THE PAST REMADE IN MOZART'S MESSIAH
By Thomas May
When Handel died in 1759, Mozart was just a toddler. The transformation in musical tastes and stylistic trends then under way — one as immediately striking as, say, the contrast between music of the big band era and 1960s rock — continued at a dizzying pace. Mozart himself, of course, played a key role in synthesizing the new style of Viennese classicism that had emerged by the time he prepared his arrangement of Messiah three decades later, in 1789. Yet he had also acquired a fresh interest in the legacy of Handel, Bach, and other baroque masters, thanks largely to the influence of Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803) and his circle.
Born in Holland to a doctor who became the personal physician of Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, Van Swieten followed a versatile career serving in the imperial court. He was a diplomat, head of the imperial library (where he invented the concept of the easily updatable card catalogue), educational minister, and a supporter of Emperor Joseph II’s reformist policies. Van Swieten also had ambitions of his own as a composer, but it was his connoisseurship of music from earlier in the century — an era that had by now come to be perceived as utterly remote and old fashioned — that left its mark on Mozart during his final decade in Vienna.
The Baron’s remarkable collection of baroque manuscripts provided the focus for a regular series of Sunday salons he conducted in Vienna. Mozart eagerly participated as keyboardist; he also explored the “learned” contrapuntal language of his predecessors in transcriptions he made for string quartet. Van Swieten later enlisted Mozart to rework and conduct a series of Handel oratorios for their premiere performances in Vienna.
These were sponsored by a society of like-minded aristocrats — the “Society of Associated Nobles” — which van Swieten founded in 1786. Mozart’s reworking of Messiah is the best known of these arrangements and was performed during Lent 1789 at the palace of Count Johann Esterházy, a cousin of Haydn’s long-term patron. Mozart additionally “updated” other works by Handel: Acis and Galatea in 1788 and Alexander’s Feast and the Ode for Saint Cecelia’s Day in 1790.
Of the baroque masters, J.S. Bach may ultimately have proved to be a more profound source of inspiration than did Handel — as Alfred Einstein argues in his famous study of the composer. Still, Mozart’s close study of baroque counterpoint, which was encouraged by his involvement with Swieten’s circle, clearly enhanced his late style. Whether in the final trio of symphonies or The Magic Flute, he integrates contrapuntal devices into his language. Even the fugue theme of the Kyrie in his Requiem seems to allude to Handel’s motif for the chorus “And with his stripes.”
The model of reviving musical works from the past for contemporary audiences dominates our concert life. But at that time it remained an unusual concept — with the exception, admittedly, of Messiah, whose status as permanent repertoire was already being enshrined by annual performances in England. Still, the work had yet to be heard in the musical capital of Europe, Vienna. It would take a good deal longer for the United States premiere: the first complete performance was given in Boston in 1817.
Mozart’s treatment, which was published posthumously in 1803, set an important template for later arrangements of the score. But it has nothing in common with the super-sizing tendencies already seen at the Westminster Abbey “commemorative” performances of 1784 (featuring some 500 performers and including a complement of 7 flutes!) and canonized during the Victorian era. Ironically, the confined performance space of Esterházy’s private palace required a reduction in choral forces to a mere dozen total. Mozart does call for a larger orchestral palette, but he continually varies the combinations of his players and often uses them with painterly detail. This is the quality above all that makes us immediately aware we are in a sound world other than Handel’s.
Mozart calls for an orchestra of double flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, along with three trombones, timpani, and strings — essentially a classical orchestra, but with “operatic” trombones for the Overture and for choral doublings and a piccolo for the Pifa. Van Swieten supplied Mozart with a manuscript in which the first edition — as published, with some errors, in 1767 — had been copied out; room was left to add woodwind and brass scoring as he saw fit (including changes to Handel’s original scoring for oboes, bassoon, trumpets, and timpani). A German translation was also inscribed over the vocal parts and used for the Vienna premiere (The Master Chorale will sing the original English text).
The scoring for close to one-third of Handel’s original numbers remains unchanged, while the most obvious modifications tend to occur within the arias — both in instrumentation and, in several cases, in reassignment of solo voices, such as the substitution of tenor for soprano in “Rejoice.” Mozart also specifies nuances of articulation and dynamics.
Overall, the two main areas of alteration involve structure and timbral color. This complete Messiah moves by more fleetly. Mozart tightens Parts Two and Three by omitting the chorus “Let all the angels” and aria “Thou art gone up on high” (his only outright cuts), noticeably truncating “And the trumpet shall sound,” and resetting the soprano aria “If God be for us” with his own accompanied recitative (possibly in response to the Baron’s judgment of this number as “cold” in relation to the rest of the oratorio).
The added orchestral parts underline a classical sense of balance and weight in the choruses. In the arias — above all in their new woodwind textures — Mozart taps into an operatic sensibility and integrates the vocal solos more closely with the orchestra. The effect is often subtle but becomes particularly revealing in such numbers as “The people in darkness,” “Thou shalt break them,” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” You can imagine Mozart tuning into the imagery of darkness and light that would later inform The Magic Flute, while “Why do the nations” becomes a tour-de-force rage aria that wouldn’t be out of place in The Abduction from the Seraglio.
The very premise of retooling a composer’s score may seem taboo to us, yet trapping a composition in amber hardly represented the prevailing ideal. The ever pragmatic Handel himself had frequently tailored Messiah to adapt to the performers and venues available for his annual revivals. Even the original version was in a sense provisional: the unusually thin orchestration of the autograph score by this master orchestrator reflects Handel’s uncertainty about performing conditions for the premiere in Dublin in 1742.
Underscoring Mozart’s Messiah is a philosophy that sees music as part of a living tradition rather than an object to be venerated behind exhibition glass. Certainly van Swieten sensed this. He praised Mozart as a composer who “has felt [Handel’s] worth, has understood him, and has penetrated to the source of his expression, from which he can and will draw confidently.”
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Mozart’s Alterations of Handel
Here are two examples of easily identifiable changes in Mozart’s treatment of the score:
Chorus: “And the glory of the Lord”
Listen here for the “fullness” of sonority of the classical orchestra as Mozart weaves oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns (along with a suggested complement of trombones to double the lower voices) into Handel’s string textures.
Aria: “The trumpet shall sound” (Part Three)
Along with its dramatic abridgement, this aria
(over which Mozart particularly labored) is an example of changes made for practical reasons. The virtuoso technique required for the baroque trumpet was now a thing of the past, so Mozart reduces the solo trumpet’s fanfare and redistributes its more challenging part to the horn. There may also have been a semantic justification for the change: the familiar German translation for this verse uses the word Posaune (“trombone”) rather than “trumpet.”
It’s also worth noting that just as important as his alterations are Mozart’s instincts not to intervene. For example, the choruses “And with his stripes” and “He trusted in God” preserve the solemnity of Handel’s settings and call only for trombone doubling.