A Messiah anomaly

One of the first things I learned about Baroque vocal music is that a recitative is ‘always’ followed by an aria for the same singer. (The older me, as a teacher, spent several decades preaching that the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ are hardly ever true in this kind of context!) So I was rather baffled when, on encountering Messiah for the first time during my A-level years, I noticed that early in the work the recitative for bass ‘Thus saith the Lord’ was followed by an aria for alto ‘But who may abide’.

The explanation, I eventually discovered, lies in the work’s compositional and performance history. Handel never actually performed Messiah exactly as he wrote it and his first setting of ‘But who may abide’ for bass (as it ‘should’ have been) was one of the sections that went unheard. He did, however, make use of a revised version for bass, before embarking on the comprehensive re-think that produced the brilliant alto version, for a specific star soloist, that we now most commonly hear. Handel subsequently made two different adaptations of this for soprano and there is also a setting of this text as a recitative (for bass). But that may have written by someone else . . .


2 comments on “A Messiah anomaly”:

  1. David Ruddoch

    It’s good that (for whatever reason) Handel departed from the convention that a recitative is always followed by an aria for the same voice. It’s more interesting. And some of the Messiah arias aren’t preceded by recits at all (I know that my redeemer liveth being one) and vice versa.

  2. David Hansell Post author

    I agree – Messiah is a relatively late work so the ‘rules’ had become especially flexible by this time. I also like the way in which ‘Why do the nations’, in the version we shall use, breaks into recitative and then leads directly into ‘Let us break their bonds’ and the duet ‘O death’ leads into ‘But thanks’.

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