Handel’s oratorio Messiah, unlike almost every other piece of music from the Baroque era, has an unbroken history of performance, from its premier in 1741 in Dublin up to the 21st century. Why, then, do we bother to apply the knowledge and tastes of the Historically-Informed Performance movement? It is because the style of performance has undergone steady change during the 261 years since Handel penned this masterwork — and not only the style, but even the very orchestration of the piece.
During Handel’s lifetime (he died in 1759), Messiah became the most frequently-performed of all his works, all under his direction (he owned the only copies). After his death, performance style evolved according to the changing tastes of the times. A landmark in the performance-history was the production in Westminster Abbey in 1784, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Handel’s death: on that occasion more there were more than 300 singers and players (Handel’s productions used about 63 musicians in total). This trend continued through the 19th century, exemplified in the 1859 production in London’s Crystal Palace involving over 700 musicians. Interestingly, a recording of a performance from the Crystal Palace exists — not from 1859, of course, but from before the First World War — on which one can here the performance-practice of a bygone time. In large part this expansion was linked to the adoption of Handel’s music (and also oratorios by Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Elgar) by the large amateur choral societies which were such an important part of music-making through the Victorian era and up to the Second World War.
At the same time, Handel’s orchestration — very much in the style of the late Baroque period — also was subject to change. In 1789 Mozart was commissioned by Baron van Swieten, who was a tireless promoter of the music of Bach and Handel in Classical-period Vienna, to provide a new orchestration for a German-language performance in Vienna. Mozart added clarinets, flutes, horns, and trombones to Handel’s forces, very much in his own style. Other, lesser composers made their own modifications during the 19th century, basing their work on what Mozart had done. One edition, by English theorist Ebenezer Prout, published in 1902, became the standard throughout the first half of the 20th century. Even now the unwary choral director purchasing instrumental parts is likely to get the Prout edition without knowing it. And the most flamboy- ant of all was prepared by Sir Eugene Goossens for a recording in 1959 conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham: Beecham reputedly instructed Goossens to put everything in, “including the kitchen sink.” There is no actual plumbing in it, but it does include a full symphonice percussion section, with triangles and snare-drums and climactic cymbal-crashes!
It was only in the 1960’s that conductors began to return to Handel’s orchestration; the first recording of it came in 1967, albeit with members of a modern symphony orchestra. By that time the pioneers in the original-instrument movement were making themselves known, but their attention was given mostly to Bach rather than Handel. Not until the late 1970’s did musicians decide to return to Handel’s instruments as well as Handel’s instrumentation. They did so because they considered that the characteristic sounds of the instruments in their 18th-century forms made it easier to convey Handel’s musical conception. The differences which are most immediately noticeable to the eye are in the wind and brass instruments, but there are also significant changes in the sound. The oboes and bassoon, which had no keys, produce a color which is better suited to blending with the strings, as opposed to the modern symphonic oboe which is designed to create a solo color. And in fact, throughout Messiah the oboes are not used in a solo capacity, but to color the string sound and to reinforce the vocal parts. The difference in the trumpets is even more striking: they have no valves, and (even more significantly) the tube is twice as long as the modern valve-trumpet. The sound it creates has more gravity and just as much brilliance, but at a volume-level that is more suited to smaller forces. The stringed instruments use strings of gut rather that steel and nylon, which gives them a sweeter and more transparent tone. However, the biggest difference is in the bow: rather than being designed for creating long, sustained legato melodies, the Baroque bow creates a sound that is more speech-like, with a wider variety of “consonants” in the musical “words,” and a greater ability to make the kind of small-scale inflections in volume that characterize speech. All these characteristics contribute to making Handel’s music livelier, more colorful, and more expressive.