A Baroque Messiah
The concept of returning to the dimensions and sensitivities of Handel’s own era is not a recent one. Several elements, perhaps incorrectly, are often chosen as criteria by which a modern performance of a Baroque work can be distinguished from an “authentic” one. The obvious two elements are size of ensemble and choice of instruments, Baroque or modern. While the preference in recent times has undoubtedly been for smaller choruses and the use of instruments adapted to the 18th Century specifications, an 18th Century sound will surely not automatically occur simply as a result of the use of these forces. While the chorus of this recording is almost exactly the same size as that of the first Messiah performance in 1741, Arcady singers are no doubt very different from the 32 men and boys who comprised the canons of two cathedral choirs in Dublin. Even if they were similar, the dimensions of an ensemble are by no means a result of the era from which it sprang. From accounts we do possess, we know that Messiah performances in Handel’s time ranged from a chorus of 19 (Foundling Hospital, 1754) to some large combined choir extravaganzas of the kind that would later become the expectation in Victorian England. It was collaborations of the latter type that led critics such as George Bernard Shaw to plead for more “civilized” renderings of the great oratorio within his lifetime.
From a historical point of view, however, conductors have unmistakably patterned their interpretation of Handel’s works after the practices of their own day. In other words, if they assembled a large ensemble, it is more likely that they wanted a large ensemble than were attempting to respond to some suspected calling out from the music itself. Critics for some time have been reacting adversely to “modernised” orchestrations. The Mozart version, infused with classical charm, and the Prout orchestration of 1905 were both patterned after the orchestras of the day. It is from this more than anything else that period performance interest of recent times is attempting to distinguish itself.
In the mid 1980s, a number of us, perhaps unwittingly, did the groundwork for the ensemble that would eventually be Arcady. By means of a few scholarly concerts we were able to establish a method of performance practice which would form the basis of an approach to early Music that we embrace today. Much of this knowledge was gleaned from the writings of 18th Century pedagogues; more of it was gained from careful listening and trial and error. Having the right instruments also helps. The mere construction of a Baroque violin suggests much about its potential use.
In short, we will never know exactly what an 18th Century rendition of Handel’s Messiah sounded like. While we proudly add one more CD to the succession of “authentic” recordings that have flooded the early music market in the past 30 years, we can no more claim to have captured the definitive performance than can anyone else. A desire to experience the thrill of a Handelian performance is by no means an attempt to discredit any of the work of scholars and performers of the past 150 years. Their energies directed toward presenting and perpetually regenerating the work’s appeal have been fundamental to assigning Messiah its rightful place as “king of kings” among oratorios. Of one thing we can be certain. The combination of orchestral and vocal bodies has been a huge source of inspiration and expression for every composer from the Italian Renaissance to the present day. Nowhere, before or since, has the potential of this force been better captured than in the Handel oratorio. No oratorio has captured the imagination of generations of listeners more than Messiah has.