Monday, November 26, 2012

How did Mozart "Handel" Messiah ? The backstory of Der Messias

This essay was written for the December 7th performance of Wolfgang Mozart's 
Der Messias (KV 572), his 1789 transcription of Handel's Messiah, at Christ and St Stephen's Church, NYC. Opera Company of Brooklyn and a splendid cast of conservatory-trained soloists and chorus will be conducted by maestro Jay Meetze.

"Mozart knew how to give new life to Handel’s noble inspirations by means of the warmth of his own feeling, and through the magic of his own instrumental style to make them enjoyable for our age."                                      
                     F.X. Nemetschek, Mozart's first biographer, 1808

                                                  George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
                                                          by Balthasar Denner (c. 1728)

    Transcriptions of musical compositions, especially famous ones, are a mixed bag.  As accomplished a pair of pianists as you and your friend might be, it should still be evident as you play the four-hand piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s Eroica  and Schubert’s Unfinished symphonies, that they are nowhere near as moving as the composers’ original orchestrations. In contrast, Ravel’s magisterial symphonic reworking of Mussorgsky’s initial piano composition, Pictures at an Exhibition, is a work of art far richer and textured than the original, and much more popular as well. Then there is another type of transcription, an adaptation and "renovation" really, that was the result of Wolfgang Mozart’s genius, the marvelous result of a commission he received to re-orchestrate a German text setting of Handel’s sublime and iconic Messiah.

    The well-worn story of Handel’s life and the composition of his oratorio Messiah (HWV 56) are part of the fabric and lore of music history. Handel was born in Halle, Germany, in that magical year of 1685, which also witnessed the birth of J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. Handel did his "Grand Tour" in Italy,  from 1706 to 1710, during which time he was informed by the operatic and oratorio styles prevalent there and also tried his hand at them, to great effect. These works were immediately applauded by his Italian patrons, especially Prince Ruspoli, who bestowed upon him the monicker, "il caro Sassone," "the beloved Saxon." He then returned to Germany to work for George, the Elector of Hanover, who later became that George, King George I of England. Handel firmly settled in London in 1712, preceding his Hanoverian employer by two years; the King was miffed for a while, but after Handel presented him with the Music for The Royal Fireworks in 1717, they worked it out. Handel eventually obtained English citizenship in 1727, and never looked back.

Handel and King George I on the Thames
 putatively  on  7/17/1717
Edouard Conrad  Hamman (1819-1888)

    Although Handel had composed a few oratorios in his early years in England, he initially made his name there by composing operas, the most successful of which were scored with Italian libretti. Handel did not start seriously composing oratorios until the 1730s. By that time, the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for opera seria, which he more than any other composer had made famous, had faded. Recognizing that his operatic meal ticket was gone, Handel seamlessly switched gears and restarted composing oratorios, twenty-seven in all, virtually all of which were set to English texts.

Charles Jennens (1700-1773)
The librettist of Messiah
    In July of 1741, the librettist Charles Jennens (who had previously given Handel the text for Saul)  offered Handel a set of passages from the King James Bible as possible material for a new oratorio. The selections were from both the Old Testament (Isaiah, Malachi and Psalms), as well as from two of the canonical gospels of the New Testament, Matthew and Luke, the book of Revelation, and the epistles of Paul. This material seemed to have resonated with Handel, as he began to compose Messiah on August 22 of that year and completed it in just 24 days. He signed the autograph “Solo Deo Gloria” (“Only to God goes the Glory”), prompting  more than a few commentators to suggest that Handel had felt he had received some form of divine inspiration, given the rapidity of its composition and the beauty of its form. 
The  Music Hall
on Fishamble Street, Dublin
The venue of the premiere of Messiah
April 13,1742

    Messiah (HWV 56) had its premiere not in London, where Handel’s many operas and prior oratorios had debuted, but in Dublin, at the then new Music Hall on Fishamble Street, on April 13, 1742,  to 700 attendees, and to the consternation of a great many back in England.  Certainly, Jennens was chagrined, commenting to a friend that “it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing Messiah here he has gone into Ireland with it." It seemed to have been a big hit in Dublin, though, as  Handel biographer Donald Burrows relates that "so that the largest possible audience could be admitted to the concert, gentlemen were requested to remove their swords, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses." (ref.1)

   Messiah was indeed an unqualified success. A critic at the opening wrote that "words are wanting to express the exquisite delight that it (Messiah) afforded the crowded and admiring audience. The Sublime, the Grand, the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished ear."

Handel in rare repose, in 1740  (age 55)
by Phillip Mercier
     There is another story, an essential part of Messiah lore, that goes that when King George II first heard the work, in London in 1743, he was so taken by its now famous "Hallelujah" Chorus, that he stood up during it, setting a precedent that is still adhered to by audiences worldwide. Indeed, the work continued to gain in popularity. In the 1750, Handel performed it at the London Foundling Hospital, and that began its annual performance their for decades, and he subsequently the autograph copy of the work to the institution.
Handel in 1741, at age 56, the year of Messiah
From the frontispiece of the first biography,
 by John Mainwaring (1760)
    In the years following his move from Salzburg to Vienna in 1781, Mozart developed a fascination for Baroque music, especially the compositions of J.S. Bach and Handel.  Baron Gottfried van Swieten, Mozart's and later, Beethoven's, friend and patron and a wealthy diplomat and amateur musician,  had encouraged  Mozart to study  the manuscript copies  of these Baroque masters which he had archived in his personal library. von Swieten  had been arranging regular private  performances of Baroque music  the private residences  of his aristocratic Viennese colleagues, eventually asking Mozart to curate and direct these events. The Baron had earlier founded the Geselschafft der Associerten (The Society of Associates), an exclusive club that offered oratorios at Lenten and Easter. By the time van Swieten offered a copy of Messiah and a German text to Mozart in 1789, he (Mozart) had already transcribed Handel’s Acis and Galatea, and would go on in the following year to transcribe Handel’s Ode to St Cecilia and Alexander’s Feast.
Wolfgang Mozart at age 33
The unfinished 1789 enlargement of  the
original 1782 oil by his brother-in law, Joseph Lange

    Mozart set his transcription of Messiah, entitled Der Messias (KV 572), to a 1775 German translation of the oratorio by Christoph Daniel Ebeling, which Ebeling had in turn adapted from an earlier  eponymous epic poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. 

  The premiere of Der Messias was presented on March 6th, 1789, appropriately within the magnificent baroque splendor of the Palffy Palace in Vienna, the residence of Count Johann Baptist  Esterházy von Galántha, with Mozart himself conducting. Esterházy was a royal chamberlain and court councillor, himself a prominent patron of music, and a member of the Masonic lodge Zur Neugekrönten Hoffnung ("New Crowned Hope"), which Mozart had joined in 1785, after his own lodge consolidated with that of the Count.

  Der Messias is neither a radical rethinking of Handel’s original work, nor a cavalier rescoring by Mozart done simply as a lark. Although only 48 years separated Messiah’s premiere and Mozart’s 1789 transcription, an enormous change had occurred in musical style.  Handel lived and wrote squarely within the idiom and constraints of the Baroque era, whereas Mozart composed in the conventions of Classical Style. By Mozart’s time, symphonic orchestras were populated by many different instruments, each lending its own tonal color, together giving a more textured sound than that of the  simpler “symphonic bands” of strings and continuo, with occasional trumpets, of Handel’s time. In addition, Mozart lived in the Age of the Enlightenment, when diversity of ideas was being accepted.
  One of the many aspects of Messiah that is emblematic of Handel's genius is that he purposely wrote a relatively spare orchestral part to the work, correctly foreseeing that future composers would tinker with the orchestration, adding instrumental forces here and tonal color there. In fact, Handel himself tinkered with Messiah throughout the rest of his life, and thus there is no accepted Urtext of the oratorio. And so, it was upon this splendid musical palimpsest that Mozart went to work.
Baron Gottfried van Swieten
Mozart's friend and patron
and a prominent Handelian in Vienna
    According to musicologist Teresa Frick, "... Baron van Swieten wanted Mozart to "modernize" the oratorio (Messiah). This was a perfectly normal demand - the original work and its composer still commanded great respect, of course, but this was no obstacle to updating something "old-fashioned" to bring it into line with modern taste. Mozart based his arrangement on the first edition of Handel’s score. From this, two copyists produced a working score. For the English libretto and the wind sections of the original, they substituted blank lines so that Mozart could write his own accompaniment and insert the text written by van Swieten.  which was based on the German translation done by  Klopstock and Ebeling. " (ref 2)
  A contemporary critic, Johann Friedrich Rochlitz, reviewing Der Messias, said of Mozart that "He has exercised the greatest delicacy by touching nothing that transcends the style of his time ... The choral sections are left as Handel wrote them and are only amplified cautiously now and again by wind instruments." (ref.3)  Indeed, Mozart introduced a significant amount of essential wind music to the score, adding parts for clarinets, horns, flutes, oboes and bassoons, which did not appear in Handel’s original work. The clarinet had only been invented in Handel’s time, by J.C. Denner in Nuremberg around 1703, as an improvement over the chalumeau pipe, and it was not until the latter half of the eighteenth century, in Mozart’s era, that composers were seriously writing for the instrument. The bassoons are freed, in Mozart's adaptation, from the confines of their traditional buffo and basso roles of simple accompaniment. In Der Messias, they are given elegant, melodic obbligato filigrees in a number of arias.

   At the same time, Mozart minimized the role of the trumpets in his arrangement, giving more of that responsibility to the horns and trombones, especially in the doubling and support of the SATB soloists. The reason was sheer practicality. By Mozart's time, the rare skill of  playing the high tessitura celebratory trumpet was long gone.  In the well-known aria, “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” Mozart wrote the obbligato part not for a natural valveless trumpet, as Handel had done, but for french horn !

    Although Mozart left the orchestration of most of the choral sections as Handel had scored them, he did take some sections from the chorus and gave them to the SATB soloists, likely as a function of the number and talent of the forces he had at the time. It is interesting to note that whereas Handel likely employed  about thirty choristers for the Dublin Messiah, Mozart had only 12 singers in his Der Messias chorus. Also, as there was no organ  at Count Esterházy's palace, Mozart  simply left Handel's  organ part out of his transcription ! Eminent practicality.

              A page from the autograph score of Handel's
 Messiah in the British Library 
Note the composer's numerous inkblots and scratch-outs

   Mozart certainly had his own ideas in arranging Messiah. Mozart felt that Handel's construction of certain arias was lacking in variety, so he sensitively changed their tempi and harmonic structure.  And in one instance,  Mozart converted the somewhat dry soprano aria,  "If God be for us," to a recitative. Evidently, van Swieten was pleased about this as he commented  to Mozart that, "Your idea of turning the text of the cold air (aria) into a recitative is splendid... Anyone who is able to clothe Handel with such solemnity and taste that he pleases the fashion-conscious fops on the one hand, while on the other hand still continues to show himself superior, is a person who senses Handel’s worth, who understands him, who has found the source of his expression and who can and will draw inspiration from it." (ref 4)

    Mozart added woodwind support to several of the solo lines, for example, to the exquisite "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion,"  and "Comfort ye." Mozart maintained the bel canto style in these arias (a genre in which Handel was so successful in his many operas)  while adding his own own brilliance as a painter of tonal and  atmospheric color. A convincing exemplar of this is in the Part Three duet,  "O death, where is thy sting?", where Mozart added obbligato violas to the orchestration, prefiguring some of the sonorities in  the Recordare movement of his Requiem of 1791. 

    Mozart eliminated one of the choral numbers, "Let all the angels of God," as well as the aria, "Thou art gone up on high."  He took that most famous aria, "Rejoice greatly," from the soprano and gave it to the tenor. All of these Mozartean changes served not only to tighten up and dramatize the oratorio, it also made the work over a half hour shorter, which may have mattered in what had become a progressive and busy Viennese society.

The sublime 1974 Sir Charles Mackerras essaying
of Der Messias, reissued on CD in 1990
Edith Mathis, Peter Schreir, Theo Adam, Birgit Finnila
   Upon first listening, Der Messias serves up so many new vistas, and not just in   the new orchestration; these insights  also pertain to the German text. Perhaps "Denn die herrlichkeit Gottes" does sound a bit different from "And the Glory of the Lord,"  and even if hearing the words "Alle Tale, mach Hoch Erhaben" instead of "Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted,” is a bit jarring, it is also refreshing, especially when that  same  gorgeous and recognizable  supporting Handelian melody is  still there, just lovingly enriched by Mozart's nuanced orchestral accompaniment.

   Handel’s Messiah remains one of the monumental achievements of western civilization. There is no "right" or "wrong" Messiah. There is simply Messiah. Whether it is Handel's original or revised version, Mozart’s arrangement that you will hear this evening, or perhaps another adaptation such as that of Ebenezer Prout in the late nineteenth century (which drew heavily on Der Messias),  Messiah will always  remain the singular  composition that was envisioned and created by "Mister Haendel" - a work of art that is ever sonorous, sacred, noble, uplifting and sublime.

ref 1 Donald Burrows, Handel: Messiah, Cambridge University Press, 1991
ref 2 Teresa Frick
ref 3 Frick, ibid.
ref 4 Frick, ibid.

@ Vincent P. de Luise M.D. 2012.


  1. Sure they met in heaven and helped it to be more heavenly!!

  2. I agree. It is a pleasing and celestial comment, that the greatest artists of the generations: Euphronius, Praxiteles, Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, are all in the ether, above the firmament, making sublime art for eternity.

  3. Thank you so much, Anonymous. I am glad you enjoyed this article on Mozart's Der Messias transcription of Handel's Messiah. Ars longa !

  4. Would you happen to have any links to f.ex. Spotify where one might compare the two versions?

  5. Greetings, Aslak. Thank you so much for your inquiry.
    I do not have any direct links for you to compare the two versions. Youtube has excerpts of Mozart's Der Messias in the MacKerras version, and there you can also find a complete Der Messias conducted by Malgoire with La Grande Ecurie e La Chambre du Roy. There are innumerable versions of Handel's original Messiah on youtube. Happy listenings ! Ars longa ! Vincent

    1. Here's the Spotify Link for the Mackerras version:
      I only found out about Mozart's arrangement of the Messiah a few days ago! I was pleasantly surprised to find out both Mackerras' version (one of my favorite Mozart interpreters!) and your essay while searching for more info on the topic, thank you so much! enjoying my own little christmas surprise :)

  6. Dr. deLuise: beautifully written & well-researched essay, u hit it on the head, thank u, a pleasure to read & informative.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comments, Filmact1 !

  7. Another question, are what we hearing around the Christmas season in performance, CD versions,etc mainly all the Mozart arrangement version?

  8. Another question, is what we are hearing around the Christmas season in performance, on CDs, etc, the Mozart arrangement version?

    1. What we hear at Christmas season is almost invariably the original Handel Messiah, with English lyrics and text from the Bible and other religious texts set by Jennens. One rarely hears Mozart's textured and nuance adaptation these days. The text and lyris of Mozart's Der Messias are in German.

  9. Thank you very much Mr. DeLuise for sharing.

  10. Thanks Vincent on this information and in order to reference this page

  11. Thank you for this thoughtful comparison of the two versions. (I do miss Handel's trumpets, though.)

  12. Thank you for this quick history of the two versions and your concise explanations. Much as "Wolfie" admired Handel, I sense that he did consider him the product of an old-fashioned era. (And I do miss Handel's trumpets in Mozart's version.)

  13. Your simple style of writing makes even a lay follower of music such as me, understand the profound yet practical improvisation work of Mozart, on a masterly work of great master Handel. Thank you Vincent!

  14. Brilliant insights, Vincent! Thank you. As a Mozartian who's also a chorister-admirer of Handel, I love and respect both versions. Wolfie developed 'Messiah' best he could from his own era... adding his personal touch. 

  15. Thank you so much for this article! I just found out about this version and am going to hear it in December. La Jolla Symphony and Chorus is performing.