Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece published in the Record-Eagle on Dec. 11, 2020.
In 1956, Leonard Bernstein raised more than a few eyebrows when he reorganized Handel’s “Messiah” for a performance at Carnegie Hall. Critics were horrified that Bernstein would dare violate the sanctity of Handel’s piece.
This time of year, there are all kinds of “Messiah” presentations, such as “Messiah” singalongs that feature only the choruses and skip everything else. Some organizations only perform the Christmas portion of Messiah but then append the Hallelujah chorus at the end. Radio broadcasts trim out movements so the entire work fits neatly in a 120-minute slot. Don’t these changes go against Handel’s intentions for the piece, too?
The thing is, there’s not a single, “correct” version of “Messiah” whose sanctity is being violated. For over 250 years — since “Messiah’s” first performance — it’s been customary to adapt it for each performance. Handel himself was involved in at least 10 different versions of “Messiah” during his lifetime. Everyone who performed it made changes to suit their city’s chorus, orchestra and soloists.
Some cities’ choruses had only men and boys while others were co-ed. Early performances had only about 20 choristers, but later, it was common to have more than 100. Sometimes performances included the organ — Handel had his instrument shipped to Dublin so he could play it for the premiere.
Arias were changed to accommodate local singers’ abilities. For a London performance in 1750, Handel rewrote three bass arias for Gaetano Guadagni. Gaudagni, like many male opera stars at the time, was a castrato. Hugely popular at the time, castrati retained the treble voice of a boy but had the lung capacity of a man because they were castrated before puberty. Handel not only put arias in higher keys for Guadagni but he also added complicated passages so the singer could show off his skills.
In Dublin, Handel changed some soprano arias for contralto Susannah Cibber. Cibber, a famous actress, had recently returned to public life following a scandalous trial in which her husband accused her of infidelity in the most graphic terms allowable at the time. The buzz around her helped draw such a crowd that women were asked to remove the hoops from their skirts to allow the largest audience possible to attend.
It seems unlikely that Handel would have been too bothered by Bernstein reordering sections of “Messiah.”
The thing about modern performances that probably would have puzzled Handel the most is the fact that “Messiah” is performed so often at Christmas.
He conceived it as a piece for Easter, and it was primarily performed at Easter during his lifetime. In fact, only the first third of Messiah is about the birth of Christ. The second two thirds are about the Passion and resurrection of Christ, as well as the Day of Judgement. The “Hallelujah” chorus comes after Christ’s resurrection, not after his birth.
Whether it’s Leonard Bernstein or the local church choir doing it, adapting Handel’s “Messiah” to fit the needs of the community and its musicians is perhaps the most authentic way to present the work.