Handel’s Messiah

GP:      Let’s talk now a little bit about the Messiah.  You’re going to, in just a few days, record a brand new version of this. And tonight, later on tonight on the program, we’re going to perform and broadcast the 1966 version, your first version.  Of the two versions – now you’ve done one and you’re going to go do another one - are you going to do anything differently?  The one in you did in 1966 I know was kind of a reconstruction of the original way Handel did it, performed it.  Is this going to be like that or is this going to be another type version? 

RS:      This will be substantially the same. There are some – there have been some new - obviously, in the last two decades, there have been an awful lot of new Handel research and scholarship.    But up to that time we made that recording, most of the Messiahs had been made in the sort of symphonic tradition of the vast English cathedral choir or festival chorus of two or three hundred voices.  And ours was the first recording made with chamber music forces.  We’ll use our chamber music forces, but there are some new elements of instrumentation.  And that is, when for instance, one uses reeds instead of just - and bassoons and oboes instead of just strings and so on. And there have been some developments in terms of ornamentation and - what I want to say -  metric organization.  That is to say, some pieces now are treated as French overtures, which means that they have a shortly and double dotted rhythm - da,da-da, da-da, da-da instead of da, da, da, da - and so there’s been some development. 

Actually I haven’t wanted much to do this recording because I think it’s going to take another decade or two before the dust settles.   But I’ve been spending - this week - I’ve been spending long hours on the telephone with the two top Handel musicologists in the United States, both of whom – Larsen [Jens Peter Larsen, Danish Handel scholar] from Europe and Alfred Mann who is a German, but presently an American - both of them are now in residence in Rochester [Eastman School of Music], just by chance.  Larsen happens to be there for a while.  And so I’ve been trying to keep them busy on the phone to find out what of these things are now supposed to be the way to do it.  Similarly, Bach has now been performed - the B Minor Mass has been performed, which we’ve always thought was a choral piece - by one voice on a part and one instrument on a part.  Now this makes a lot of trouble because all of sudden you have only two violins and you’ve got three trumpets and how are you going to make a balance out of this sort thing? 

GP:       Was a lot - I don’t want to use the word - a lot of stuff added to the Messiah, a lot of garbage over the years that needed to be cleaned out? 

RS:     Well not all of it was garbage. 

GP:     Interpretations by different …

RS:     The people like Mozart, who is as great a composer as Handel, or greater, Mozart wrote his own version of the Messiah. He took all of Handel’s music and made a completely different orchestration out of it in terms of the operatic orchestra of his time. And other people did it.  Ebenezer Prout did it.  And others have done it. Lukas Foss, more recently than anybody else, re-orchestrated a Messiah.  So, what we tried - what we’re all of us are trying to do now is to go back as much as possible to original forces and original instrumentation.  Now ours is the recording of our particular performance. It is not any place nearly as - for instance, we’re using contemporary instruments. One of the fine recordings that’s come out of is conducted by John Elliot Gardner in England and he uses ancient instruments and all male altos, and we use female altos, which means - and different bows and different pitch.  He uses an organ and intonation that’s a half step down from ours.   So I suppose our Messiah is as much changed as this sort of community of forces - that our symphony - we’ll only use one third of our symphonic players and we’ll use only one third of our Symphony Chorus.  

GP:      When you do a performance of this length for recording purposes, do you do it all the way throughone shot or do you stop and say I don’t like that, like you do in a rehearsal?  And how exactly do you record something of this magnitude.  

RS:  Well, that’s the real difficult problem.  For instance, my unhappiness with the early recording is largely the fact that it had to be recorded in the most economical way possible which meant that you recorded all the choruses which involve trumpets and tympani the same day and all of those which involved all of the strings the same day.  And so you never get it in sequence.  And then you do all of the alto solos one day and all of the soprano solos another day and so on because they’re available.  And it means that you also never get to control the number of seconds of silence between movements and how one piece leads into another.  And then you never get the thrust or the relaxation - whichever you’re in the process of doing - you never get that through three or four numbers, which accumulate energy or then dissipate energy. 

GP:      The motion if you did it in chronological order would be greater for you and the chorus.

RS:     But you can’t do it. For instance, what I’m doing now is looking back and I will take these performances this week and with tapes, study the real tempo that I feel is right, and then simply take my stop watch and my tempo watch and my metronome, and no matter how I happen to feel that Tuesday night or whatever, when we do this particular number, I’ll just take that metronome in my hand until I’ve got that tempo in my mind and say, well this is the way it worked.  And it came out of the other thing, you see.  You may record numbers 3, 7, 45, and 61, on one time.  And they have no relationship to each other except that they happen to use the same forces.  

GP:     The technicians go in and put it all together for you.  

RS:       And so I’ll try - I’ll do my best to control the tempi.  And I’ll also lay out for the technicians how many seconds, whether I want a half second of silence or three seconds of silence before the next movement begins or whatever.  

GP:      I need a section right now from you, Mr. Shaw, as we play this back, for the Messiah on The Hallelujah Chorus. This is one of the all time great choral masterpieces and it’s probably the highlight of this work along with several others. Your thoughts on this as Handel wrote it.  He took 24 days to write the entire work which lasts over three hours timewise.  It’s a tremendous work. My favorite just personally.  It’s amazing he did all of this in 24 days, the intricacy and everything.  But The Hallelujah Chorus has to be one of the great choruses of all time. Some thoughts on that.  

RS:      That it’s largely been betrayed by - in performance -  by too, by forces of too great size, gargantuan forces, three to five hundred people in a chorus, which is a great thing for them.  It’s an enormous personal satisfaction to sing The Hallelujah Chorus and sing it well.  But when you get an orchestra of a hundred and a choir of three to four hundred, then the thing simply cannot move as fast as it should. And so the attempt now in Baroque performance is to get the forces small enough and tightly knit enough together, and tightly disciplined enough so that you can do things in a joyful, exuberant and almost speedy fashion, certainly in a fashion of athleticism andwhat’s the other -  facility.   

GP:      So we’ve kind of come full circle from your early days with the Robert Shaw Chorale, a small group of voices, being able to work a lot better than this gargantuan. 

RS:      Well obviously, there are pieces, for instance, the Berlioz Requiem, could stand 500 voices and a Brahms Requiem can use a couple of hundred very handsomely, so there are pieces written for these choruses.

GP:     There’s nothingworse than a slow tempoed Hallelujah Chorus.

RS:      Yes, I feel that way.