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Opinion | Don't mess with 'Messiah'?

Handel's handwritten manuscript of the Hallelujah chorus from "Messiah"
Handel's handwritten manuscript of the Hallelujah chorus from "Messiah"

For over 250 years, everyone from local choirs to Leonard Bernstein to radio stations to Handel himself has adapted "Messiah" to fit their needs and preferences.

Note: a version of this piece originally appeared in the Traverse City Record-Eagle as part of the "Tuning In" series.

In 1956, Leonard Bernstein raised more than a few eyebrows when he reorganized Handel’s “Messiah” for a performance at Carnegie Hall.

Critics were horrified that Bernstein would dare violate the sanctity of Handel’s piece.

Leonard Bernstein wins the "I'm A Genius Too!" booby prize for his remarkable chutzpah in his one-of-a-kind interpretation of Handel's Messiah. In what can only be explained by a towering act of hubris, "He-Who-Could-Do-No-Wrong" Bernstein decided to re-order Messiah's sections into what he considered more aesthetically pleasing halves.
Bret D. Wheadon


This time of year, there are all kinds of Messiah presentations, such as Messiah singalongs that feature only the choruses and skip everything else.

Some organizations only perform the Christmas portion of Messiah but then append the Hallelujah chorus at the end.

Radio broadcasts trim out movements so the entire work fits neatly in a 120-minute slot.

Don’t these changes go against Handel’s intentions for the piece, too?

The thing is, there’s not a single, “correct” version of Messiah whose sanctity is being violated by any of these changes.

For over 250 years - since Messiah’s first performance - it’s been customary to adapt it for each performance.

Handel himself was involved in at least ten different versions of Messiah during his lifetime.

Everyone who performed it made changes to suit their city’s chorus, orchestra and soloists.

Some cities’ choruses had only men and boys while others were co-ed.

Early performances had only about 20 choristers, but over time, choruses have gotten bigger and bigger.

A performance in Boston in 1865 had about 600 people in the chorus.

A virtual version was put together in 2020 with almost 4000 choir members who each recorded their parts separately.

Sometimes performances included the organ - Handel had his instrument shipped to Dublin so he could play it for the premiere.

Arias were changed to accommodate local singers’ abilities.

For a London performance in 1750, Handel rewrote three bass arias for Gaetano Guadagni. Gaudagni, like many male opera stars at the time, was a castrato. Hugely popular at the time, castrati retained the treble voice of a boy but had the lung capacity of a man because they were castrated before puberty. Handel not only put arias in higher keys for Guadagni but he also added complicated passages so the singer could show off his skills.

In Dublin, Handel changed some soprano arias for contralto Susannah Cibber. Cibber, a famous actress, had recently returned to public life following a scandalous trial in which her husband accused her of infidelity in the most graphic terms allowable at the time. The buzz around her helped draw such a crowd that women were asked to remove the hoops from their skirts to allow the largest audience possible to attend.

It seems unlikely that Handel would have been too bothered by Bernstein reordering sections of Messiah.

The thing about modern performances that probably would have puzzled Handel the most is the fact that Messiah is performed so often at Christmas.

He conceived it as a piece for Easter, and it was primarily performed at Easter during his lifetime.

In fact, only the first third of Messiah is about the birth of Christ. The second two thirds are about the Passion and resurrection of Christ, as well as the Day of Judgement.

The “Hallelujah” chorus comes after Christ’s resurrection, not after his birth.

Whether it’s Leonard Bernstein or the local church choir doing it, adapting Handel’s Messiah to fit the needs of the community and its musicians is perhaps the most authentic way to present the work.

Amanda Sewell can be reached at amanda.sewell@interlochen.org

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.