Home   |   About Me   |   Contents   |   Contact   |   Links   |   Acknowledgements   |   Subscribe

24 December 2019

45. Adeste infideles

I was at a performance of Handels Messiah a few weeks ago wherenot for the first time, it must be saidI noticed some surprises in the orchestral accompaniment.  I have grown used to hearing trumpets and drums (derived ultimately from Mozart’s 1789 orchestration) creep into the Wonderful Counselor exclamations in the chorus For unto us a child is born.   After all, youre paying the trumpet and timpani players, so why not get your money’s worth?  I dont like this philosophy, but I get the justification.

It was clear, however, that not just the trumpet players but also at least the sole second violin player as well were using performing materials reprinted from the 1902 Ebenezer Prout edition:  numbers that should have had unison violins (the aria How beautiful are the feet, for example) had instead a fuller string accompaniment.
SOURCE:  cropped screen shot of Prout edition Vln. II part p. 27 (from scan at IMSLP #47447)
The conductor is a friend, so I asked him about this.  They brought their own partbooks.  It wasnt worth fixing.  Particularly when you're operating on just one or two rehearsals, this is certainly efficient:  theyve already marked it (bowings, etc.) and are used to it.  Why fight it for the one or two people in the audience who will grind their teeth?  (When it is a community performance anyway, who in their right mind would expect a purist approach?)

Such textual mash-ups hardly do any damage, at least as far as the vast majority of the audience is concerned.  What was performed was basically Prout lite:  we didnt have the full Prout orchestrationflutes, clarinets, horns, etc.but we had bits of his re-workings running in parallel against (and within the confines of) Handel's economical original scoring.  So what?

I guess the so what? is the principle of conflating editions by letting performers in an ensemble supply their own, independently of each other.  I was treated to an execrable example of this a few weeks later, and it gives rise to my thoughts today.  It was a pops concert by a community orchestra which also featured a local chorus.  The show concluded with a holiday sing-along section.  One of the sing-along carols was O come, all ye faithful (Adeste fidelesa tune which has a fascinating textual history of its own).  When we started a second verseto the text Sing, choirs of angelsseveral sopranos in the choir took it upon themselves to sing the descant.  By this I mean a very popular descant devised by David Willcocks very early in his tenure as Director of Music at Kings College, Cambridge.
SOURCE:  detail of Carols for Choirs (OUP, 1961) p. 89.

It is popular for good reason, as it makes very effective counterpoint out of a sequential figure familiar from another carol, the Renaissance tune associated with the 1901 text Ding! dong! merrily on high.  The earliest source I have located with Willcockss setting is a live recording of (portions of) the 1958 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.  (More on that source later).  Many choral sopranos know this descant off by heart, and I have been only mildly surprised to see it appear even in hymnalsan implicit invitation for the congregation to join in as well.  This descant and its attendant harmonization, and with it Willcockss organ harmonization of the final verse, have become standards the world over.  Indeed, the final verses half-diminished-seventh chord at the word Word shows up regularly in Twitter and Facebook posts at this time of yearapparently as a sort of Christmas money shot.  By way of example:
SOURCE: screenshot from Twitter:  do your own search Willcocks word chord on Twitter, Facebook, or wherever and you'll get plenty of further examples.
Curious as it may seem, there have been instances in history of a descant supplanting the original as the main melody.  This seems to have happened in the case of Puer natus in Bethlehem andfor all we knowmaybe O come, O come Emmanuel as well.  (For discussion of the textual situations of each, see The New Oxford Book of Carols, pp.172 and 45.)  I dont think Adeste fideles is threatened at all by the descant, but Willcockss descant is clearly here to stay:  maybe because it seems to be such fun to sing.  And so the sopranos sang the descant at the concerteven though it was harmonically incompatible with the version the orchestra was playing.  It sounded awful.  And it could be easily fixed with the rehearsal instruction Sopranos:  no descant. If they would cooperate.

On the same program, the choir sang along to Leroy Andersons charming miniature Sleigh Ride.  Mitchell Parrishs very clever lyrics were written for it when it was adapted to be a popular songan extremely popular song, as it happens.  The original key and modulations dont really work for singers, and it showed at this performance.  I love the piece, but here it was marred by trying to have both the song and the original orchestral work together:  Messiah wasnt harmed really by the simultaneous versions, but Sleigh Ride was destroyedjust as was Sing, choirs of angels.  Im not a purist, but without the textual meddling these performances would have been just fine.   Bah!  Humbug!

SOURCE:  scan of 1961 edition cover;
I'm not sure of the date of my copy, but
on the back the printed price is $1.80.
One final note about the Willcocks descant:  I believe it first appeared in print in 1961 in the fantastically successful anthology Carols for Choirs, coedited by Willcocks and Reginald Jacques.  This book has had a host of successors (so that it in reprints it was retitled Carols for Choirs 1), and has spread the Lessons & Carols style and liturgy all around the world, providing texts for others to perform.  Even in its earliest printing, however, the descant is not quite the same as the version captured on the 1958 recording.  In the recording, the trebles sing the text Gloria in excelsis deo at the start of the verse, rather than (with the rest of the choir and congregation) Sing, choirs of angels.  Unfamiliar as it is to me with this text, I have to say that I like Willcockss original version better:  the imperative Sing of the congregation is answered by the angelic voices above.  Oh, well; second thoughts are not always improvements.  Maybe some enterprising choral director will restore Willcockss original version on occasion?  (A word to the wise: just make sure everyone is singing the same version.)