The Trombone Shall Sound? Mozart’s Handel’s Messiah: An Orchestra Librarian’s Nightmare

Gary Corrin, The Wholenote

For many North American orchestras, playing in the pit for ballet performances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is a common holiday tradition. This was my experience, first as a clarinetist and then as an orchestra librarian. My first encounter with Messiah as a professional, however, was during my interview for the librarian position of the Phoenix Symphony when I was asked, “What edition do you like for the Messiah?” It is an extraordinarily complex question – much more so than I would have known at the time. I managed to offer up something I’d learned from a couple of sing-along Messiahs I had attended – the organizer cautioning the audience/performers about the different numbering systems in various publications. But over the succeeding 30 years I have learned that there is much more to it than that, as I hope to share with you in this article.

The complexity begins with the fact that George Frideric Handel was a German who spent the last 49 years of his life in London and achieved his greatest successes there. He composed Messiah – in English – in 1742 and, over the next several years, conducted it 13 times. As might be expected, these performances featured varying casts of vocal soloists, so during those years Handel rewrote several of the solo pieces to better suit these different voices. With its extraordinary popularity (and copyright protection still in its infancy) came many publications of the music, each with its own system of organizing and numbering the content. Moreover, because of its timeless story and memorable tunes, Messiah became the object of updates by several composers (including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) who made new orchestrations to capture an expressive sonority more in keeping with their time. The TSO’s own Sir Andrew Davis is the most recent example of this.

Let’s pause right here to consider the things that could go wrong at a first rehearsal. The conductor might ask for “No. 44,” at which the chorus (reading from the Watkins Shaw edition) would sing, “Hallelujah!” while the alto and tenor soloists (reading from the Bärenreiter edition of the Handel version) would launch into “O Death, Where is Thy Sting?” and the orchestra (reading from Bärenreiter parts of the Mozart version) would chime in, “We don’t have a number 44!” Even worse, the additional flutes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trombones, tuba and percussion (variously required for versions by Mozart, Prout, Beecham or Davis) might not even show up! There are, in fact, so many performance variables that it really is necessary for each conductor to have a set of parts marked to his or her specifications.

I got that that first library job in Phoenix, and that fall was presented with a score of Messiah into which the conductor had entered thousands of performance indications, which I was obliged to transfer into the parts (first ensuring, of course, that the soloists, chorus and orchestra would all be performing from that same edition). It took a couple weeks of constant work, but I vividly remember the conductor’s delight when he came to the library, opened the second violin part to a particular page and found his performance instructions copied there.

Long before there was a Toronto Symphony, choral music was the dominant force in this city’s musical life. The first performance of Handel’s Messiah in Toronto took place in February 1873 and the founding of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir predates that of the Toronto Symphony by some 28 years. In his history of the Toronto Symphony, Begins with the Oboe, Richard Warren suggests that it was the desire for a better orchestra to accompany oratorio performances that was partly responsible for the formation of a regular orchestra. The TSO and TMC collaborated to perform Messiah first in 1936, again in 1948 and have done so nearly every Christmas season since.


Read the full article, including Gary’s adventures with the TSO/TMC Messiah, here.