For a long time England thought it owned Handel (1685-1750). After all, though born German he had become a naturalized English citizen in 1727 as a result of which he changed his name to George Frideric Handel. He also effectively invented the English oratorio, at any rate in the 18th century, and established a unique way of matching English words to music. Much of his most famous instrumental music, such as the Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Water Music, was composed for English occasions. Yet, his musical style was primarily Italian though peppered with German, French and English elements, and he was German for more than forty years.
Handel’s Messiah is an English work. He composed the music in 1741 to a libretto drawn from the Bible by Charles Jennens. The ‘sacred oratorio’ was first performed in Dublin in 1742, and was scored for four soloists, chorus, strings, continuo, and occasional obbligato instruments such as trumpets and timpani. For many years its performances were limited to the British Isles where it became one of Handel’s best-known and popular works. After the composer’s death, however, performances began to take place elsewhere, though its then rather archaic style and limited orchestration prevented its being as popular as it remained in England. It was first performed in Berlin in 1767, but, more significantly, was probably heard two years later in London by the Austrian diplomat, Baron von Swieten (1733-1803). Van Swieten became a vital link in the spread of Messiah. He was the son of Empress Maria Theresia’s personal doctor, and became a diplomat for the Habsburg court both in London and at the court of Frederick the Great in Berlin. London enabled him to hear Handel (King George III’s favourite composer) and in Berlin he encountered the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, many of whose works had been preserved by his second son, Carl Philipp Bach. On his return to Vienna van Swieten became Prefect of the Imperial Library and President of the Court Commission on Education and Censorship. More importantly, at least as far as musical history is concerned, he showed Johann Sebastian Bach’s works (notably those for keyboard) to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, and commissioned performances between 1788 and 1790 of four of Handel’s works: Acis and Galatea, Messiah, Alexander’s Feast and Ode for St Cecilia’s Day. All these were arranged by Mozart, who admired Handel, once aptly commenting: “When he strikes, he strikes with thunder.” Van Swieten’s Handelian fascination went further when he commissioned from Haydn the oratorio The Creation after the latter had expressed a wish to compose an oratorio in the Handelian vein having wept at a performance of Messiah in Westminster Abbey.
Mozart’s 1789 version of Messiah was designed for contemporary Viennese taste and musical resources and was first performed at a private occasion in the Palffy Palace in Vienna on 6 March. By then Handel’s relatively sparse orchestration seemed too thin, even crude according to some commentators, and the role of the continuo had ceased to serve the function and be of the same importance as it had in Handel’s day. So Mozart enlarged Handel’s orchestra to include flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, and used the latter in particular to replace the continuo. Three trombones also appear in the overture and double the voice parts in “Since by man came death”. All these instruments changed the sound of Messiah from being an early 18th century work to being a later one. Good examples are two choruses: “Sein Joch ist sanft” (His yoke is easy) begins as lightly as Handel’s but it gradually acquires additional counter-melodies and some extra delightful woodwind counterpoints. “Wie Schafe gehn” (All we like sheep) replaces the continuo with horns and woodwind, whose repeated chords suggest the ‘march-like’ straying of the sheep. Mozart thus made the orchestration a more important part of the characterization of each movement than Handel.
Mozart went further than just re-scoring choruses. He omitted all, or part, of some arias and choruses, and reallocated some of the arias to different voices. For instance, “Doch wer mag ertragen” (But who may abide) became a bass instead of alto aria, and “Erwach zu Liedern” (Rejoice greatly) was changed to being for tenor from soprano. Much of Handel’s solo trumpet music in “Sie schallt, die Posaun” was re-assigned to a horn by Mozart.
At one time, and perhaps even today, purists disapprove of the alterations Handel’s Messiah has acquired over its two and half centuries, in particular Mozart’s re-scoring. Nowadays massed forces have largely been abandoned in favour of the twenty to thirty performers that Handel envisaged. Ornaments and improvised embellishments grace many performances. Yet no one can escape the fact that this arrangement is by Mozart nonetheless and that his re-working of Handel’s original coincided with some of his greatest compositions, such as Cosí fan tutte, the last piano concerti and symphonies. Open-minded critics would have to admit that Handel does not suffer from Mozart’s amendments, but that Mozart created a brilliant adaptation fully in the spirit if not the letter of the original. The work still inspires and ‘strikes with thunder’. Even in Mozart’s hand its “fons et origo” is still Handel – however he is dressed.