Performing Handel’s Messiah

On April 6, 2019, I found myself conducting one of the best known oratorios of all time, Handel’s Messiah. As a conductor who hasn’t had the opportunity to perform many large works in the past, this was an absolute treat. The instrumentalists were all enthusiastic about the performance, and the choir was obviously even more excited. Soloists included soprano, Jessica Kos-Whicher; alto, Laurelle Czaplinski; tenor, Justin Odwak; and baritone, David Klassen.

Performing large works as this one is something I hope to do much more in the future. My students at Providence, as well as the wider rural communities surrounding the university, deserve the chance to participate in these performances – to experience the grandeur and power of these larger works. But, as any conductor will tell you, conducting these performances is the easy part. The difficulty is in making it happen in the first place.

Handel had completed the work in lightening speed. He began composing the work on August 22nd, 1741, and had the first part completed by August 28th.  The 2nd and 3rd parts were completed on the 6th and 12th of September respectively.  The entire work was completed within a span of 3 weeks.  This rapid pace is sometimes given as proof of divine inspiration. There may have been some of that, but it’s important to remember that Handel wrote a great amount of music, and it was somewhat second nature to him. It’s why Handel’s sound is so characteristically Handel. Not to mention that he also rewrote some of his student works from his days in Italy.

As a staple of many Christmas concerts around the world, it’s sometimes easy to forget what a unique work the Messiah really is. As an oratorio, it doesn’t follow a strict biblical storyline or text. Rather, it describes the life of the Messiah through a narrative put together largely through disparate Old and New Testament texts. The libretto was written by Charles Jennens. A familiarity about the nature of religious faith in the 18th century makes the reason for the curious textual decisions much clearer.  Jennens was an opponent of deism, the idea that God existed but was no longer active in the world.  An idea gaining momentum during this time. By using Old Testament texts and prophecies to depict the life of the Messiah, Jennens clearly articulates the fulfillment of the Word of the God, and thereby makes clear God’s continued presence to humanity. 

The work had numerous performances during Handel’s own lifetime, and quickly became a favourite among English concert goers.  On several occasions, Handel himself changed and rewrote movements of the work to better suit his performers, leaving behind a patchwork of performance options and editions.  This has left performers often looking for the most authentic version to perform.  Hence, modern performances of Messiah can vary from one to another.  

For this performance, there were no less than 4 different performing editions spread throughout the choir and orchestra. An absolute nightmare to keep track of, but an unfortunate necessity. (Mental note, next time make sure everyone is using the same edition). For this performance, we focused on those movements applicable to Easter, avoiding favourites like “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and “Glory to God.”

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the logistics of putting on a performance like this one that it’s easy to neglect the music. In smaller communities, there usually aren’t the luxuries of being able to hand off all the work to others: finding instrumentalists, soloists, venues, advertising, rehearsal schedules and spaces, and let’s not forget money. Thankfully the EMCA committee was behind this project as well and made my job easier.

In the end, this was a thrill for the entire Steinbach community. It was an absolute joy to be able to do this.