William from Phoenix emailed the following over the weekend-
“Dear Maestro Woods-
I’m a regular VftP reader and young conductor about to do my own first Messiah at my church this coming week. I read your posts about the piece, but was hoping you might write a bit offering some specific musical suggestions for someone like me working on the piece for the first time….”
Well, William- since you are conducting this week, here, in haste, are a few basic concepts I hope will help guide your preparation.
1- It is generally accepted wisdom that every conductor has their “own” Messiah. This is dangerous rubbish. Try your best to set aside all your likes and dislikes, your preferences and tastes and to understand what Handel was after in the piece. Your own taste is your biggest limit as a conductor. The more you set aside your own aesthetics and prejudices and selflessly pursue those of the composer, the more distinctive, interesting and radical your own performance will become. Anything else is just a stale retread of ideas you’ve picked up from other performances that you “liked,” rather than something honest and real, developed from your own study.
2- I feel strongly that you have to study the libretto and the relationship between the words and the music in this piece in exactly the same methodical, critical and creative way as you would for any text. The Biblical origins of the words are irrelevant once they are in the piece- you have to understand them and deal with them in the context of Messiah’s very unusual balance of narrative and contemplation, and project an understanding that makes senses solely in that context.
3- Do you remember the day you first learned about meter and the teacher said that “the downbeat is the strongest beat of the bar, and the even numbered beats are the weakest?” Yeah, that! This is when that really matters! In every bar of every movement unless there is an obvious bar-line shift, suspension or syncopation at work. Ingrained in the meter of baroque music, even in slow tempi , is a constant sense of light and shade, of impulse and response and if all your beats are of equal intensity, the music dies. Phrasing and meter are inextricably linked in baroque music.
4- Vibrato is an ornament used to create expressive variety in the music. In baroque music, this means we start from non-vibrato because you ADD vibrato to create interest. This does not mean you play baroque music without vibrato, it means you encourage the players to think about when, why and how to add it, and to look for every moment in the score that is helped by it. On the other hand, since vibrato is something one adds to create interest, the corollary is that one never adds vibrato when it takes away interest. In very dissonant passages, passages with expressive suspensions, or passages with densely overlapping voice-leading, vibrato dilutes the music rather than intensifies it.
5- Try to have simple, general performance practice guidelines in mind for the whole piece that are consistent and easy to remember. Mine are-
a. All dotted rhythms such as those in “All they that see Him,” or the B section of “He was despised” are played by the strings “as it comes” and at the frog, as one would with a baroque bow. (for many years I accepted the prevailing wisdom that with a tourte bow, one should “hook” as it is more instrumentally idiomatic, but after trying it separately I changed my mind on the grounds that the separate bowing simply sounds much more musically idiomatic and stylistic). If the players complain, let them try it both ways- if they are capable players (weak ones will struggle with the as-it-comes stroke), they will hear how much better it sounds done as it was written.
b. Double dot in all places where it seems like a likely idea (such as the “Grave” of” Symphony” and “Behold the Lamb of God”)
c. Use swells or “mezza di voce” on suspensions wherever it seems likely- this means training the players to land softly on those notes (for instance the first half note in the counter-subject of the Overture, va and vc bar 25), rather than starting with any kind of a marcato attack.
d. Use Handel’s suggestions of con rip. and senza rip- it saves time explaining and he knew better.
e. Play slurs with releases- particularly two note slurs (like the beginning of For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth) should always be played with emphasis on the first note and space between the slurs
6- You have to differentiate between the actual speed and the feelof a tempo. Most quick tempi in this piece need a degree of solidity and a certain laid back quality that conductors often mistake for ponderousness. Likewise, when you conduct a movement like Rejoice Greatly at an appropriate tempo, the players may start rushing because they mis-interpret the feel you’re going for. (Also remember, your tempi in all the arias must take into account the character of your soloist’s voice- voices “spin” at their own tempi). You can get a brisk tempo to feel solid- don’t give up on it. 7- Never take a slow movement so slowly that you cannot maintain a sense of meter- if all the beats start to become equally heavy, you are too slow (see no. 3 above!).
8- No two consecutive notes in the piece are the same dynamic- you must know, for every bar and beat, and be able to show clearly with your hands, whether you are “leading towards,” “falling from” or “arriving at” at every moment. Messiah, like all long baroque works, cannot withstand the failure of monotony. No stasis!
9- Any vocal cadenzas, tempo modifications or ornamentations should be a natural outgrowth of the meaning of text and not simply an opportunity for display or something your soloist’s teacher or coach told them to do. In some movements, the drama may be best served by simply having the soloist finish in time and as written rather than with one of those predictable “rallantado and cadenza” things.
10- Make all your decisions about bowings, dynamics, articulations, ornaments, cuts, shortened da capos (if any), which numbers you’re doing and which you aren’t, pronunciation, note length, soli vs ripieni and phrasing well in advance, and MARK THEM IN YOUR SCORE AND THE PARTS before the first rehearsal. There’s nothing more amateurish and wasteful than using paid orchestral service time to mark in basic things that could have been put in by you or the orchestra’s librarian months earlier- it shows a lack of preparation and a lack of respect for your colleagues. Of course, you will need to make changes in rehearsal based on the hall and the singers, but making changes is not the same thing as making it up as you go along.
11- Avoid the UNIVERSAL TEMPO at all costs.
Also, an early post (also prompted by a young conductor) here offers a few simple tips you may find relevant. Oh yes- please don’t wait between movements a second longer than you have to! Finally- remember how you were taught to breathe with the choir? It’s not just the choir you need to breathe with.
12. Break any and all rules 6-11% of the time