Handel's Messiah

The Tabernacle Choir and Large-Scale Messiah Performances

Messiah choruses have long formed part of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square’s core repertory, going back well into the 19th century when the practice of large-scale oratorio performances took root in the United States as well. And the Choir has frequently led the way in making Handel’s celebrated music available to a wider public. Its first recording in 1910 included the “Hallelujah” chorus in what is almost certainly the first record of a Messiah excerpt made outside of England and the first recorded by a large, established choir. (The handful of earlier English recordings used small, ad hoc groups of singers.) 

In June 1927, the Choir recorded “Worthy Is the Lamb” on its first “electrical” recording (that is, with microphones) a week before Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the first complete electrically- recorded Messiah in London. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s 1959 Messiah with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra earned a gold record and in 2005 was inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Later recordings of Messiah choruses conducted by Richard Condie in 1974 and the complete oratorio under the direction of Sir David Willcocks in 1995 continued this legacy, and the “Hallelujah” chorus has appeared on more than a dozen of the Choir’s albums over the last century.

Recent concert performances and streams of Messiah continue the Choir’s dedicated advocacy of the work. In his 2013 edition of this celebrated oratorio, Mack Wilberg has created a Messiah that combines historical research into baroque practices with the rich, established traditions of larger-scale performances. Using Handel’s original orchestration of strings, oboes, and trumpets as a foundation, Wilberg has retained only the woodwind and brass parts from Mozart’s and Prout’s editions that are consistent with Handel’s compositional and timbral choices. He has refined the rhythms, phrasing, and articulations of the vocal and orchestral parts to reflect 18th-century principles of clarity and definition, while still preserving the ability to deliver impressive resonance and dynamic variety in the grander sections.

Messiah could not have been performed this way even 20 or 30 years ago when tastes were different and traditions were in flux. In that regard, these performances by The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square constitute a new chapter in Messiah’s long and storied history, a century after Prout’s edition and two centuries after Mozart’s.

It’s tempting to wonder how Handel himself may have crafted his score for Messiah, had he known it would be performed by a celebrated 360-voice choir, four renowned opera soloists, and a modern symphonic orchestra. We’ll never know, of course. But there’s no doubt he would have leaped at the opportunity.

-- By Dr. Luke Howard. associate professor of music history at Brigham Young University