Frederick A. Binkholder
Bass Notes: Highlights and History of our Next Program
Frederick Binkholder, Artistic Director of the Capitol Hill Chorale, is well-known for his inspiring programming. He discussed his methods and the upcoming performances of Handel’s Messiah as orchestrated by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The performances will be on March 16 and 17, 2013, at Lutheran Church of the Reformation.
Q: What do you think is special about this piece?
Frederick Binkholder: It’s Mozart! It’s Handel!
Q: How did you come to program the Mozart version of the Messiah?
Frederick Binkholder: Members of the Chorale have asked over the years if we would ever perform the Messiah. I’ve known about the Mozart version of the Messiah for 25 years or more, since I sang it as a singer in St. Louis. It’s been on my mind to program for a long time. I don’t know why, but the Mozart version seems better known in other parts of the country, and not so well known in Washington.
Q: And this was the right time?
Frederick Binkholder: I find when I’m programming I have to find the right frame, the right moment to program a piece. I thought this was the right moment to do this special piece, in part because of the Chorale’s 20th anniversary. Obviously the Messiah is performed very often, usually at Christmas, even though only Part 1 is about Christ’s birth. It’s really more appropriate to perform it during Lent when the events of Parts 2 and 3 take place. That’s why I wanted to program it for the Chorale’s March concert.
Q: How did the Mozart version actually come about?
Frederick Binkholder: Mozart belonged to a musical society headed by a Baron Von Swieten. Von Swieten loved Handel, had the idea, and asked Mozart in 1789 to fill out the new orchestration at a time when Mozart needed the money. At Von Swieten’s request, Mozart made similar arrangements of other Handel pieces, and the orchestration of all these pieces reflected the players that Von Swieten had. For example, they all have new and very Mozartian clarinet parts that didn’t exist in Handel’s original scores.
Q: Can you describe a little about what Mozart had in mind?
Frederick Binkholder: Handel continued to rewrite Messiah several different times in order to fit the voices and the instrumentalists that he had available. In the editions we have now, you’ll see different variants that he wrote. By the time Mozart came along 50 years after the first performance of the Messiah, we had moved from the Baroque to the Classical period and performance practices were different. Mozart wanted to “modernize” Handel’s score. Now it seems strange to people today to think of taking a composer’s work and rearranging it, but it’s actually not that uncommon in musical history.
Mozart was particularly interested in updating the orchestral accompaniment to fit the tastes of the Classical period. He’s added some instruments in the woodwind, brass, and string sections. He’s added some music, though not much – you’ll hear it in the Sinfonia, the overture that starts Messiah – and he deleted some music. He’s added dynamic markings that a Baroque composer wouldn’t have added. He’s eliminated some of the Baroque articulation, using 16th notes to accommodate the larger bows that Classical string players had.
Q: Does doing the Mozart version affect the choices you had to make in performing the piece?
Frederick Binkholder: Absolutely. In the 19th century, the Messiah was performed with bigger and bigger orchestras and choruses, so that you’d have performances with hundreds of musicians. In the 20th century, we had a reaction to that, so that now there is great attention to understanding and presenting music as the composer would have heard it. If I were to do a true Baroque performance, I would use a much smaller chorus than the Chorale. The orchestra would tune to a lower pitch than we do now. I might try to use authentic instruments from the period. Trills and other ornaments would be different. By doing a Mozart version that is reimagined for the Classical period, we authentically get to use a larger chorus; in this case, the 100 voices of the Chorale. I also can lean toward performance practices from the Classical period that are better understood by modern audiences, rather than the Baroque period. We get to use modern instruments. Handel’s original scoring was actually pretty lean. One choice I did make – we will sing it in English rather than the German translation that would have been used when Mozart’s version was first performed.
Q: What do you think Handel would have thought?
Frederick Binkholder: I think Handel would have been pleased that his music is continuing to be performed. As I said earlier, Handel himself continued to rewrite Messiah after the initial performance as a practical measure to fit the needs of new performances. I think he would have approved of other composers continuing to adapt his music to new times.
Q: Any other thoughts for our audience?
Frederick Binkholder: I am very struck by the similarity between the chorus “And with his stripes we are healed” in Messiah and the Kyrie in Mozart’s Requiem. I have to think that Mozart consciously or unconsciously drew from the Messiah when he began composing his Requiem a couple of years later.