About this Recording
8.554511-12 - HANDEL, G.F.: Messiah (Trinity Choir and Orchestra, Burdick)

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759): Messiah


Messiah has withstood the test of time better than any other oratorio, especially in England and America. Few people realize that Messiah received its New World première at Trinity Church in October 1770—only twenty-eight years after it was written. Messiah has been edited and transcribed for everything from full symphonic orchestra to jazz and pop combos. It has been performed by choirs of twelve, and by choirs of hundreds—even thousands—if you count the ever-popular Messiah “sings” performed by the public each Christmas. Yet perhaps no other work has had as many unfounded myths and musical traditions associated with it.

For example, Messiah was not originally a “Christmas” piece, and was not considered “church music.” The 36 performances conducted or supervised by Handel all took place in March, April, or May (during Lent or Easter)—and never in a church. Also, the traditional “hush” which is almost always heard in the Hallelujah Chorus at the words “The kingdom of this world” was never suggested by Handel. The noted musicologist Frederick Neumann asserts in his article The Overdotting Syndrome: Anatomy of a Delusion that the rhythmic double-dotting treatment traditionally given the Overture and the chorus Behold the Lamb of God is a “fiction created by improper research procedures.” (We offer here the “French Overture” version as a variation at the repeat, however.)

There is no definitive or “final” version of Messiah. We know the personnel, instrumentation, and musical alterations which were used in many of the performances conducted by Handel, but these represent only utilitarian “snapshots.” We cannot infer from these that Handel preferred one version to another. Unlike Bach, Handel basically left his music alone after composing it. He may have eliminated, transposed, or changed the arrangement of entire movements in order to accommodate the singers and orchestral forces available for a particular performance, but generally he left the actual notes alone once the ink was dry.

This is evidenced by examining Handel’s personal conducting score which he used in all the performances he directed. There are numerous places where scholars have thought that, in his haste, Handel may have eliminated the word underlay from one choral part if he took the time to write it in another similar or adjacent passage. Yet Handel had numerous occasions and ample time (the boat trip to the first performance in Dublin, for instance) to correct such omissions. He never did. At one performance, Handel made use of no less than twelve oboe-players. Does this mean that he preferred having this many and that having fewer players represents a compromise? A modern orchestral contractor would be hard-pressed to find twelve topnotch oboists in a single city—even New York.

Though modern interpretation should be guided as much as possible by the presumed intention of the composer (insofar as the latest scholarship allows us to understand it), we must concede that performing Messiah with twenty singers and an appropriately balanced instrumental ensemble represents, at best, an imperfect compromise. For example: modern audiences have a different understanding of biblical scripture; contemporary dynamic range has been severely expanded to include the din of subways, jackhammers, and jets; conversation and the ability to listen critically for lengthy periods has been replaced by the one-way tyranny of the television sound-bite; the feeling of the times is different; and on and on. The most we can hope to achieve is a performance in the spirit of the time as best we understand it from a distance of 257 years from its première.

Trinity Church is extraordinarily fortunate in having a first-rate ensemble of singers, all of whom are soloists in their own right. These performances of Messiah afford us the perfect opportunity to showcase these performers and to share their distinctive talents with you. Each soloist has been chosen for the unique vocal and interpretive gifts they bring to each recitative and aria. We hope you’ll agree with our choices, be moved by their artistry, and rejoice at their accomplishment.

Owen Burdick


Technical Information

Recorded using a modified “Decca Tree” consisting of two Shoeps CMC 6 (Mk II omnidirectional capsul) microphones and a Neuman M149 microphone into Sanosax pre-amps; an overhead pair of Coles 4038 ribbon microphones (for the orchestra) into Manley tube pre-amps; three Neuman TLM 170 microphones (for the choir) into John Hardy pre-amps; and a Shoeps CMC 6 (Mk IV cardioid capsul) microphone (for the harpsichord) into a John Hardy pre-amp.

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