When I first heard that Mozart had created a version of The Messiah I was very surprised. But it is correct and I was filled with curiosity to find out about it.
I am a person of great curiosity. Some people say I am also a curious person but don’t know whether to take that as a compliment.
The Messiah in its original form was fantastically successful.
So many people wished to come to the first performance (*) that gentlemen were asked to come without swords and ladies without hoops in their dresses.
It made Handel a great deal of money large sums of which Handel gave away charitably. Handel made so much money from The Messiah that for example he paid the debts of some debtors to allow their release from the debtors prison and largely funded an orphanage)
Many believe Handel was divinely inspired in his writing. The Messiah was written in only 24 days. The story of how Handel did not like to be disturbed by his housekeeper bringing him meals is well known.
It was to text by Charles Jennings. Many think Jennings did very well in his choice of extracts from the Bible. With my great curiosity I wonder why he chose to include “Thou Shall Smash Them” which comes from Isaiah, and his prophesy which did not happen.
Handel, who liked to direct from the organ must have felt the organ part to be very important, for he had his own organ shipped over to Dublin.
So why on earth did Mozart feel the need to make an arrangement? First let’s dispose of any erroneous idea that Mozart was attempting to improve upon Handel. Mozart was a great admirer of Handel (as also was Beethoven )
The correct explanation is that Mozart wished to make Handel’s music accessible to the public of the day. In general I dislike music which has been ‘messed about’ or which has been perhaps ’modernised’ in an opera. But Mozart’s motivation here, I believe, makes it not only acceptable but desirable.
Amazingly, only 48 years after The Messiah was written Handel’s style was completely out of fashion. Handel’s style was to write the tune and the bass with very sparse inner parts
That was not liked by the people of Mozart’s day and they also wanted to hear modern wind instruments especially clarinets and ‘new’ bassoons and trombones with better timbre and intonation.
Now Handel was of course perfectly capable of writing inner parts and the fact that he did not do so in The Messiah was for a musical reason. Nonetheless, this style of writing had become unacceptable to the public of the day, and remember that Mozart’s aim was to make Handel’s music accessible. Mozart covered both requirements by adding strong inner parts and having them performed on the ‘new’ wind instruments of the day.
Even so Mozart considered some of Handel’s numbers so musically perfect that he could not bear to touch them. One example is the number “Glory to God”.
Handel was very expedient. If for example, he owed a lady singer a favour he would rearrange one of the arias originally sung by a male for her. If he had a particularly florid singer he would add ornamentation or even change the time signature to 6/8 so that the singer could show off their voice.
These adjustments to every performance show how expedient Handel was in striving to please both the audience and his soloists. (He was very astute at making money through his music) and that he did not consider the original at all sacrosanct so clearly would not have objected to Mozart’s version.
Indeed composers at the time especially Bach, seemed to consider music common property (but all without acknowledgements).
To illustrate this Handel “lifted” one of the numbers in his original of The Messiah from Rienhard Keiser , ( a less known composer who preceded him in Hamburg. (And Bach’s concertos for 2 or 3 harpsichords seem be arrangements of Vivaldi’s concertos for violins) Consequently there is no definitive version of The Messiah. Ebenezer Prout (no, not an invention of Dickens) strived hard and long to produce a definitive score but concluded it was impossible. Later Prout produced his own version of The Messiah, following Mozart’s pattern, by adding even more wind instruments and inner parts.
Unlike Mozart’s reasons for adding to The Messiah which were all for Handel’s benefit, I disapprove of Prout’s reasons for doing so ( one might hazard a guess that he wanted something from a long time spent studying scores for Handel’s original, or maybe it’s just that he believed his version sounded even better than Mozart’s). If you too disapprove, we are in good company: The “Musical Times” at the turn of the 19th century wrote that it was time that “hangers on” to Handel’s Messiah were sent about their business!!