Handel's Messiah

Mack Wilberg Discusses New Edition of Messiah

Mack Wilberg Interview:

The Tabernacle Choir has had a relationship with Messiah for many, many years. In fact, the Choir's first recording in 1910, here in the Tabernacle, included the famous "Hallelujah" chorus. And in 1927, the Choir recorded "Worthy Is the Lamb That Was Slain." In the late 1950s, the Choir recorded Messiah with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and that recording was not only awarded a Gold Record but was also later inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. In the 1970s, the Choir made a recording of many of the choruses from Messiah, and again in the 1990s the Choir made yet another recording of the complete oratorio. So, there is a long history with this much-beloved work.

In recent years, new information about the baroque period has emerged. If we were going to make a new recording of Messiah, we wanted it to reflect what we better understand now about baroque performance practice, whether it be articulation, phrasing, dynamics, tempo, or the many other facets of this interesting topic.

We recognized that we needed to create something special and unique. The question then became, How do we do it? After all, we are a 360-voice choir and a large symphonic orchestra.

The biggest issue became how to use the orchestra to support a large choir while still maintaining the baroque aesthetic. Simply adding more strings to Handel's original instrumentation did not seem like it would be completely satisfactory, nor solve the challenge.

We know that Handel tinkered with Messiah during his lifetime. As a result, we do not have a definitive version of Messiah. In fact, one may say that there are many ways of approaching and performing Messiah.

In 1789 Mozart, one of our greatest composers, did an arrangement of Messiah, adding woodwinds and brass to Handel's original instrumentation. We certainly know that in some of Handel's most recognizable music, whether it be the Water Music or Music for the Royal Fireworks, he employed many woodwind and brass instruments to create quite spectacular effects. He also expanded the orchestrations of several of his operas and oratorios with winds and brass when funds and resources were available. So, you might say Mozart was justified in his approach in adding instruments to create a version for his own day and time.

Throughout the 19th century there were others who attempted to adapt Handel's orchestration in order to support what were gigantic performances of Messiah, popular in England at that time. One of the most successful of those versions was made in 1902 by the British theorist and composer Ebenezer Prout. Simply put, Prout took Mozart's version and either added to it or altered it to bring it nearer to what Prout called "Handel's original intention" while still making a version for larger performing forces.

In examining both Mozart's and Prout's versions of Messiah, I came to the conclusion that neither totally fulfilled what we wanted to accomplish with this particular recording. So, with some trepidation, I made the decision to make an edition of Messiah based on Mozart's and Prout's versions while more closely adhering to our present understanding of baroque performance practice.

While working on this, in the back of my mind was the question, What would Handel have done if he had had ensembles as large as The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square? Doing this required that I examine literally every note of the vocal and instrumental parts and make decisions as to what would accommodate a 360-voice choir and large orchestra and still reflect our present-day knowledge of baroque performance practices.

An issue on my mind was how to preserve the most intricate chamber-like aspects of the choruses, even though they were being sung by a 360-voice chorus, and contrast them to those big, memorable declarations of such phrases as "Wonderful, counselor" or "By man came also the resurrection of the dead" or "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain" or, most famous of all, that single word, "Hallelujah."

Smaller choruses can and do perform those delicate, difficult, and often fast passages with great aplomb. And yet it seemed that with much discipline and work, our large chorus might be able to do the same thing, while taking advantage of our size, to create an even greater range of color and dynamic.

The orchestra seemed to be a key partner in creating those effects. And I have to say that in examining every note of Messiah I came to an even greater appreciation of the work and the genius of George Frideric Handel.

We worked very diligently to try to capture the baroque aesthetic, which is not easy with 360 voices spread in a large choir loft. In fact, the top row of the choir loft is almost a half a football field away from the conductor and the orchestra. We dearly love our home here in the Tabernacle, but performing polyphonic music brings distinct challenges. The biggest challenge is, of course, being rhythmically together as a chorus, let alone with the orchestra. And the famous yet challenging acoustics of the Tabernacle did not make this easy.

We recorded Messiah over a period of several weeks, all in the evening because, being a volunteer choir and orchestra, our members have various responsibilities during the daytime.

Recording is hard work. It requires patience. It requires endurance. It requires energy that sometimes you don't think you possess.

There was one particular recording session that will remain, for me, a highlight. It was the evening that we recorded the final chorus of Messiah, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain," which of course ends with the glorious "Amen" chorus. There was something magical, if you will, about that evening. Everyone was exceptionally unified. Everyone was feeling a wonderful spirit as we recorded that final chorus. That evening will remain with me as one of the most memorable experiences of my career.