Choral Masterworks: Is Any One Version "The Best"?

Choral conductor Tom Hall pulls back the veil on several well-loved choral works in this interview.

Recently we surveyed choral singers and asked them to pick a choral recording they would want to have with them if they were stranded on a desert island.

The top five choices were Brahms Requiem, Handel's Messiah, Mozart Requiem, Bach B Minor Mass and Verdi Requiem. Many of the singers were pretty picky about which CD of the work they would take. That made us wonder...

Is there such a thing as a "definitive" performance of a great choral work?

Tom Hall: Well, I can weigh in on the Messiah. Nic McGegan was one of the first people to record all of the different versions of the arias. So if you want to play Messiah in any version of how Handel did it in any particular year, you can program that on your CD player with Nic's recording.

So Handel kept rewriting the Messiah? I didn't know that.

There is no definitive version of Handel's Messiah. He wrote it in 1741 and then performed it every year until his death in 1759. Every year he did it, it was in a slightly different version. That's largely because, from year to year, he had different soloists from year to year. In the early 1750s he had a famous castrato, so he rewrote arias so that the castrato had the most to do. He didn't want to waste that famous castrato, so the alto was assigned most of the arias. For example, there are two versions of "Rejoice Greatly"—one that has triplets and the other that has sixteenth notes. The reason he rewrote it is because in one particular year he had a soprano who couldn't do melismas really well, so he made it easier for her.

What a nice thing to do for a singer.

He was very accommodating and very pragmatic. Okay, she can't sing melismas, so let's rewrite it.

So what we think of as the great soprano aria or alto aria may not be set in stone.

Well, "Rejoice Greatly" is still a great soprano aria, but there are two versions of it. You can do it a completely virtuosic or in a somewhat less virtuosic way.

There is no version of the Messiah that Handel himself pronounced to be the final version.

The choruses generally stay consistent from year to year, although there are different settings of "How Beautiful Are the Feet of Them that Preacheth the Gospel of Peace." He set that as a chorus and as an aria. Nic's recording, which is probably 20 years old, has all of those different versions on the CD. So if you feel like it, you can replicate Handel's version of any particular year. You can take the list of arias and choruses that he did in any particular year and hear that version.

Handel made some pretty major changes even between the first year and the second year. In the very first version of the first aria, "Every Valley," there are four extra measures, a little turn that he repeats twice. And then the second year, he says, "It's stupid to do that," and he cuts out the repeat, and that's version we all know.

The other issue with a piece like Messiah is the fundamental issue with performance practice in general: how important is it for us as modern performers to replicate the conditions and forces that were used in the first performances of a piece in the 18th century?

That's the early music argument?

Yes, this is mostly a conductor issue, but it is a singer issue in that if you are singing Handel's Messiah and you happen to have a fairly pronounced and voluptuous vibrato. Do you purposely suppress that vibrato? Because in Handel's chorus, he never had women sing. He had boys, and sometimes women—who were singing some of the solos—would sing along with the boys. But what is your responsibility as a singer in the 21st century to do that piece?

What is your responsibility?

I think it changes. If you're singing in a group that's got 20 or 30 singers, which is the size that Handel used, you have one set of responsibilities. If you're singing in a chorus that has 150 singers, which happens all the time, you have a different set of responsibilities.

There were performances just after Handel's life that included very large choruses because they wanted to keep the tradition of doing it every year in London. At the end of the 18th century, Haydn went to London and heard performances of as many as a thousand people in Westminster Abbey singing excerpts of the Messiah. Those concerts were very inspirational and instrumental when Haydn wrote his two late oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.

Mozart re-orchestrated Messiah. In that version "Rejoice Greatly" is sung by the tenor. The trumpet part in "The Trumpet Shall Sound" is different. In Handel's time there was a special guild of trumpet players that could play the high trumpet part, but by the time Mozart got around to orchestrating it in the 1780s, more than 20 or years after Handel died, those trumpet guilds had fallen out of favor. The technique of playing high trumpet parts was no longer being passed down from teacher to student. Mozart had to rewrite "The Trumpet Shall Sound" for lower trumpet and French horns because no one could play it anymore. Then in the modern era that technique of playing the high trumpet got reinvigorated.

You seem to be saying that there will always be changes that happen in a work, whether it's a few years after it is composed or a couple of centuries.

Sure, people are going to put their own stamp on it. It's an issue of what you're trying to do. If you're trying to reenact Handel's original forces, you have no choice but to do it in a theater, not a church, to have a small chorus and a small orchestra. If you're not trying to do that—and there are reasons not to—then you have lots of leeway to do it in a way that allows your chorus and your orchestra to do the best job possible. You say, "These are the forces we have. Let's do this music as well as we can," without making a pretense of being historically accurate.

What you're saying about historically accurate, though, would imply that there is one time in history that the piece was authentic. But with the Messiah, that's not the case.

Right, there is no definitive version. There is no way that the Messiah goes that Handel himself has pronounced to be the final version.

Is that the case with other choral works, or is this peculiar to Handel that he kept rewriting things?

The very first performance of the Brahms Requiem did not include what we now know as the 5th movement. He added it later. Here is Brahms performing what he is calling a "requiem" on Good Friday in the Cathedral in Bremen, but as the bishop noted, there was no mention of Christ in the entire thing. This was because Brahms did not use the standard requiem text. Instead, he used passages from the Bible that he himself cherry-picked and purposefully left out any mention of Christ because he wanted the piece to be something that was universal and not limited just to Christians.

But the bishop went nuts at the idea of a Good Friday concert in which the name of Christ is not uttered. So he obliged Brahms at the premiere to add arias from Messiah, and the St. Matthew Passion. They even sang the Hallelujah Chorus. After that experience, Brahms thought, "Well, maybe we should throw something in there about Jesus." But he did it in a very sophisticated way. He took a passage from the Gospel of John that speaks of comfort as being by one's mother, which is in the first person singular. So, if you want to, you can make that "I" in "I will comfort you" to mean Jesus. But Christ's name is still not there. Brahms gets around the issue and stays true to his self-imposed mandate to make it a universal requiem.

I'm guessing there are similar stories with the other top five. Mozart Requiem for example...

It wasn't even finished! So coming up with a definitive version of Mozart Requiem is very difficult. There are at least a dozen people who have attempted to finish it. The one that has the most prevalence up until the early 1980s was the one by Mozart's sometime amanuensis, Franz Xaver Suessmayr. But then there were many other people who wrote endings to the piece-Benjamin Britten, Richard Strauss, and a bunch of scholars, including Robert Levin and Franz Beyer. Some of their versions are wildly different from one another.

It shows how fluid some of these pieces are that we think of as sacrosanct. There also was lots of borrowing of tunes between these composers back then.

One of the great borrowers of all time was Handel. He kept a notebook and if he heard a tune he liked, he wrote it down and had no compunction whatsoever about employing it in his pieces.

No copyright laws?

There was no such thing as copyright. Because Handel became so famous and well-known, if Handel appropriated some music of yours, it was considered a great thing to happen to you. For the Dettingen Te Deum, Handel stole liberally from an unknown Italian composer, Francesco Urio, who had written a Te Deum years earlier.

And no one got upset?

Urio was probably dead by the time Handel did the Te Deum, but if he hadn't have been dead he would have been thrilled. He would have considered it a great badge of honor to have the great Handel use his ideas.

This kind of thing happens today, of course,

Well, people sample things all the time. And sampling is exactly in the tradition of Handel. You take something that preexists and you work it into your song, either electronically or live.

And people don't get sued?

Oh, they get sued all the time, because there are people sampling without permission. There have been some famous lawsuits.

What about the other two pieces in our top five-Bach B-minor Mass and Verdi Requiem. Anything stolen, incomplete, reworked in those?

The Verdi Requiem went through a few minor adjustments after the first performance, but my recollection is that it did not undergo any massive changes.

What is common to all of the pieces we've talked about is that there is no such thing as a definitive version. If that's the case, it's not unreasonable to suggest that there's no definitive performance style that needs to be employed.

The Bach B Minor Mass is a very unusual and singular piece in that it was never performed by Bach or in Bach's time and it was never meant to be a concert piece. It was a compilation of everything Bach had learned in his long and illustrious career as a composer. He put the whole thing together, but as the kapellmeister of his church, there was never, ever going to be an occasion in which he would play the entire Catholic Mass. So the piece is a combination of things he wrote anew and stuff he had already written for different works throughout his career. He appropriated from himself all sorts of music for that piece.

One of the great dimensions of that piece is that he was trying to leave a last will and testament. He included in this piece styles that spanned from Palestrina's time (early 16th century) through Bach's own time (the middle of the 18th century). So he wrote very old-fashioned Renaissance music as well as very new-fashioned 18th century opera and dance and court music. That's Bach saying: I can write in all of these styles, and I want to leave a last will and testament that shows that this is the history of music as we know it. And he uses the Catholic Mass as the artifice for this.

So when was the Mass finally performed?

Not until Mendelssohn. It was lost and ignored until the early 1800s. Mendelssohn single-handedly led a revival and dug up the scores that had been wasting away, including the St. Matthew Passion. The story goes (it's probably apocryphal) that Mendelssohn and his choir and his teacher rehearsed the B Minor Mass for nine years and finally quit because it was too hard. Of course, now we do the B Minor Mass without thinking, which indicates that what we consider "too hard" has evolved.

So again, there is no definitive rendition of the B Minor Mass, because half of the piece is stolen from Bach himself!

So the composing, the performing of these masterworks, all of it was very dynamic.

Especially in early music, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical. It's a very dynamic thing because the composers almost always were the only people conducting their pieces. Handel and Bach had little concern for other people who might conduct their music. With Mozart and Haydn, almost all of their music was sight—read by the orchestras and the choruses in one or two rehearsals. It's not till you get to Beethoven, who died in 1827, that music actually had to be practiced. Rehearsing over and over and learning your part didn't really pertain to music prior to Beethoven. Beethoven was so hard it just demanded that you rehearse; you couldn't just sit there and read it.

What is common to all of the pieces we've talked about is that there is no such thing as a definitive version. If that's the case, it's not unreasonable to suggest that there's no definitive performance style that needs to be employed. The B Minor Mass and Handel's Messiah can be done with as few as one person on a part or as many as 40 on a part.

So the criteria for what makes a good or great performance is, then, quite different.

It has to do with how you view the role of the composer. Do artists say, "I have this inspiration, I'm going to write it down and give it to you and you are going to open it up like a Christmas present and when you open it up you will know how I feel"? Or are they simply trying to write a piece that each of us then approaches as a reflection of how we feel?—what we as performers want to communicate, rather than what the composer was trying to say?

Isn't it both things?

Yes, absolutely, with a heavy preference for the intention of the composer. If the only way you can be true to the intention of the composer is locating all the circumstances that were in play when he or she wrote the piece, that's one particular aspiration. But if you don't have that as a premise for what you're trying to do, it's valid to do it another way. Of course, what a piece "means" is a complicated determination to make sometimes. It may mean something different to me than it does to the composer. It may mean something different in this day and age than it meant back in his/her day.

I don't think there is any such thing as a "best" performance. There are performances that are technically more proficient. But assuming that several performances are together and in tune, well sung and well played, they may all be different, and good. I think it's counter-productive to employ an aesthetic ranking to different interpretations.