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Handel Messiah "Amen" exposition (mm. 72-91)

Having sung, prepared, and conducted Handel's Messiah dozens of times, the beginning of the final "Amen" Fugue (mm. 72-91) has always puzzled me. No matter how well sung, these measures, accompanied only by continuo, can seem weak. Why didn't Handel accompany the tenors, altos, and sopranos with colla parte strings (as in "And With His Stripes")? Mozart seems to have shared my concern, since he doubled the voices in his arrangement. in Helmuth Rilling's new Messiah book (Carus 2015) he states that "I often have this first section sung by the four soloists so as to incorporate all of the forces into the last movement of the oratorio." (p. 93). Some conductors choose a legato articulation and piano dynamic; others an aggresive forte. What are your thoughts on this passage? On Rillings' proposal? I look forward to your collective wisdom!
 
Steven Edwards
Symphony Chorus of New Orleans
on October 10, 2015 6:42am

Personally I feel Rilling is "old hat".  He comes from that same school of thought and experimentation that was prevalent in the 1960 when a lot of research was done, and people were just getting their early music feet wet.  This school of thought has persisted literally for 50 years and now most musicians have a hard time viewing these works through any other lens than the 19th/20th century.  Adding instrumentation to something as a way of modernizing has been done forever.  And, just like other musicians of the time, Handel used forces he was able to obtain in any given performance. 

 

What I have never understood is why no one asks questions such as "Did Handel envision for the FUGUE a harkening back to older practices?"  Certainly there have been a large number of vocal fugues written with voices and continuo alone for hundreds of years. This makes sense to me, saying this fugue would look back at the past century in the opening, followed by the restatement of the fugal theme in the strings which he then adds the voices to - looking forward.  Of course this is merely speculation.  I think there may be arguments on both sides.  To counter your example, "He trusted in God" is a vocal fugue with no colla parte.  It is also my understanding viewing the autograph score than Handel probably intended "And with his Stripes" to immediately follow "Surely" at exactly double tempo as they are a continuation on the same autograph page with only a mensuration change, and a single bar line.  I feel the string parts continue here because they were playing previously, and this is (and should not) be treated as a separate piece; that is to say the other examples which are vocal fugues DO start as completly seperate works. 

It also could be that the music Handel borrowed these phrases from were written that way, and he simply had them in his head that way.  Who knows.

 

This is my current favorite: https://youtu.be/lyQR7q7JpCI?t=2h6m36s - for example.

 
on October 10, 2015 3:11pm
In defense of Helmuth Rilling, his ideas of the 1960s were the basis of a very intelligent way to analyze music that created a healthy challenge to us neo-Romantics.  While I usually didn’t follow his technique, I respected his work enough to question what I was doing and I am very grateful for that. 
 
I think the very worst thing we can do with our art is throw up our hands and say “it’s anyone’s guess.”  Instead, we should ask, “What kind of forces do we have?”  “What is the circumstances of the performance & audience?”  “How do we muster all considerations under an aesthetic balance of what is expected and what is not?”  Aren’t we the musicians?  Aren’t we the ones who are supposed “to know?”
 
One very memorable hair-raising performance turned out to be a simple desire by the conductor to end the piece before 11 PM so he wouldn’t have to pay his professionals time-and-a-half!  Love it and hope no one ever has to sing it that fast again!
 
Hope that helps!
Michael A. Gray
on October 12, 2015 9:27am
Dear Steven,
 
"Some conductors choose a legato articulation and piano dynamic; others an aggressive forte" - what are my thoughts on this passage?
        Handel reveals at the conclusion of his vast storehouse of expressive choruses throughout Messiah, the origins: stile antico - mirroring the polyphonic style of the Renaissance - a wonderful, direct, sincere unison clarity, that follows on the heals of "exultation":  "Blessing and Honor, Glory and Power be unto Him". This A-men is an "affirmation of faith. Handel goes back to the origins of Baroque counterpoint that are based on origins of Renaissance polyphony which are based upon the asymmetric phrasing of chant - the bass begins the Amen subject characterizing this asymmetric polyphonic beauty of quarter-note groupings of 3s and of 2s.      
       Phrased like polyphonic (chant derived) polyphony with its inherent expressive vocabulary: internal and subtle dynamic nuances that highlight these micro groupings with subtle judicious rubato - consecutive 8ths notes subtly dynamically move a bit; half notes followed by quarter notes (the height of the phrase) subtly dimuendo/relax a bit - is profoundly expressive and absolutely "direct". The "accented" quarter notes - confirm with an entirely different gesture (in fact segmenting the A - to the -  men), repeat the intervallic design (though different note values) of bars 2 and 3, unifying the structure, and contrasts with the subject a very different "affirmation" of Yes, A  -  men! The tempo that best serves this chorus, like Renaissance polyphony, is about mm 60 for the half note - the entire movement is in 2; though conducting in 4 (muting beats 2 and 4) will of course clarify the ensemble rhythm for chorus and orchestra.
 
I hope this is helpful.
 
Sincerely,
Jim Marvin
on October 13, 2015 3:07am
I don't think we can 'know'. Knowledge is often at the root of the interpretation, which is what musicians do: we interpret musical texts (which means I find all the discussion above relevant and important, but not a route to knowing as much as understanding).  And this is how I interpret the passage.
 
The tempo must in my view be in relation to the previous tempi of the same movement: Largo, Andante, Larghetto, Adagio. Pretty clear that the Allegro moderato would (even in view of the less strict Baroque framework for tempi) be the fastest of the lot. But it is written in 4 and has a moderato suffix. I stick to four.
 
For me, Handel's idea is the juxtaposition of limited forces (choir 72-91; violins 92-101; 107-108) that I think of as 'the earth' and the full schubang 'heaven and earth'. Which makes the 'bare' fugue of 72-91 seem a pretty good idea.
 
I only have the Novello score at hand, but that seems to have pretty clear dynamics. I believe they are original.
 
In summary: trust Handel. There's probably a musical (content-relaed) reason for why it is written as it is.
 
 
 
 
on October 13, 2015 11:09am
Having sung this with Helmuth Rilling, I feel that using the soloists serves two practical purposes: to set this moment in relief between "Worthy is the lamb" and the rest of the "Amen", and also to give the choir a moment to recover before concluding the piece (and by extension to bring contrast to the Amen as a whole).
 
Looking at the Barenreiter full score, there are no indicated dynamics in the last movement. Handel does divide the continuo group here in order to lightly double two voices through the expo-- just enough to keep everyone in tune for the violins. It makes me wonder if Handel's original intention was an a cappella moment but he knew the singers wouldn't keep pitch!
 
Best,
Tim Reno
 
 
 
 
 
 
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