Shepherd of Israel, who by a dream guided your servant Joseph to embrace your promise of salvation: lead us in the way of grace and peace, so that we may bear your promise into the world.
Proposed collect for the Fourth Sunday in Advent
Anglican Church of Canada – 2014
Probably the first time I heard Messiah was a CBC broadcast in the early 1950s. There’s more than a good chance that it came from Massey Hall, conducted by Sir Ernest MacMillian with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. And again I’m just guessing but given the tradition of the time Lois Marshall would have been the soprano soloist. The rest I could only guess at: it may well have been the performers captured to disc in 1954 by RCA.
And if there is any doubt that recording (long out of print) shows that Sir Ernest was having nothing to do with the “authentic practices” style that was just starting to emerge. ( Though it should be noted that Sir Ernest did use a harpsichord for the recitatives on the recording – and at the keyboard was Greta Kraus, one of the great harpsichordists of the time.) His forces are large – the Choir numbered well over 100 voices – and the orchestra could have just as well served for any of the late romantic composers. The soloists, Marshall, Mary Palmateer, Jon Vickers and James Milligan, are all exceptional voices but there is a certain measured heaviness to their delivery. Some of that heaviness may be the result of Sir Ernest’s tempi – it is reverential to the point of adding almost a minute to every piece when compared with today’s lighter period performances. But it is just as much a “period” performance as anything I have posted in the past three Sundays – the period being the mid-1900s.
Bass James Milligan‘s The People that Walked in Darkness certainly stressed the darkness – of tone and pace. Sadly Milligan’s career was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 31 – only four months after his much praised debut as the Wanderer at Bayreuth in 1961.
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
Despite the size of the TMC what I find astounding is the diction – though perhaps that is to be expected in a choir trained in the English choral tradition. Here the tempi set by Sir Ernest seem more the measured phrases of a prophesy rather than the joyful celebration of the Messiah’s birth.
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
One of the glories of Messiah is that for all the iterations that it has gone through the wonder of Jennens’ libretto elevated by Handel’s music continues to move us almost three hundred years after it’s creation.
Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit [taking the bulk of the box office] in Passion Week. I hope he will lay out his whole genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.
Charles Jennens to his friend Edward Holdsworth
July 10 1741
On this day in 1522: Siege of Rhodes: Suleiman the Magnificent accepts the surrender of the surviving Knights of Rhodes, who are allowed to evacuate. They eventually settle on Malta and become known as the Knights of Malta.