Mozart, Handel, and Messiah
Many years ago I heard the English Concert perform Handel‘s Alexander’s Feast in London. It wasn’t the typical version often heard today, but an arrangement by Mozart. Hearing the piece sung in German and accompanied by a decidedly classical-sounding orchestra really blew my mind. It was a terrific performance, too.
The Mozart/Handel backstory:
At the end of the 1790s, Mozart was commissioned by Baron Gottfried van Swieten to arrange four works by Handel—Acis and Galatea, Messiah, Alexander’s Feast, and Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day—for the Gesellschaft der Associierten, an association of Viennese music-lovers founded by van Swieten.
Using the Baron’s own German translations, Mozart transformed the music, primarily adjusting the score to accommodate a larger Classical Era orchestra (with added winds).
Any modern performance of the Mozart arrangements is a special one. For many reasons, audiences and ensembles like their Handel straight up. Presenting alternate versions can be tricky and something of a marketing gamble.
Which is why I was surprised to read that the Los Angeles Master Chorale offered Mozart’s version of Messiah this month at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was great to see an established organization looking to shake things up a bit.
Both reviews (Huffington Post and L.A. Times) were generally positive even if they failed to point out the elephant in the room—the work was sung in English and not the “original” German. Presumably, this was done to make it more accessible, more audience-friendly.
The Chorale’s excellent program notes, written by Thomas May, do mention the performance is sung in English, yet give no justification.
But if you’re going to go to all the trouble of selling an alternate version of Messiah (not the toughest of sells, mind you), why not fully commit to Mozart’s score and language?
(“Elephant at the Gate”; photo: Jeremy Roof)