Robert King explains how Handel got a 19th-centuy makeover care of Mendelssohn.

It’s often said that Mendelssohn rescued the music of Bach from obscurity, but people are less aware of his interest in Handel. Did Handel need rescuing for German audiences, and why? What was Mendelssohn trying to achieve?

Handel enjoyed a much wider audience during his lifetime than did Bach: their two public profiles could not have been more different. All Handel’s well-documented opera and oratorio performances, not to mention royal patronage and then those large-scale performances of his oratorios that continued after his death, alongside some printed editions, ensured that Handel’s music remained in the public eye well into the 19th century. Whereas to most people, even during his lifetime, Bach was simply a Cantor, an organist who composed, and whose works stayed in manuscript form: the wider musical public knew little of him, and after his death only the cognoscenti continued to keep alive the reputation of his music. In the movement to rehabilitate Bach, and indeed Handel, Mendelssohn was by no means alone, but he was highly influential. In particular, Mendelssohn applied processes which to today’s scholars are standard, but which in the early 19th century were cutting-edge: he tried to get closer to the musical sources, to return to the composer’s intentions. When Mendelssohn was in London in 1829, he got very excited while examining some of the 60 volumes of Handel’s music in the Royal Collection, realising that that available printed scores were often incomplete and inaccurate. It wasn’t easy trying to persuade people to be more faithful to the composer: when Mendelssohn was a few years later asked to contribute to a major Handel edition, he had quite a row with other members of the editorial committee about indicating what was editorial intervention, and what was original. Editorially, Mendelssohn was way ahead of his time.

Playing for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert: Mendelssohn and the Brits were always close

You mention that Mendelssohn was aiming to return to Handel’s original intentions. In what way was he trying to achieve this?

For Israel in Ägypten, Mendelssohn restored movements that were missing from what was then the only available printed score. What is especially fascinating is that Mendelssohn’s 1833 Düsseldorf performance was very much editorial “work in progress”: for instance, as he didn’t have an organ to play the important continuo part, he had to score it into the orchestra, or he would lose great chunks of harmony. So for the recitatives, he utilised the delicious combination of two solo cellos and double bass, and in the arias filled in the missing harmonies with a pair of clarinets. Later in his life Mendelssohn got far closer towards Handel’s original, but it is this wonderful 1833 ‘take’ on Handel that makes Mendelssohn’s work absolutely fascinating, as well as musically entrancing.

How different are Mendelssohn’s attempts at ‘historical performance practice’ to those that would be applied by today’s period practitioners?

180 years after Mendelssohn started his Handel excavations, we know where all the sources and manuscripts are cited and have excellent editions which bring together decades of scholarship. In the 1830s, Mendelssohn was in the musical Wild West, making discoveries, devising editorial processes, deciding how far he would compromise, but in the end, applying the same pragmatic decisions that today’s performers still have to make. If you are a performer, you try to be as faithful as circumstances will allow, but you still must produce a performance. I think of David Munrow in the 1970s, touring the most obscure countries where he had to use upright pianos because there were no harpsichords. The decision was simple: either he toured and made compromises – or there was no concert. That’s an exciting position to be in, and in Israel in Ägypten you see how Mendelssohn overcame a similar lack of facilities.

Handel was never out of fashion although his style became forgotten

What are Mendelssohn’s biggest changes to Handel’s original?

The most obvious one comes right at the start: the addition of a thrilling, pure Mendelssohn overture. Mendelssohn’s father Abraham said it was his son’s finest orchestral work, and indeed, it is hair-raising. So we are immediately thrown into the world of early 19th-century Romantic music, with ringing fanfares mixed with delicious washes of orchestral colour. Significant too is the reordering of movements, the German text, some sensational re-scorings, and throughout, those delicious nineteenth-century orchestral colours. 

Are his interventions all successful, and which do you find the most purely enjoyable?

I absolutely love what Mendelssohn has done. He is a master of orchestration, and the colours and textures he produces throughout the work are a complete joy. We see Handel through the eyes of a 19th-century master. Just as it can be astonishing when you watch a well-known Shakespeare play brilliantly performed in, say, Japanese, here you become totally enveloped by seeing a much loved-work dressed in an entirely new set of clothes.

A ticket for Handel’s original at the Crystal Palace, 1858

What was involved in reconstructing Mendelssohn’s 1833 score?

In the first place, it was locating where the surviving scraps and sources have landed, and then collating them into a new score. Then there was the re-texting into German, using the same edition as Mendelssohn used. And finally, the highly creative (and recreative) part, filling in the missing blanks. There are enough scraps – a few bars of recitative scored out by Mendelssohn, a surviving aria with added clarinets, a couple of sheets of added orchestral parts for some of the big choruses – for me to produce a ‘style bank’. From that, I was able to apply the same style of scoring to all the other recitatives, arias and choruses for which Mendelssohn’s score hasn’t survived. I love composing in the style of others, and at the rehearsals I asked The King’s Consort’s most critical and well-versed musicians to tell me where they thought Mendelssohn stopped and King began: that no-one spotted the switchover points gave me quiet satisfaction that I had done my job well.

Can you give a couple of examples of how 19th-century vocal style differs from Handel’s 18th-century vocal practices – and how that differs from, say what we were used to in the mid-20th century before the HIP movement?

It’s not just vocal style that is so different – everything is changed by the application of 1830s performance practice: listeners hear radical differences in pitch, instrumental timbre, bowing style, rubato, trills, slurring, ornamentation and much more. Everything sounds different. It’s absolutely fascinating and utterly convincing.

Robert King: Artistic Director of The King’s Consort

What are your future plans (and dreams) for the Vivat label?

We have an amazing new series, “Decades”, launching in May, which surveys song across Europe throughout the 19th century. Devised by Malcolm Martineau, it features a veritable “Who’s who” of singers from across Europe. From TKC, next up we have a gorgeous choral disc of more English Romantics. The days of CDs selling enough copies across the world to self-fund extravagant projects are long gone, and every recording nowadays requires funding by generous individuals, foundations and sponsors. Were Vivat’s fairy godmother to appear, waving her magic wand, my wish would be to do what I did in the 1990s for Purcell, completely changing people’s perception of one composer. And the man crying out for such a reappraisal is someone who has always been one of my heroes: we need a period instrument “Complete Mendelssohn”. Every day I hope that someone out there will wave their magic wand for us!

The King’s Consort’s recording of Mendelssohn’s arrangement of Handel’s Israel in Egypt is out on March 17 on Vivat.