Gained in Translation: Variations on Handel’s Messiah

In recent years, a growing number of choruses and choral projects have approached Handel’s Messiah through new perspectives, bringing this hallmark of the Western European cannon into dialogue with a more expansive range of traditions and contemporary events.

George Frederic Handel needed less than a summer month to compose Messiah. But the popularity of his 1741 oratorio has lasted for centuries — longer and more consistently, in fact, than just about any other work in the Western canon.  

This kind of  longevity, however, does not mean that the work has been set in stone. The variety seen with some recent approaches by choral ensembles that seek a contemporary resonance with audiences manifests the extraordinary malleability of Handel’s creation. What links them together is the impulse to bring Messiah into dialogue with non-European traditions and contemporary events.

These attempts to engage with other communities involve more than translation. They de-familiarize a cultural artifact that has become routinized through predictable ritual, reawakening a sense of meaning and connection through shifts in perspective.


Historical Precedent

There is plenty of historical precedent for reconsidering Handel’s oratorio from new angles that reflect the experiences and expectations of subsequent eras. Take Messiah’s premiere in Vienna in 1789, decades after the composer’s death, when a twofold translation took place: the libretto was recast in Handel’s native German and Mozart fulfilled a commission to “update” the score by rescoring it for a classical orchestra — in the process introducing greater timbral variety. To mark the bicentennial of Handel’s death in 1959, Sir Thomas Beecham argued that “public taste” had changed so decisively that Messiah required a reupholstered orchestration, for which he enlisted Sir Eugene Aynsley Goossens.

An especially delightful example from the end of the 20th century foreshadowed today’s readiness to defy genre barriers. Released in 1992, Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration drew on a spectrum of African American vernacular idioms to render the oratorio as a gospel masterpiece. “That was my introduction to Messiah,” recalls the countertenor Reginald Mobley, who serves as a programming consultant for the Handel and Haydn Society; he was also among the soloists in the Society’s acclaimed broadcast production during the pandemic, Messiah for Our Time.

Experiencing Messiah via the music he had grown up with — gospel, jazz, R&B — “not only pulled me into this world of Baroque and classical music but brought me in with an automatic understanding that my background and where I come from were included as a package deal,” Mobley says. “It’s what set me on the course of pursuing and performing music the way I do now as an early musician.” 


Crossing Borders with El Mesías

A desire to forge connections between the Latin American music he knew growing up and his experiences on the concert stage in the Twin Cities is what inspired the Saint Paul-based Ahmed Anzaldúa to found Border CrosSing in 2017. A Mexican immigrant whose mother came from Egypt, the conductor and pianist envisions Border CrosSing as an organization “to bridge gaps in the mainstream choral repertoire and create concert programs and projects that better reflect who we are and the landscape around us — its diversities and how many stories it contains.”

El Mesías, a regular part of Border CrosSing’s repertoire since its inaugural season, exemplifies this mission. It interweaves the nativity-centered first part of Messiah along with the “Hallelujah” Chorus with Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez’s Navidad Nuestra, a work that has become especially beloved as a Christmas cantata in Latin America. Small adjustments to the musicians available are made with each revival — not unlike Handel’s own practice when presenting the oratorio in London following its Dublin premiere. In 2022 the ensemble joined with the Minnesota Orchestra to perform the work at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. 

Anzaldúa himself prepared the libretto for El Mesías by combining the original English Charles Jennens assembled from the King James Bible with texts he culled from nearly two dozen editions of the Bible in Spanish. These he interlaced with choral selections from Ramírez’s Navidad Nuestra, connecting the two works with “little bridges” and matching keys “so it sounds like one big piece.” Even the instrumentation between the two works is integrated, such as an accordion used in lieu of organ for the basso continuo. Small adjustments taking account of the musicians available are made with each revival — not unlike Handel’s own practice when presenting the oratorio in London following its Dublin premiere. In 2022 the ensemble joined with the Minnesota Orchestra to perform the work at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. 

Anzaldúa, who also cites A Soulful Celebration as one of the inspirations for El Mesías, says the piece has been embraced by the Latin American community in the Twin Cities: so much so that El Mesías has already become a tradition on the west side of Saint Paul, a neighborhood largely comprising Central American and Mexican immigrants.

“The different segmentations or bridges add a layer of the unexpected that that gets you to pay attention in ways that you don’t usually pay attention,” according to Anzaldúa. “That translates into a larger context of paying attention to things that we take for granted that are actually just the cultural default.” 

Another translation drawing on Latin American experience is the Bach Collegium San Diego (BCSD)’s El Mesías: Messiah for a New World. “Because Handel was an immigrant, this piece is ripe for an approach like this,” observes Ruben Valenzuela, BCSD’s artistic director. He recalls being awed by the few choruses from Messiah he would hear every December in the Spanish-speaking churches in which he grew up. Only later did he realize that they had been written as part of an iconic work in English. 

Valenzuela founded BCSD in 2003, and the ensemble eventually began a pattern of performing Messiah every year starting around 2013 since no other early music ensemble in the area was doing it: “I felt that we had to fill the void. But we made it our task that every year we were going to put a different spin on it” — such as working through all of the alternate arias Handel had created during his own revivals of the work. 

During the pandemic, Valenzuela came full circle to his first experience with Messiah in Spanish and commissioned Mario Montenegro, artistic director of the Vocal Ensemble of the Tijuana Cultural Center, to translate the entire oratorio. Unlike the Twin Cities El Mesías, BCSD’s Messiah for a New World presents all three parts in Spanish (with a few cuts). The change of language has not required BCSD to adjust its historically informed style, he adds, aside from a couple of spots “where the orchestra has made a concession to match some syllable differentiation on the chorus side.”

Valenzuela led BCSD in the premiere in March 2022 and guest conducted it later that year in New York with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Westminster Symphonic Choir, along with students from largely Spanish-speaking backgrounds. He was moved to observe how experiencing Messiah in the mother tongue “as something living and breathing” made a powerful impact on their families “who in many cases spoke no English.” 

This December, along with performances of Messiah in both English and Spanish in San Diego, BCSD will bring their Spanish version to Tijuana as part of a celebration of binational relations between the U.S. and Mexico. Because of the high level of interest in performing this Spanish-language edition, Valenzuela says, his ensemble is arranging to publish the score and release a recording.


Weaving Cultures Together 

For the choral thought leader Jace Kaholokula Saplan, Handel’s Messiah provides fertile ground for exploring ways to engage with diverse communities outside the Western tradition in which it originated. “As a native Hawaiian culturalist and as a classical choral music conductor, I always code switch between two worlds,” says Saplan, who directs choirs in Hawai’i as well as at Arizona State University, where Saplan is an associate professor. In part because of the central role Handel requires of the choral ensemble throughout Messiah, Saplan points out, the work can be approached “as a profound act of honoring the language of community.”

Saplan developed a translation of Messiah into the native Hawaiian language as a vehicle to show “how classical music can be accessible and relevant to our neighborhoods.” The result is Messiah i ka ’Ōlelo Hawai’i, which premiered in 2022 with the Hawai’i Nui Chorale and the Nā Wai Chamber Choir, an ensemble Saplan founded in 2009 for “the preservation, propagation, and innovation of Hawaiian choral music.” Nā Wai signifies “the many waters that sustain our community.”

How can rehearsing and performing a work from the center of the Western canon benefit a multicultural community? Saplan explains that the Hawaiian language “has always been a catalyst for connections once we got into contact with Western traditions.” Translation of a work like Messiah therefore means an all-encompassing recontextualization that takes account of “our sense of belonging and our sense of how we commune with our ancestors.”

Linguistically, Saplan’s translation integrates the more formalized style known as kaona, which refers to layers of meaning hidden beneath the surface, with the contemporary spoken Hawaiian used for the recitatives and solos. Saplan compares the choral movements to the perspective of “a grandmother who is constantly reaffirming the narrative,” adding that to situate this piece within the family structure “is an indigenous thing to do.” 

Saplan based Messiah i ka ’Ōlelo Hawaion the Bärenreiter edition, using its instrumentation for the most part (performed at the premiere by members of the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra. But there are also moments that call for various drums (pa’u and the ipu, a large, double-headed gourd drum). These are used, for example, at certain points in recitatives “because those particular rhythmic instruments also tether a native Hawaiian community to what emotions they should be experiencing — like when a live audience at a sitcom is told when to applaud and when to laugh.” Particular beats are associated with various deities that respectively evoke the appropriate feelings of joy, reverence, or even caution.

The “Hallelujah” Chorus, which is performed with the Christmas portion, involves hula dance “so that we could reclaim our understanding of Christian texts through our bodies and through our generational knowledge” and neutralize the “cultural trauma of missionaries who shamed native Hawaiians away from this dance.”

Saplan views the entire project as illuminating how “these indigenous ways of musicking allow the audience to experience a cultural context outside their periphery.” Saplan plans to continue with translations of Parts Two and Three over the next five years and, in the spring, will add Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater to the ensemble’s repertoire “to weave in the tradition of Hawaiian ways of expressing grief and rituals around funeral and death..”


Coming to Terms with New Realities

Translation can even take place while performing Messiah in English: translation, that is, to address a drastically altered reality, as the Handel and Haydn Society (H+H) did in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic with its Messiah for Our Time broadcast (available on YouTube). The Boston-based organization, which premiered the complete oratorio in the U.S. in 1818, has given Messiah regularly every year since 1854 — nowadays attracting some 6,000 concertgoers to its performances. It was suddenly faced with the prospect of having to remain silent in 2020. More than a matter of foregoing a beloved tradition, that prospect symbolized the existential crisis the pandemic posed to choral music — and to the performing arts in general.

“We wanted to give a gift to the community,” says David Snead, H+H president and CEO. “We knew that this piece, which is about hope, would be perfect for this point in time.” So they found a way, in the face of the strict limitations in place at the time, to partner with the GBH media company to record Part 1 of Messiah plus the “Hallelujah” Chorus for broadcast. 

“The idea was to make Messiah contemporary, to connect the music and the story with what was going on,” says Snead. “GBH had videographers go out and shoot video of first responders, medical doctors and nurses, patients, the city in general being shut down at that time.” The broadcast intercut and blended the footage with Handel’s music, which had been recorded in separate sessions for the choruses, soloists, and orchestral parts.

For Snead, the experience challenged the image many have of Messiah as “this warhorse that is done every year” and reinforced why we keep coming back to Handel’s work (which stands apart within his oeuvre for reasons in addition to its enormous popularity). “It’s a masterpiece of dramatic storytelling and music that connects. You can get the story elsewhere. But you can’t get that music elsewhere.”

Messiah for Our Time was not a one-off but actually part of another H+H tradition of responding to national political and social changes. Members of the Society performed the “Hallelujah” Chorus and other works at the first Emancipation Proclamation celebration in Boston on New Year’s Day in 1863. 

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 and the soul searching it prompted among those in the performing arts about systemic racism, H+H grappled with the issue of Handel’s relationship to profits made from the slave trade. The Society consulted with Reginald Mobley and Anthony Trecek-King, H+H resident conductor and host for Messiah for Our Time (as well as a member of the Chorus America Board of Directors) to devise the program Crossing the Deep, an immersive concert experience that juxtaposes music from Handel’s Chandos Anthems with spirituals that were being created at the time by enslaved Africans in America.

“One of the conclusions we came to,” Mobley says, “is that the music of Messiah has been a companion to so many people for so long that it’s not just for white people of European descent. It has also been a part of our culture in ways that we really haven’t fully studied.” In this way, Mobley suggests that a simplistic rejection of Handel and Messiah motivated by a contemporary understanding of social justice does not solve the problem. “One of the conclusions we came to is that we need to do a good job of separating the work from the musician or the artist,” he observes. “Because Handel is dead and we are not.”


Indigenous Identities 

Responding to the pandemic and an urge to promote greater mindfulness of diversity and inclusion both converged in Messiah/Complex, an 80-minute film version of the oratorio created by the experimental, Toronto-based theater company Against the Grain (AtG) in collaboration with the Toronto Symphony and a consortium of Canadian choruses. “Something clicked around this magical moment of where we all were, feeling isolated in winter and at Christmas yet somehow connected through music and film,” recalls the company’s founder and artistic director Joel Ivany, who co-directed Messiah/Complex with Reneltta Arluk.

The concept underlying Messiah/Complex is to celebrate diversity through a mosaic of soloists respectively representing each Canadian province and territory and singing in a total of six languages, three of which are First Nations (Dene, Inuktitut, and Southern Tutchone, from among the country’s 70 different indigenous languages); the others are Arabic, English, and French. The singers were additionally invited to suggest how best to represent their identities through imagery from natural settings for the filming.

Emphasizing the angle of the climate crisis in his segment from Alberta, the Cree-Métis baritone Jonathon Adams told The New York Times that participating in this interpretation of Messiah flipped the script of European colonization: “It’s a takeover of a Eurocentric white art form. Indigenous artists occupying the piece is powerful and radical.”

The soprano Deantha Edmunds offers another perspective. She contributed “How Beautiful Are the Feet” from Part 2 in her native Nunatsiavut (the language of her ancestral Labrador homeland). The first and only Inuk professional classical singer, Edmunds explains that “the Labrador Indians have an incredibly unique and rich music history” that is layered by influences from Moravian missionaries who settled on the North Coast some 250 years ago, bringing with them handwritten scores of European classical music. She points out that being invited to participate in Messiah/Complex actually meant continuing an old tradition, since “Inuit were singing music from Handel’s Messiah in Inuttitut hundreds of years ago here in Labrador.”

“Beautiful feet” conjured the image of caribou tracks “setting the path for humans to follow” for Edmunds, who asked a respected elder from the community to translate the aria. “I feel very different when I think in the language. Any chance to be on the ancestral land of my people and to sing in Inuktitut is deeply meaningful.” She adds that “hearing different interpretations of Messiah in different languages is a huge part of truth and reconciliation.”

Written almost three centuries ago for a context that has long since become alien, Handel’s Messiah keeps drawing audiences back. Jace Saplan believes this is in part “because its architecture is incredibly universal: the meta story of the joy that comes with new beginnings, or, in this case, the birth of Christ, and that eventually ends with death and the infinite loop that engages in that.” 

This cyclical understanding of life, a universal theme, is shared by the many other variations on Handel’s Messiah. It reaches back to the very origins of human consciousness but, with its ultimate message of hope, feels desperately needed in our time.

Thomas May is a writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work appears in the New York Times, the Seattle Times, Gramophone, and many other publications. The English-language editor for the Lucerne Festival, he also writes program notes for Boulez Saal in Berlin and the Ojai Festival in California.