After the unexpected and overwhelming success of the Harmonic’s first performance of Messiah in 1943 it soon became an annual event for the choir and ‘an Oxford “occasion” for which the Society was best known’. The 1943 performances were in Lent but thereafter it was usually performed in the run-up to Christmas in the Town Hall on Sunday afternoons with ‘Tea and Refreshments obtainable in the long interval’.
After the performances of the Dublin version of Messiah in 1943 (see our previous post), the choir’s conductor George Thewlis kept up a similar approach to performing the work. In his manuscript list of the choir’s performances (now in the Bodleian) he wrote under the heading of the 1946 Messiah: ‘These performances of ‘Messiah’ were complete ones with the original Handel accompaniments.’ It was much harder in the 1940s and 50s to put on such performances, as the readily-available accurate scores that we enjoy today by Watkins Shaw and others lay in the future, and far less was known about all the different manuscript sources and the complex composition history of the work. We don’t know exactly how Thewlis coped with the problems of editing and copying for his performances, but we do know about one source that he employed. From 1954 to 1960, the Messiah programmes contained a note by him, stating that the performance was based on a manuscript which he owned:
This … manuscript came into my possession about 1940, and the performance to-day is edited from it. The date of completion of the MS. is 1766, one year before the first full score was printed. It contains all the alterations and additions made by Handel between his first performance in 1742 and the printing of the full score after his death, and so may be considered the final draft of the work.
Thewlis states that this manuscript ‘was written by Thomas Harris, uncle of the first Lord Malmesbury.’Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading