Messiah is an astonishingly theatrical work, which was perhaps shocking for the audiences that heard it around the time it was composed. The fact that Handel dramatised the music to such a degree was relatively unheard of at that stage in the history of music in England, and that’s probably why it had such a powerful impact. This strikingly engaged approach to text, in Messiah, has an element of preaching, a text created to convince — it is dramatised precisely to this end.Emmanuelle Haïm
Following acclaimed performances of Messiah all over the world, French harpsichordist, conductor and Handel specialist Emmanuelle Haïm has at last committed the beloved choral masterpiece to disc, with her own ensemble Le Concert d'Astrée and four of the UK's finest Handelian singers. She shares her thoughts on this evergreen yuletide favourite in an interview with Hélène Pierrakos (translated from the original French).
Could Handel's theatricality in Messiah have been considered by the listeners of the time as incompatible with religious tone, presenting an obstacle to true religious contemplation?
EH: Yes, or an obstacle at least to the concept of what devout worship was that could make devout worshippers of the time of what should be prayer, the musical allure that should be taken on. But Messiah reflects Handel’s personality and one understands that such an exuberant composer presents such a version of Messiah, including in the composition the text and the particular focus of the cuts made, are deeply fascinating. The text of Messiah has something more narrative for the first part, more tender for the Annonciation and the Nativity, and very strong and powerful for everything evoking the Passion of Christ. I immersed myself in the different versions readings of the Old and New Testament that were circulated in Handel’s time, all the symbolism and secret meanings attached. And I was fascinated by all the links established – obvious to believers at that time but which have become more distant in today’s society – that are grounded more in feeling than in theological thought, strictly speaking.
One is also struck, in Messiah, by the fact that the figure of Christ is extremely gentle. This is not at all a judge but an extraordinarily consolatory Christ.
EH: Absolutely, and this is furthermore one of the reasons that this music has been traditionally used in funerals, for example.
With Messiah popularly performed during Advent, how important is the theme of the Nativity present in the work?
EH: It is also the Anglo-Saxon tradition to perform Messiah at this time of year, just as the Passions of Bach and other composers are given over Easter in Germany and Holland. I am also invited regularly to direct Messiah in the United States, always around Christmas.
There is a jubilatory nature to the work from start to finish, even in poignant passages, the overarching mood remains extraordinarily bright and uplifting. How would you comment on the differences in the expression of religious fervour between Handel and Bach — since, after all, they were contemporaries?
EH: I would say that one senses with Bach a very different, inward-looking path. If we think of the St John Passion, for example, one has the feeling of descending into deepest despair in order to make one’s way to the light — an introspective light, with nothing theatrical. In a way, Handel’s music is more profane, he is a composer much more connected to the world. That’s a simplistic reading, since Bach himself was a bon vivant. And yet they are so different! Bach speaks perhaps to something more intimate in us, something timeless. Handel is more of his century.
Since you evoke Bach’s journey to the depths of despair towards the light, would you say that Handel, inversely in Messiah, leads with joy, even if one comes across very melancholy musical passages throughout the oratorio?
EH: Certainly. But one could also say simply that their religious experience is different; that these are two extremely different personalities – in a strictly musical sense as much as in life. We get the sense of two men who have completely different relationships to their century and to their god. It’s as if Bach addressed God intimately like a confidant and that there exists between them an extraordinary closeness. His approach is like something in a Dürer painting. With Handel, this would be rather an immensely ecstatic joy, a sense of celebration…
Something more Catholic in a way, even if it’s not music written for the Catholic church?
EH: Yes, absolutely. And furthermore it’s linked with the Italianate character of Handel’s music.
Is it linked to his desire to seduce the public, in your opinion, as he did in opera?
EH: No, I don’t think so. In any case, there’s nothing calculated about it. Handel composed Messiah as he read it, at white-hot speed; what’s in Rejoice or his Hallelujah, it’s spontaneous!
For the listener, the extreme variety of the introductions to each aria, each chorus, each arioso is fascinating. One would say that all that must have gushed forth freely from his thoughts, in as much that each number is quite concise!
EH: Yes, that’s true. And his music speaks to us immediately; it is incredibly illustrative, even if certain themes are reused and come from other works of his, associated originally with another text (as for the Arcadian Duets, for example). Some melodies are reworked to be integrated into Messiah, but they are immediately striking, convincing and one feels the freedom of Handel’s conception of them.
We can also hear Messiah from the perspective of the choral works that followed: Haydn’s Creation, for example, from the point of view of the invention, tenderness and profound humanity of this music; at its heart, it’s extremely approachable.
EH: Yes, I have infinite adoration for The Creation. But to return to the question of the tradition of performing these works, it remains difficult here in France, in our Latin Catholic tradition, to take them on regularly in order to truly integrate them into our repertoire, because that tradition doesn’t really exist here. Of course, we program Messiah and the public comes very enthusiastically to listen, but we are still far from how it is received in England or the United States.
In addition, the work raises so many interesting musicological questions — the format, the choice of voices, the size of the orchestra and the chorus. Tradition has imposed certain choices that can stray far from the original format as conceived by Handel. These days we perform the work in Anglo-Saxon countries with large choral societies and, having directed this type of formation, I find it becomes much bigger to manage than one might imagine. However, as far as I’m concerned, I made the choice of four British singers, with a single countertenor rather than two altos – the configuration used in 1752 at Covent Garden.Emmanuelle Haïm
Coming back to the relative rarity of Messiah in French concert halls, could it be partly due to the famous Hallelujah (which concludes the second part of the work), which is so often isolated by large choruses, amateur choirs in particular, as it summarises on its own a score more than two hours long that has many more riches to offer?
EH: I’m a great fan of the amateur choral tradition. For the tenth anniversary of the Concert d’Astrée, we finished with the Hallelujah chorus, distributing the score to the audience to sing along. And since we had 25 solo singers that night, I couldn’t make them all come back on stage together for the finale, so they dispersed in the concert hall with the audience, so that a non-trained music-lover would find themselves singing the Hallelujah chorus alongside Anne Sofie von Otter! It’s so important, the work of amateur choral groups! There are many choral works that just aren’t programmed often enough here that would be given more readily if we had a stronger choral tradition, as in England or Germany. The English in particular give all Handel’s oratorios, but also the oratorios of Haydn and Mendelssohn, which they have adopted as their national repertoire.
When one sees a conductor directing a work like Messiah, one imagines that alternating between the arias and the large choral sections must be a very particular experience from the podium, as it is for the listener. How would you describe the process?
EH: I try to establish agogic held notes such that the passage from the soloist to the chorus sounds like a natural progression, without any rupture in between. That’s how I work on it, because I feel a real continuity between the different sequences of the work. Earlier on we were discussing the theatricality and I try to treat the ensemble as a single gesture. Or to use another image: it’s an assembly, into which a soloist enters and the crowd responds. But it’s a collective gesture. Even in opera seria, which alternates musical styles as different as recitative and aria, the aria has to follow from what has passed in the recitative and has to be generated by it. There are of course effects of surprise and sudden interruption, but if the aria arrives without this flow and progression, it becomes extremely flat. I try to work on the construction of the ensemble, the holistic view of the work, in opera as in oratorio.
Is the constant usage of fugue across these forms a constraining factor for the conductor, or does it rather give rise to greater energy?
EH: It is extremely demanding, this extraordinary choral writing, but one can derive such pleasure from analysing such majestic counterpoint and the variety of fugues, all the while conducting. It’s not at all a constraint, because the fugues are all very different in this work. Of course they have a similar framework, but the themes, the subjects of each fugue are so different that they bring a great deal of variety to the construction of a performance. If one thinks of certain fugues as ‘severe’, with an ineluctable quality, an impressive utterance, one almost has the feeling of not conducting that musical form, because these fugues so concise and lively. In as much as certain fugues are very developed, others flit in and out; the fugue doesn’t impose itself as a repetitive structure in Messiah.
In Handel’s music there are many themes in the orchestral introductions that evoke heartbeats or earthquakes, for example, that come from deep beneath the earth. Is this a dimension to his music that you bring out?
EH: Yes, absolutely, there is something physical, visceral in Handel. Perhaps we could say something powerful, where Bach’s mode of expression has a more human, consolatory dimension. Handel is a sort of colossus, a Michelangelo.
The beloved English countryside opera festival has unveiled the program and casts for next year's musical idyll. Among the fruits, a new production of Handel's oratorio Saul from Barrie Kosky, the Australian renegade director and head of the Komische Oper in Berlin.
However controversial Kosky's concept and Katrin Lea Tag's staging may be, there can be no question that Glyndebourne has assembled a fine cast of British and American Baroque singers, including Lucy Crowe as Merab and Christopher Purves in the title role. Among the most in-demand Handelians of their generation, the English soprano and bass-baritone were also teamed up for performances of Messiah last year with Emmanuelle Haïm's Le Concert d'Astrée, recorded and slated for release late October 2014.
“I made the choice of four British singers, with a single countertenor rather than two altos – the configuration used in 1752 at Covent Garden,” Haïm explains of her Messiah soloists: countertenor Tim Mead and tenor Andrew Staples alongside Crowe and Purves.
Read the full Glyndebourne 2014 season announcement here.
In a colourful stage direction enhancing the cruel fight of human passions, Poppea, embodied by the great Sonya Yoncheva, Nerone, sung by Max Emmanuel Cencic, and Emmanuel Haïm directing le Concert d’Astrée will carry you away into a captivating and tragic Roma of the 1st century after JC.
The cast also includes Ann Hallenberg as Octavia, Tim Mead as Ottone, Paul Whelan as Seneca and Amel Brahim Djelloul as Drusilla. The stage direction is signed by JF Sivadier.
Depicting the widest range of human feelings, l’Incoronazione di Poppea is a Shakespearean journey which borders on the sublime.
The album got nominated in the category "Best Classical Compendium". Congratulations!
Click here to get to the album.
Anna Stéphany, Le Concert d'Astrée