The man who purified Handel’s masterpiece

Centenary performance Watkins Shaw edition of Messiah'Pic shows Watkins Shaw, right, with long-serving Gloucester Cathedral organist and Three Choirs' Festival conductor Herbert Sumison
Centenary performance Watkins Shaw edition of Messiah'Pic shows Watkins Shaw, right, with long-serving Gloucester Cathedral organist and Three Choirs' Festival conductor Herbert Sumison

BEFORE a long list of people began producing editions of Handel’s Messiah “as the composer would have heard it”, there was Harold Watkins Shaw, or Watkins Shaw, as he was known.

Born in Yorkshire, in Bradford on April 3 1911 where he was brought up and lived until 1929 when he won a scholarship to Oxford University, he undertook his ‘purifying’ job on Handel’s famous work in the early 1960s.

With the centenary of his birth occurring in a month’s time, the Sheffield Bach Society’s rescheduled Messiah at Sheffield Cathedral on Monday will be performed in the Watkins Shaw edition.

“His work on Messiah involved demolishing at a fell swoop the editions, instrumentally, that people had been used to for a couple of hundred years,” says Simon Lindley.

But, as the Bach Choir’s distinguished conductor points out, reducing the performing forces in Messiah does not necessarily leave it sounding as Handel would have heard it.

“Music scholars get their knickers in a twist about this. They rant and rave how wonderful it is to go back to nature but at the very end of Handel’s life he was sanctioning and appearing at very big scale performances of Messiah with huge numbers of extra instruments.

“It’s just that when you get back to the original lines in a piece like I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, uncluttered by sugary harmony and other things where the vocal and violin lines speak for themselves, you are aware how perfect the original concept is.

“Although people speak about it being an aria, it isn’t actually. It’s got structures that arias have but it’s really a long extended arioso or recitative with the words completely predominant and the music slotted in to go with the ebb and flow of them.

“There’s very little repetition of words in it. When he does repeat, it’s not willy-nilly. It has a real emphasis: the climax, when he repeats ‘For now is Christ risen,’ twice before she (the soprano) sings ‘From the dead,’ is an absolute masterstroke.”

Talking with Simon Lindley is like confronting an overflowing fountain of knowledge and insight and by now he has warmed to the importance of female singers in Handel’s oratorios.

He says: “Handel very often, in the women’s parts, used actresses who sang. In the male parts he used the real darlings of the London operatic stage, so that’s why you get these complicated arias like the Refiner’s Fire.

“But with the women’s parts, the declamation is terribly important. You might quantify it today it as the difference in singing operatic stuff and what we might call music theatre style, which is even more over the top than opera.”

He recounts the “extraordinary scene” at Messiah’s premiere in 1742 at St Patrick’s in Dublin when Mrs Cibber (Thomas Arne’s sister), gave a “stonkingly good account” of He Was Despised, causing the canon of St Patrick’s to get to his feet and shout, “woman, for that thy sins are forgiven.”

The most celebrated actress in London at time and in a loveless marriage, she had recently caused a scandal by absconding with another man.

Hitting on a new theme, the celebrated choral conductor describes Messiah as a fascinating work, written in three weeks.

He goes on: “Handel was under pressure to get the work finished and in at least three instances, For Unto Us a Child is Given, He Shall Purify, His Yoke is Easy, if not more choruses, he reused the music of Italian love duets that he’d written earlier as a young man.

“You can the find the music that became the cornerstones of Messiah with its Italian words as an appendix to the volume of Brahms vocal duets because he arranged the keyboard part. It’s very interesting, in a musical archaeological sort of way!”

So what did Watkins Shaw do?

“He went back to the source, the Queen’s musical collection now in the Bodleian Library, which includes the foundling hospital conductor’s score. That’s important; it’s got Handel’s notes on it and from the carbons of the pencils you can date the years the notes were written.

“More importantly, Watkins Shaw also had access to the foundling hospital account books, so he knew how many musicians Handel had employed and in what performances and what numbers were in the choir. It opened a new ball game about the different variations and treatments.”

“Yes, it had,” agrees the conductor to the observation that Messiah had become stodgy and over-pious until Watkins Shaw. Lots of the dance elements had been lost and because Shaw lightened the textures, showing it have a freshness, vigour and vitality all its own, even a Muppet could see it was much more bouncy and energised. He took out a musical version of polyfilla!”