And from that time  to the present, this great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan, and enriched succeeding managers of Oratorios, more than any single musical production in this or any country. (Charles Burney)
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Handel’s Messiah still enjoyed a special reverential status as the most widely performed oratorio in Britain. In her autobiography, Isobel Baillie notes that ‘practically every Anglican and Non-Conformist church of any size would give an annual rendition of Messiah.’ It is surprising, therefore, that the Oxford Harmonic Society did not perform Messiah for over twenty years until 1943. Partly this was because the early concerts were made up of shorter pieces, often by contemporary composers, and it was only gradually that oratorios and the more substantial works of the choral repertoire were introduced, starting with Haydn’s Creation, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Purcell’s King Arthur. Perhaps also this was something to do with the Bach revival that had taken place in Oxford with the formation of the Bach Choir. In the war years, the choir performed the St John Passion once and the St Matthew Passion twice. Be that as it may, on 7 March 1943, George Thewlis conducted the choir’s first performance of Messiah with the Oxford Chamber Orchestra and Isobel Baillie, Eileen Pilcher, Eric Greene and Henry Cummings as the soloists.
The concert was an extraordinary success. Every ticket was sold. Audrey Bates, who was a member of the Society from 1936-88, later recalled:
In 1943, during the 2nd World War, we sang The Messiah in the Town Hall. The Hall was packed and people, queuing to Carfax, had to be turned away. Because of this, we gave a second performance and filled the hall again the next week! Isobel Baillie sang the Soprano solos, as she did on many occasions. (She had a soft spot for our Society and reduced her fees for us!) Her voice was so beautiful especially so in the Christmas passages that it will never be forgotten, nor surpassed.
The reviewers were enthusiastic, and Isobel Baillie was highly praised;
Mr. Thewlis wisely chose soloists with reputations. How beautiful was Miss Isobel Baillie’s singing of the mystery of the Nativity in the aria “There were Shepherds” and the following recitatives! If she emphasised the stillness and mystery of the shepherds scene, she brought pathos to the lovely air of the Divine promise, “He shall feed His flock.”
A repeat performance was given on 14 March, although Isobel Baillie could not appear again. This time the soloists were Joan Taylor, Eileen Pilcher, Edward Reach and Victor Harding. Again, it received a good review as a performance ‘marked by taste and spiritual quality. … The orchestra, led by Mrs. Bernard Gotch, played the pastoral symphony with extreme delicacy, and the accompaniment provided for the entire work was effective.’
It would be fascinating to have a recording of the 1943 Messiah and to know how it sounded. Since the late eighteenth century, performances of the work had moved a long way away from the kind of performances that Handel conducted. It was typically given incomplete, with many omissions, by much larger choirs and orchestras, employing slow and solemn tempi, and, following the example of Mozart in 1789, it was often reorchestrated with instruments unknown to Handel and with new harmonies added. Thewlis’s performance aimed at returning to something closer to Handel’s original scoring and performances. He apparently used the version that Handel wrote for the first performance of the work in Dublin, and he employed the Oxford Chamber Orchestra. The novelty of the approach was emphasised in the concert programme. Sir Hugh Allen, the Heather Professor of Music and the Society’s President, contributed a long note in which he commended the choir for using the Dublin version and excoriated the performing tradition:
No work has ever received so many performances, especially in this country, or received such strange handling by enthusiasts, or been so mutilated with ‘cuts’, or received the dangerous attentions of so many editors and conductors. But it has stood the test of time and triumphed over the indignities which have been heaped upon it by so many well-intentioned but thoughtless enthusiasts. … It is strange that a work so beloved should have received such curious treatment as regards its content and performance as is the case with the Messiah. It is rarely given as Handel wrote it. Today however the Harmonic Society is giving it as Handel intended and we are told that Handel’s own marks as regards dynamic and tempi are being observed and that the scoring is as he made it.
The point was taken up in the reviews, one of which was headed ‘Messiah performed at Oxford given as Handel first directed it’:
It would be interesting to know how many, if any, members of the audience at the Harmonic Society’s concert in the Town Hall, Oxford, yesterday afternoon, had ever before heard “The Messiah” in its entirety. It was given by Mr. George Thewlis and his choir and the Oxford Chamber Orchestra as it was first performed under Handel’s direction in Dublin on 13 April, 1742. Mr Thewlis deserves not only to be congratulated on his enterprise in this respect but on using the composer’s markings. The most showy choruses or dearly-loved arias lost nothing by being given their proper place in this grand work. Its power and beauty were renewed by this performance in its completeness.
Although there had been some earlier attempts, notably by A.H. Mann in 1894 at King’s College Cambridge, to give Messiah performances that were closer to those given in Handel’s day, it was not until the 1950s that John Tobin with the London Choral Society began regular performances which used a revised score with no reorchestrations and initiated a trend for a new approach to the work developed over the following decades. Although we cannot tell exactly how it sounded, Thewlis’s performance in 1943 may therefore justly be regarded as pioneering.
Messiah was chosen again in November 1945 for the Society’s new peacetime season, and thereafter until the 1970s an annual Christmas performance became an Oxford ritual, giving a most welcome boost to the Society’s finances. George Thewlis was to write:
This year was inaugurated the annual performance of ‘Messiah’, chiefly because the public wanted it, but also for financial reasons. The performance of little known works always resulted in a financial loss, but this annual performance relieved us of this worry and enabled us to bring before the public works which would otherwise never be heard.
It is good to think that Oxford Harmonic Choir was in the forefront of interpretation of this ever popular masterpiece.
- Donald Burrows, Handel, Messiah (Cambridge Music Handbooks, CUP, 1991), chapter 5 ‘Messiah in other hands’, pp.47-54
- Jonathan Keates, Messiah: the composition and afterlife of Handel’s masterpiece (The Landmark Library, Head of Zeus, 2017), pp.117-129
- Richard Luckett, Handel’s Messiah: a celebration (Victor Gollancz, 1992), chapters 9 & 10
- Harry Haskell ‘Early Music’, Grove’s Dictionary of Music
- Nicholas Kenyon, Authenticity and Early Music: a symposium (OUP, 1988)
Our next post in a fortnight’s time will tell the story behind the manuscript of Messiah that George Thewlis used for his performances in the 1950s.