Seven questions about Handel’s ‘Messiah’ with Matthew Loucks

by Kevin Birnbaum

Matthew Loucks conducts the 2011 performance of Handel’s Messiah at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Seattle. Photo courtesy Matthew Loucks.

George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is one of the world’s great masterpieces, and one of the most popular choral works ever written. Amazingly, Handel wrote the music for the two-and-a-half-hour oratorio in just twenty-four days, composing for a libretto compiled from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

Performances of Messiah always start popping up around this time of year, and one of the highlights of the “holiday season” in Seattle in recent years has been the outstanding annual performance of Messiah at Our Lady of Fatima Church conducted by Matthew Loucks.

Loucks is the pastoral assistant for liturgy and music at Our Lady of Fatima, where he directs the Men’s and Women’s Scholas, Chamber Choir, and Viol Consort. He holds degrees in music theory, literature, composition, and conducting, and has published several papers in early music journals.

Loucks will conduct Our Lady of Fatima’s Chamber Choir and Baroque Orchestra in a performance of Handel’s Messiah on Sunday, Nov. 18, at 3 p.m. He’ll lead a choir of nineteen singers and an orchestra of just thirteen or fourteen players, all performing on 18th-century instruments.

In terms of manpower, it’s a far cry from many performances of Messiah, but it’s much closer to what Handel envisioned, and the small numbers and intimate setting contribute to a magical musical experience.

Loucks agreed to answer seven questions for the candle about one of the world’s most beloved pieces of music.

1. Why, do you think, has Messiah stood the test of time as well as it has? Why, after 270 years, do people still flock to performances of it?
First and foremost, because it was “inspired.” Handel himself stated that while composing Messiah, “I did see all Heaven open before me and the great God himself.” Messiah is Handel’s most popular work … and for good reason. Not only does it contain some of his greatest compositions, it contains some of the most memorable. You never tire of them because they are so incredibly authentic and sincere.

2. When many people think of Handel’s Messiah, they probably call to mind something like the massive Mormon Tabernacle Choir belting out the Hallelujah Chorus. What are the merits of a smaller production?
There is a direct correlation between the written score and a composer’s intent with regards to performance practice, choral forces (if required), and the use of particular musical instruments. With regards to Messiah, Handel performed the oratorio for more than twenty years with approximately twenty singers and an orchestra of comparable size. By employing Handel’s intended musical complement and the appropriate historical instruments, issues of tempi, articulation, blend, and balance all resolve themselves.

3. How do period instruments differ from modern ones, and what are some of the benefits, and challenges, of using them?
Upon first hearing historical or “period” instruments, one notices almost immediately the “crispness” of the gut strings on the string instruments, providing crispness and clarity to the most complex contrapuntal passages while also being capable of extreme warmth and nuance in cantabile works. The bows (being shorter in length and with less horse hair) also provide the performer with valuable information regarding tempi and articulation. As a rule, composers will compose for the strengths and weaknesses of the instruments (and/or singers) available to them at the time. The pre-Tourte bows require slightly quicker tempi in adagio or largo passages (for example), as if the tempo is too slow, the player will simply “run out of bow.” Allegro passages can be played briskly enough; however, pure gut strings don’t always “speak” as quickly as modern wound strings, and this requires the performer to slow the tempi a bit and use a bit more bow to allow the string to “speak” or project.

The baroque trumpet is quite different from its modern counterpart. The modern trumpet is designed to “fill” the large, modern concert hall, and is fitted with valves allowing it to play chromatic passages and play in all keys. The baroque or natural trumpet employs only the natural harmonic series, and since it is not “tempered” like the modern trumpet, it has the ability to play “pure” intervals as they actually exist in nature in what is called the natural harmonic series. The baroque trumpet is never in danger of overpowering a soloist or choir and is versatile in the most intimate of musical settings.

The harpsichord is a natural complement to the orchestra and the cornerstone of any continue section, providing both clarity of articulation and harmonic shape and contour.

These instruments can be susceptible to changes in humidity and temperature; however, the advantages of their employment in music of the 17th and 18th centuries far outweigh this problem.

4. What is something interesting about Messiah that most people probably wouldn’t know?
That is was premiered in Dublin, Ireland.

5. What is your favorite movement or moment in Messiah, and why?
Tough question … probably Chorus 18, “His Yoke is Easy,” as that is one of my favorite biblical passages (Matthew 11:30).

6. Who are a few of your favorite artists, both historical and contemporary, and why?
I am a Handel and Haydn guy … although I must say, more than anything, I enjoy singing Gregorian chant in its proper and appropriate context.

7. What would be your top five favorite pieces of music for the Advent and Christmas seasons?
1. Veni, Veni Emanuel
2. J.S. Bach: Cantata BWV 140
3. G.P. Telemann: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
4. William Byrd: O Magnum Mysterium
5. See, Amid the Winter’s Snow

Many thanks to Matthew Loucks for taking the time to share his considerable knowledge and insights.

What about you—what are your favorite moments in Handel’s Messiah? What music puts you in the mood to celebrate the Incarnation? Let me know in the comments.

This is the third in a series of Q&As with experts in beauty, truth, and goodness. If you have suggestions for future topics or interview subjects, please email me at kbirnbaum(at)gmail(dot)com.