What Mr. Handel expected

In an article written for a December 2007 performance of Handel’s Messiah in Leeds Town Hall, Simon Wright considers some of the problems to be faced when performing music of Handel’s time.

What Mr Handel expected, not what Mr Handel wrote

Welcome to Handel’s Messiah.  Tonight we will be performing this masterpiece of the Baroque age at modern pitch and with modern instruments but, I hope, in a style based on the performance practice of the mid-18th century.  We can learn an enormous amount about the performance practice of the day from various treatises written at the time – CPE Bach’s Essay on the true art of playing keyboard instruments (1753) and Leopold Mozart’s A Treatise on the fundamental principles of violin playing (1756), to name but two.  These books teach us not only about the technical demands of playing the instruments but also how the music of the time was performed.

Writing Messiah in 1742, Handel did not have the benefit of computer programmes to help him prepare a score and parts for the choir and orchestra, these were all written by hand and so, naturally, a little ‘musical shorthand’ to save time came in useful.  To explain this, we have to look no further than the opening bars.  The overture starts with a slow section with a predominantly dotted rhythm:


To an 18th century performer this would automatically register as a ‘French ouverture’ style of writing and he would perform this converting all the quavers into semiquavers. We also know that, because of the string bowing used at the time, there would have been gaps between the long and short notes and so we can be certain that these bars would have been performed like this:


This saved Handel having to write rests or another tail on the short note, thus saving time and valuable ink!


Another well-known convention comes in music written in triple time.  The hemiola is a rhythmic adjustment (usually at cadences) of two bars of three beats, where the stress is on the start of each bar. We then turn the six beats into three bars of two with the stress every two beats.  The first chorus of Messiah (And the glory of the Lord) demonstrates the hemiola.  Handel wrote:


and we perform:


thus giving us a musical stress on the important words and syllables Lord, be and veal and avoiding the stress on the unimportant re in the original.


Amongst singers, players, editors and conductors there will always be differences of opinions in deciding what Handel intended his music to sound like and for tonight’s performance I have based much of what you will hear on the excellent Watkins Shaw edition of 1965.  However, for those who know this edition intimately, there will be a few surprises.  I have shortened many final notes of phrases.  There are three main reasons for this.  Firstly, many final notes are sung to unimportant syllables and to hold on to them for the full length that Handel wrote seems unnecessary.  Secondly, whilst these notes are being sung, something else is happening in the score which deserves to be heard.  One example of this is in the first chorus:
The final notes for the chorus are sung to unimportant syllables and at the same time the violins are playing the main theme of the movement, so it seems sensible to make the last chorus note shorter to allow the violins to be heard more easily. Thirdly, bearing in mind the fairly generous acoustic of the Town Hall, shortening notes will, I hope, help the clarity of the performance.


Watkins Shaw changed some of the rhythms in his edition (such as the overture above) but I have gone further and many may occasionally be startled at what they hear.  For instance, in Behold the Lamb of God, Shaw has dotted most of the movement but left some notes even:


We will be dotting those notes marked with a cross in the final bar because I feel that is what Handel would have wanted.  I may be wrong, but the privilege of being able to decide such things, as somebody must, comes with the honour of conducting such a great work.
There are other changes that many of you will notice but it would be spoiling the fun if I revealed them all here, you will have to listen for them!  Just a warning – some changes may catch out any audience member who is quietly singing or humming along.  You can, however, be assured that any changes to what Handel actually wrote have been made not on a whim but in the belief that Handel would both have approved and expected such changes to be made.

© Simon Wright 2007
Leeds Festival Chorus


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