on and between each note – let alone pieces that flippantly have dynamics in silent bars! There’s too much about size and volume, while the shaping of phrases is ignored. It is ironic that the Carus edition (55.056) of 2009, by Ton Koopman and Jan H. Siemons is recommended by Rilling, but is more in accord with earlier editions over shortening upbeats. Rilling needs to be much more subtle. The premiere of my edition was given by the Huddersfield Choral Society for the famous Christmas events. The choir was quite large, the orchestra a substantial chamber orchestra, a big organ, a packed audience and a marvellous conductor who hadn’t played the piece before. The musical style isn’t entirely dependent on the size of the choir. Rilling oversimplifies by not commenting on different forces – both size and whether modern or early instruments.

However, the remarks on each number will encourage conductors and performers to think about the work, even if it is rather too general and often repetitive.

Clifford Bartlett

  1. My Oxford University Press full-score edition of 1998 lists the 1754 and 1758 payments and parts on p. viii. The premiere in Dublin probably had 20 singers from the two Dublin choirs of Christ Church and St Patrick’s Cathedral. The 1749 must have been larger forces, both for choir and instruments, the latter having senza & con ripieno: there’s no such evidence for the later performances.
  2. The OUP edition has included f and p where there are con & senza ripieno marks; Carus omits f and p.