MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Facelift for Handel’s Messiah

Sir Eugène Aynsley Goossens

Sir Eugène Aynsley Goossens

For the Handel bicentennial in 1959 (200 years since George Frideric’s death, that is), the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham proposed giving Messiah a face lift. In a rather bizarre essay, he argued that advances in the sphere of orchestral music had so shifted public taste that audiences were no longer willing “to tolerate a collection of voices singing…with little or no relief from the orchestra” for the duration of a full-scale piece. Beecham commissioned Sir Eugène Aynsley Goossens (1893-1962) — his younger (and recently knighted) assistant, who was also a composer — to re-orchestrate the entire score for a fee of £1,000.

Goossens came from a renowned family of musicians that had migrated from Belgium to England. Beecham jump-started his conducting career, and Goossens eventually developed into a famous and influential figure (especially as a new-music champion). Noël Coward even name-checks him in his lyrics for “Russian Blues” (“My heart just loosens when I listen to Goossens”). A series of globe-trotting posts kept him at the helm of American orchestras for over two decades. He then moved on to Australia to lead the Sydney Symphony and helped found the city’s new opera house.

But just a few years before Goossens’ former mentor came calling with his Handel project, a tabloid scandal caused an abrupt fall from grace for the esteemed maestro. The precise details remain murky, but they involve a suitcase of erotic materials that linked Goossens to his lover Rosaleen Norton, an Australian occult artist and practicing witch (the so-called “Witch of Kings Cross”).

Rosaleen Norton (the "Witch of Kings Cross")

Rosaleen Norton (the “Witch of Kings Cross”)

A guilty plea for importing “blasphemous, indecent, or obscene works” led to a fee, and Goossens had to resign his positions. The made-for-tabloid scandal later inspired the play The Devil is a Woman by the Sydney-based writers Mandy Sayer and Louis Nowra, Onez Baranay’s novel Pagan, and even an opera (Eugene and Roie by the Australian composer Drew Crawford).

The whole affair sent Goossens’ career into a nosedive. He spent his final years back in England, where he prepared his Messiah score: 364 pages of 30-stave manuscript paper that dwarfed Handel’s original autograph of 259 pages. A team of five copyists clustered nearby, madly scribbling away to meet Beecham’s deadline.

Even though the project was conceived to enhance performances in large concert halls, Beecham conducted a single live account (at the Lucerne Festival, on 12 September 1959). It was actually his best-selling studio recording (for RCA) that won this new version of the oratorio an iconic status. The first public performance of the reupholstered Messiah in the UK didn’t happen till forty years later, at the Proms, where it was billed as a “Messiah for the Millennium.”

In the interim, Goossens’ central role as the orchestrator of this version was glossed over. Carole Rosen, an authority on the Goossens family, refutes claims that a dissatisfied Beecham had himself retouched most of the orchestration. “Apart from a few passages,” she argues, “the whole of the rest of the work as recorded by Beecham was orchestrated by Sir Eugène Goossens.”

The basic premise behind retrofitting Handel’s score — in this case, to “modernize” it by using an enlarged, late-Romantic symphonic ensemble — would nowadays of course be taboo. Yet Messiah‘s long, rich performance tradition in a sense entails a series of revivals that did precisely that.

For his own annual revivals, the ever-pragmatic Handel frequently tailored the score to adapt to particular performers and venues (his revival of 1751, for example, used a boys’ choir for the treble voices). Mozart introduced the work to Vienna audiences in 1789 by clothing it with a full complement of classical woodwinds. A tendency toward expansion snowballed in the following century. Festival performances reached circus-size proportions, featuring choruses sometimes numbering in the thousands.

Despite its reputation for being “over the top,” the Beecham/Goossens edition was intended as a middle-of-the-road approach in the face of some truly wayward distortions. “If Handel is to be brought back into popular favor,” Beecham declared, “some reasonable compromise must be effected between excessive grossness and exaggerated leanness of effect, and this is what has been aimed at in the present version.”

To audiences who have absorbed the insights of the early-music movement in the half-century since, the jingling triangles in “For Unto Us” or march-band cymbals and piccolo in the “Hallelujah” Chorus probably sound like the definition of excess. Many would reject it out of hand, more or less along the lines of anti-Regie operaphiles who are disgusted by interventionist stage directors. Yet it’s too dismissive to simply write off the Beecham/Goossens Messiah as a perverse exaggeration or a noisy showboating at the expense of a pristine original.

Listened to with a less-judgmental attitude, it reveals a fresh take on over-familiar music. After all, Goossens’ approach wasn’t merely to “pile on” sonorities. Flowing harp accompaniment, pizzicato strings, a fortress of brass, and brightly chattering woodwinds cause us to listen to the tunes and counterpoint we know by heart from another perspective. The Goossens Messiah reminds us that a genuine classic is not an immutable, tamper-resistant object. Its vitality comes from its inexhaustible capacity to surprise.

(C)Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: conductors, Handel

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