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Messyah

December, 2017

Program Notes by Sanford Dole

In 2008, when I was surfing the Internet, researching possible programming ideas for Sanford Dole Ensemble, I stumbled across a mention of Messyah. The odd spelling of a work that I am very familiar with caught my eye—I have sung over 100 performances of Handel’s great masterwork Messiah over the years. The link took me to Paul Ayreswebsite, where he had posted recordings of a few of the movements of this work in progress. I was captivated by the charm and wit in how Ayres had re-conceived Handel’s original and was eager to learn how it would play to an audience. So I arranged to present the U.S. premiere of the 27 existing movements that Christmas. It was such a hit that the SDE Board of Directors decided to commission him to complete the piece. The following year we flew him here to attend the premiere at the SF Conservatory of Music. Again, it was hugely successful.

Eric K, director of Redwood Symphony, was in the audience that evening and has secretly wanted to resurrect this piece ever since. Finally he approached me this year and asked if perhaps Bay Choral Guild might partner with Redwood Symphony to mount a production. When I approached Paul Ayres about it he mentioned that, in fact, there were still a few recitatives and two arias that he had never completed. So BCG and RS together have commissioned these last sections and are pleased to present the culmination of a project, 20 years in the making, to “re-imagine” every bit of Messiah at these concerts.

Here is how Ayres explains what is going on:

Each movement from Handel’s oratorio that I have re-arranged is treated in a different way. Sometimes there are changes to metre and rhythm, and sometimes the harmony or text has undergone a transformation. Some movements have had their essential elements distilled into a few moments’ intensity, and some musical ideas have been expanded and developed along startlingly tangential lines.

You can learn more about the composer’s motivation in the letter that follows these notes.  Let me add that this is a serious and loving tribute to Handel’s genius, not simply a spoof. Yes, there are comedic moments—feel free to laugh!—but these are mostly in appreciation of how music from the 18th century can be updated and morphed into other styles. When asked about this piece I usually tell people that Messyah takes the melodies and forms from the Baroque and treats them as if Handel were alive today and was conversant in all of the musical styles that have developed since (and before) the Baroque. These include jazz, gospel, spoken word, Anglican chant, and flash-mobs, among others. It’s a “messy” version of Handel, so we pronounce it Messy-uh.

I hesitate to give a lot more detail, lest I ruin all the surprises. However, I think it is worth describing some of the techniques in Ayres’ compositional toolkit. Each of the 51 movements is approached independently. All of Handel’s original melodies are present in varying degrees of clarity. Sometimes the original melody of the soloist or chorus remains intact, but the accompaniment has been altered or replaced entirely, as in And with his stripes. Ayres adds the chorus to the alto aria Oh thou that tellest, turning it into a chorale prelude. In the first tenor aria, Comfort ye, note how the accompaniment has shifted over a beat so that the solo part doesn’t quite line up the way we are used to.

Some of my favorite moments are when Ayres changes the meter. The beloved soprano solo Rejoice greatly is now in 7/8, which gives it a very jaunty affect. It is styled as a jazz trio with a trumpet obbligato and drum set! How beautiful are the feet is now in 5/8. The Hallelujah Chorus, originally in 4/4, is now scored for double choir and is in 3/4. It’s quite challenging but very fun. And then there is All we like sheep have gone astray, where all kinds of rhythmic alterations happen as the parts go astray.

Another technique, the canon, appears in Then shall the eyes of the blind. A simple soprano recitative in the original, Ayres now has the women of the choir divide into four sections and sing the melody of the recitative metrically in canon (like a round). Perhaps the most endearing use of this form is in He shall feed his flock. Here Ayres sets up a Bach-style accompaniment, over which three soloists sing the original melody in canon. It’s sublime!

One of the obscuring techniques is inversion. The final section of Part I, His Yoke is Easy, is sung upside down. That is, Ayres has inverted the theme so that the notes go in the opposite direction from the original. It sounds familiar but not familiar at the same time. This same technique is applied to the final Amen.

Ayres also takes the opportunity to paint the text more vividly than Handel could do within the confines of the Baroque idiom. For example, Surely he hath borne our griefs starts out like Handel, but moves to a fairly modern and poignant dissonance on the word “wounded.” In All they that see Him laugh him to scorn, the chorus accompanies the soloist with a jagged “ha-ha” ostinato, and taunts with spoken text. In Let us break their bonds asunder, Ayres literally breaks up Handel’s tune note by note into multiple voices and octaves, in a way that he admits is intentionally impossible to sing accurately.

Some movements, such as Lift up your heads, Why do the nations, and If God be for us, are delightfully condensed. And Worthy is the Lamb is abruptly cut short as the seventh word of the text inspires Ayres to take a sharp left turn into William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. There are several other non-Messiah musical references scattered throughout the work as well—see how many you can spot!

There is so much to absorb. At each new section the listener is tasked with recalling the original and then processing how this version is different. At the same time, one can simply sit back and enjoy all the folderol without having to analyze it too closely. There is something for everyone here. We are excited about taking you on this journey of discovery with us. Enjoy!

A message from the composer

It has been nearly 20 years in the making, and I’m so delighted that Messyah, my re-imagined version of Handel’s Messiah, is now complete! All 51 movements of the original oratorio now exist in new forms (and some have alternative versions I and II, too). What a joy it has been for me to create this score. Whether you are familiar with Handel’s music or not, whatever religious understanding you may or may not find in the Biblical texts, whatever your musical preferences and cultural background, I fervently hope that Messyah will delight, or move, or provoke, or entertain, or console, or amuse, or challenge you, or speak to you in some new way. Maybe even “more than one of the above”.

Thank you to Sanford Dole and Eric K, directors of the Bay Choral Guild and Redwood Symphony Orchestra, for making this possible, and for believing in the project. My gratitude also to all the performers for their talent and commitment.

Several people have asked why I feel there is a need to re-write one of the best-known and best-loved works in the entire classical music canon. There is no need. I just wanted to do it. (Actually I did once say, to a group of musicians at a rather conservative institution, that I was re-writing Handel’s oratorio because obviously he didn’t do a very good job first time around. Stunned silence around the table. “Only joking,” I hastily added.) Every time a piece of music is played live, it is slightly different, so in a way Messyah is just rather different-er than most of the Messiahs one hears. Compare the sound of Beecham’s 1957 recording with William Christie’s of 1994: we can tell that it’s same piece of music, but what a huge difference in sound and character. Now, if one can alter almost all aspects of a written piece (dynamics, tempo, instrumentation, phrasing, language) it seems but a small step, and not at all revolutionary, to change some of the notes, too. Handel’s oratorio has already been re-arranged many times, not least by the man himself, who adapted the work for new soloists and different occasions—Christopher Hogwood suggests that there are 19 versions by the composer. Then there’s Mozart’s orchestration, and other more grandiose scorings throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In recent decades, there have been many new approaches: the easy-listening Young Messiah album (1976), A Soulful Celebration by Quincy Jones and colleagues (1992), West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Carnival Messiah (2007), Messiah XXI with Gladys Knight, Roger Daltrey, and Chaka Khan (2006). Neil Diamond recorded the Hallelujah Chorus on his Christmas Album II (1994), on whose album sleeve both Hallelujah and Joy to the World are credited as “Trad, arranged Neil Diamond”—poor old Georg is not even mentioned. All this goes to show how Baroque music, in general, is extremely adaptable and resilient. We can enjoy Bach on Moog synthesizers, or in Swingle Singers arrangements, just as much as the myriad “authentic” or “straight” versions that are available.

I really love Messiah, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s because I love Messiah that I want to change it. Is that possibly true in our human relationships, too, I wonder? Those we don’t love we ignore to get on with whatever they’re doing, but the more we love, the more, paradoxically, we try to change. In fact, we can’t “be involved” without changing the object of our affections. Isn’t this something we learn from quantum theory—we can’t, at the smallest level, observe reality without our very observation affecting what we see? Disclaimer: these are rambling thoughts of a composer-arranger, and it’s highly likely I’m wrong with the scientific theory, let alone the cod-relationship guidance. Way out of my depth here!

—Paul Ayres, November, 2017