Every year (except for the pandemic hiatus of 2020 and 2021) Rosa Barocca, Alberta’s period instrument orchestra, presents one or several performances of Handel’s Messiah. As the artistic director, I use Dorico’s unique features to prepare the music for these performances.
As with many baroque works which become popular during composer’s lifetime, Messiah was revised several times to fit available resources according to different performances, and was also altered purely in hindsight by both composer and librettist to improve perceived flaws in the composition.
So how many versions of Messiah are there? A common number which is often bandied around is nine, and while it cannot tell the whole story, it gives a pretty good indication of the many ways the oratorio was performed while Handel was alive. For example, “Thou art gone up on high” has no less than four different versions.
Nowadays, we take further liberties with various cuts. Many of the shorter choruses of Part II are often excised for practical reasons. The middle sections of the two Da Capo arias, “He was despised” and “The trumpet shall sound”, are also often deleted to shorten the lengthy work.
This year, Rosa Barocca and VoiceScapes opted for a common setting which largely corresponds to the 1750 performance, but with a soprano version of “Thou art gone up on high” in G minor, and the C minor alto version of “How beautiful are the feet” at the request of our countertenor Nicholas Burns. We also cut the B section of “The trumpet shall sound”, as well as the choruses “The Lord gave the word” and “Their sound is gone out”. In the past, we have also recreated the London premiere of 1743 as well as several mix-and match performances. The possibilities are endless!
All of this flexibility can make the life of the librarian rather taxing, with scores (pun intended) of inserts, paper clips, and annotations for every player. “Version mistakes” in rehearsals, and occasionally in performances, as well as unnecessary shuffling of printed material is common.
In 1992, Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra released a three CD set with the intent of making it possible to listen to three different versions of Messiah by programming your fancy multi-CD player accordingly: the Dublin premiere, the London premiere and the 1750 version. Of course, the Dublin premiere version on the CD still used oboes and bassoons, but the concept was attractive. Back then, I thought that having a utopian edition where parts of a chosen version were magically presented in order would be fantastic — and an unattainable musical fairyland.
It turns out that it is now perfectly possible. One can achieve this if the whole orchestra uses tablets; but if one would rather use paper, Dorico easily solves the problem of versioning, as well as several other publishing details which can enhance ease of reading for performers and conductor alike.
I set to work on my own Messiah score soon after Dorico was first released in 2016. The concept of flows seemed to make it a no-brainer. Since then: condensing and figured bass have made the job even easier. Entering the music was a combination of entering manually and scanning, exporting, and correcting. Every year, I make a newly-dated copy of the score.
Let’s start with a snapshot of setup mode (The Elchenreiter logo is just my little inside joke with the musicians!)
Dorico allows each movement to have its own orchestration subset, with parts instruments showing tacets when a player is not used in a particular movement.
There is a Violin III part for the Pifa, which appears in the score and in both violin I and II parts in order to distribute that part among a chosen number of violinists; it also only appears in the Pifa flow.
The player marked “Right Hand” is a realized continuo part for the right hand which allows me to use the existing Bassi part as a left-hand keyboard part.
The player called “Voice” is the only “fudge” in my setup and is used to duplicate recitatives to appear above the Bassi part when needed. In the end, although there are other ways to approach this, I felt it was the simplest solution. It appears only in the Bassi and Continuo layouts on chosen flows.
In the Layouts pane, there is a “Focus score” to help adding yet-unentered movements (not many left at this point!) by selecting a small number of active flows in order to enter the music quickly as all of these flows can at times make note entry slower, although my system handles it pretty well on this particular score.
There is a Continuo layout which includes the composed right hand, and a strings master layout to help with bowings.
The movements: Going with the flows
There are so many flows that I cannot show them all at once. But we can see here how I have arranged the chosen flows in order: the unused flows are dark, and the used flows are blue and have a checkmark. Although reordering flows is a global action, the checking and unchecking of flows has to be done with all required layouts selected so that everyone has the same content. Important: this is best done with a fresh Dorico startup on a single part layout; otherwise, selecting flows can take an inordinately long time. Consider yourselves warned! Note that each flow is manually numbered.
Once that was done, I reformatted all the parts from scratch. Since the content changes every year, page turns, justification and note spacing have to be re-assessed. This may sound tedious, but is actually very quick. I’m generally done in about an hour.
It goes without saying that by preparing the music in this way, Rosa Barocca has to re-enter bowings every year, but we think it is a small price to pay in order to remain efficient.
To condense or not to condense
The answer is to condense, of course!
The trumpets and oboes read better (although I will manually uncondense certain passages), and the I also set the violins to condense. However, I manually uncondensed every movement where first and second violins have different parts. That way, I can have the violin display on a single line for tutti violin arias such as “But Thou didst not leave”.
I can also use manual overrides for the two “hybrid” arias (“O though that tellest and “Rejoice greatly”) which both start with the violins in unison but eventually separate into I and II. However, to prevent the label “unis.” from appearing on every system, I deleted it in Engraving Options under the Condensing section.
The continuo conundrum
Many harpsichordists and organists would rather play continuo from a full score. Although tablets have made this easier than in the past, some movements have a lot of instruments. This means that staff size can become an issue.
Therefore, for Messiah, we often use a rough realization of the figured bass in order to put more music on a page, while keeping the figured bass notation. Figures are scant in Handel’s manuscript, but they are easy to create.
Fortunately, with Dorico, I have many options. I can produce a bassi part with figures by using the checkmark in Layout Options > Players > Figured Bass section. Or, I can realize the right hand myself and include it in a new layout (called “Continuo”) that also includes a figured Bassi part. I can then change the vertical spacing between the staves and change the bracket to a brace, although this has to be done manually for every flow.
While I cannot erase the tenor clef passages (if I did, they would be similarly deleted in the score and Bassi parts), I can locally reduce them to cue size, and even add bracketed figures if I wish. Or I could create another “Voice” player more elaborately and including in another Bassi layout with figures where the voice cues would be an ossia. I’m sure there are other solutions that can be imagined to suit individual players.
However, for the instrumental Bassi part, that existing “Voice” player is great to display notes and words for the recitatives.
If I wish, I can produce the Bassi part with figures by checking the designated box in Layout Options > Players > Figured Bass. Some players enjoy seeing figures as it helps them prepare dissonances and resolutions. Using Duplicate Layout in Setup mode and then checking that box is all that is required in order to create such a layout.
Small (but helpful) additional details
Using tokens, I can also make a title page that includes a table of contents.
To help with this, I have a Word file which includes a list of about 100 ordered tokens so that I don’t have to recopy everything by hand.
Also, since we often do a singalong version of Messiah a day or two after our formal presentations, I find it is sometimes enough to add a small note after the titles of numbers that are cut from the singalong, which are generally slightly shortened performances.
For this, I use the subtitle token and add it to the Flow Heading in the Master Pages pane in Engrave mode.
However, in the case of doing the Dublin or the 1743 version, The singalong will often be a completely separate set in order to avoid any possible confusion. This we have done once, to everyone’s gratitude!
There is no other way for me to perform this great work. Of course, we still uncover small typos, but those have been rare in comparison to the advantages of operating with a new set of material every year.
There are still a handful of rare movements that I have not entered, but everything else is there. This is really something we value, and I get kudos for the parts from the musicians every single year as a result. Of course, I’m their boss, but they would tell me off if they needed to!
Is there something missing on the Dorico side? The only wish I would have would be a Finale-like ability to run two concurrent bar number regions to read both parts and score according to the edition that the choir uses. For example, Bärenreiter restarts “But thanks be to God” and the “Amen” at measure 1. Novello, however, continues the numbering.
Such flexibility would be welcome, but that’s a small inconvenience in an otherwise powerful set of features that Dorico includes to create a solid performing edition of Handel’s Messiah.
Claude Lapalme is the music director of the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra and the founder and Artistic Director of Rosa Barocca, Alberta’s period instrument ensemble specializing in baroque repertoire.