Record Keeping: Why Mess With Handel’s “Messiah”?

Paul E. Robinson, Musical Toronto

Handel’s Messiah has been with us for a very long time. A work clearly beloved by millions of people, its presentation is an annual Christmas event in many cities.

So why mess with it? People love it the way it is. What moved Sir Andrew Davis to rewrite the piece? Surely it is the height of arrogance for Sir Andrew to think that he can make a great work greater by making wholesale changes in the score. I would have thought that the conductor’s job is not to re-compose Messiah but rather to make it as great as it can be by playing what the composer wrote as he intended it to be played.

The notes for this new Messiah were written by Sir Andrew, who obviously felt the need to justify his “new concert edition” — as well he should. In his own words: “My aim was to keep Handel’s notes, harmonies, and style intact, but to make use of all the colours available from the modern symphony orchestra in order to underline the mood and meaning of the individual movements.”

Unfortunately, this explanation begs the question and suggests that in its original form Handel’s music (orchestration) fails “to underline the mood and meaning of the individual movements.” When I was young, Messiah was usually performed in the Victorian era Ebenezer Prout version (1902), using a large chorus and orchestra. Then in 1965 came the Watkins Shaw edition, which got back to Handel’s original version, and generated a new tradition.

Read the full review at Musical Toronto.