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The 1959 recording by Sir Thomas Beecham and the RPO of the 'Goossens Messiah' has been a landmark in the catalogue of classical recordings for decades. Replete with instrumentation of which Handel could barely have dreamt, it is here dramatically recreated.
The Goossens Messiah, recorded for the first and only time by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Thomas Beecham, has stood as a landmark of the classical catalogue for sixty years. Goossens’ richly orchestrated version is set to reach a new audience thanks to Maestro Griffith and DCINY, New York City’s leading promoter of classical music. They gathered at Abbey Road Studios in London in July 2019, to record the work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and a chorus comprising of sixty members of The Jonathan Griffith Singers, drawn from around the world and sixty members of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. The new recording has captured the score’s vibrant tone colours in thrilling high-definition sound.
'Goossens’ reorchestration of Messiah is quite simply marvellous, powerful, astonishing', comments Jonathan Griffith. 'I believe it strikes the heart of the piece. The Goossens Messiah emerged in the modern symphony orchestra’s heyday, when nobody imagined that Handel would be performed on period instruments. Beecham’s recording, among the top ten best-selling recordings of Messiah ever made, has probably introduced the work to more people than any other. It’s certainly dear to a large number of people and is the only Messiah that many of them know. I realised just how much it means in April 2000, when the sister of my soprano soloist for the North American premiere told her: ‘Finally, I’ve heard the Messiah I know from my recording at home’. She assumed other performances she’d heard, which lacked the tonal richness and number of instruments she knew from Beecham’s recording, had been scaled down because the performing organizations couldn’t afford the full version she was used to! When she heard our performance of the Goossens Messiah, she instantly connected with the work she knew from Beecham’s records. It is my intention that our recording will be as Goossens envisioned the work to be.'
Griffith first learned of Goossens’ reorchestration from a publisher friend in 1997: 'He knew about my passion for large-scale choral works, especially unusual or neglected ones', the conductor recalls. 'He suggested the Goossens Messiah, as recorded by Beecham, might appeal.' Griffith contacted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Eugene Goossens’ harpist sister, Leonie, then in her late nineties; neither knew where the performing materials were or whether they had survived.
In the spring of 1999, Jonathan Griffith received a phone call from the RPO’s librarian. 'You won’t believe what’s on my desk', he said. He’d received copies of the score and parts from Lady Beecham. The orchestra intended to use them for a performance of the Goossens Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall that September. The concert was billed as ‘Messiah for the Millennium’, to be broadcast as the first of BBC World Service’s Millennium Concerts.
Griffith travelled to London for the performance, attended several rehearsals, and was befriended by Pamela Main, Sir Eugene’s companion in his final years and guardian of his estate. 'Her small flat was filled with boxes of Goossens’ music, correspondence and memorabilia', he recalls. 'It turned out that, while Beecham commissioned the orchestration, the rights to it remained with Goossens, so Pamela Main retained ownership. She granted me permission to give the North American premiere of the Goossens Messiah, which I did in April 2000.'
The story of Goossens, Beecham and Messiah reads like the plot of a Robertson Davies novel. It contains intrigue and mystery, arguments about attribution, even a brush with the occult and a suitcase containing ‘blasphemous, indecent, or obscene works’. The latter was discovered in Goossens’ possession in March 1956 by Australian customs officials when he arrived at Sydney airport to resume work as Music Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Although details of what was in the suitcase remain unclear, its contents included over 800 photographs considered to be pornographic by the authorities; they also linked Goossens to his lover, Rosaleen Norton, an artist and occultist branded the ‘Witch of Kings Cross’ in the tabloid storm that engulfed and destroyed the conductor’s career in Australia. Goossens was prosecuted, convicted in absentia and fined, and resigned from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra soon after.
Beecham had long desired to adapt Messiah for modern symphony orchestra but never found time for the job. He correctly assumed that Goossens, struggling with the uncertainties of freelance life in London, would appreciate a well-paid commission. Beecham invited Goossens to mark the bicentenary of Handel’s death with a fresh orchestration of Messiah. He paid his old friend a handsome fee and received in return a score reimagined for modern times. On 19 May 1959, Beecham wrote to Goossens with a few suggestions about the score. ‘You will not forget, I am sure, that ‘Hallelujah’ (that is the first three bars of it) must lead off with the most glorious and crashing noise, everybody going all out—hell for leather!’
The full score was delivered piecemeal so that orchestral parts could be copied and ready for the sessions. Goossens’ instrumentation included, among other additions to Handel’s orchestra, parts for four horns, three trombones, tuba, piccolo, contrabassoon, two harps, triangle, cymbals, and bass drum. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra enlisted a professional chorus of around eighty singers for the recording sessions in June and July 1959; seven weeks later Beecham joined London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus at the Lucerne International Festival of Music to direct the only concert performance given during Goossens’ lifetime. The recording, issued in 1959 on four LPs in a luxury presentation album, soon became a best-seller for RCA Records.
'This commission was Beecham’s way of supporting someone he’d championed as a young man', observes Jonathan Griffith. 'The fee of £1,000 for Goossens’ work on Messiah was quite a sum in 1959, and was meant to help him get over this career-breaking event in Australia. As work progressed, Goossens began to run out of time. He recycled Mozart’s orchestrations in several movements, simply adding harp, and also adopted Ebenezer Prout’s instrumentation elsewhere, which Beecham had used for past performances. It’s clear from the full score, now in the library of the University of Sheffield, that there are additions by other hands. These were of eight movements traditionally cut from Messiah but included by Beecham in an ‘Appendix’ to his recording. But it’s clear that Goossens was responsible for most of the reorchestration.'
In an essay included in the recording’s lavish program book, Beecham claimed that Messiah had ‘all but lost interest for the average concert-goer’, even in England. ‘That this is due to the creation of the modern orchestra—there can be no doubt’. He went on to argue the case for adapting and enlarging Handel’s instrumentation to suit the ‘average public building where music is played [today]’, concert halls with the capacity to seat up to 3,500 people. Neither the conductor nor the program book’s editor mentioned Goossens’ contribution to what was advertised by RCA Records as ‘Beecham’s Messiah’. Reviews and editorial coverage published at the time of the album’s release, however, acknowledged Goossens’ role as orchestrator. With passing time, the recording became synonymous with Beecham. A publicity flyer pegged to the album’s reissue on compact disc in 1992, meanwhile, claimed that Goossens’ orchestration, ‘was not to Beecham’s liking—so he reorchestrated it himself’.
The choral conductor and former King’s Singer, Brian Kay, unwittingly fired the opening salvo in a war of words in February 1999 when he selected Beecham’s Messiah recording as his recommendation for BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library feature. Carole Rosen, biographer of the Goossens musical dynasty, wrote to Gramophone magazine soon after to applaud Kay’s choice but challenge his assertion that ‘the orchestration was partly by Goossens and partly by Beecham’. She argued that Goossens’ hand was behind all but a small part of the work, traditionally cut in performance, which had been reinstated and rescored at the ‘last moment’ by the RPO’s librarian, George Brownfoot.
Lady Beecham, the conductor’s widow, wrote to Gramophone to refute Rosen’s analysis and provide an alternative account. Sir Thomas, she insisted, had been ‘dismayed’ to discover that Goossens had ‘scarcely started work’ on Messiah just weeks before the first recording session, and that ‘the part already written was not to his liking’. The work, Lady Beecham continued, was completed by the composer and arranger Leonard Salzedo, a member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s violins. An undated note from Beecham to Goossens, penned hastily probably toward the end of June 1959, tells a different story. ‘We are working madly on the old Messiah—it is going to sound fine—expect to finish by end of the month,’ wrote Beecham. He enclosed ‘what the lawyers (I believe) call a 'refresher',’ suggesting that the conductor made a fresh contribution to his friend’s finances for his work on Messiah.
Pamela Main played a decisive part in settling the question of attribution. She was alarmed to discover an advertisement for ‘the first UK performance in 40 years of Sir Thomas Beecham’s spectacular orchestration of Handel’s masterwork’, scheduled for September 1999. Main instructed her solicitor to inform the BBC that its ‘Messiah for the Millennium’ should only include numbers from the manuscript score not in Goossens’ hand. Her gambit led to a ruling by the BBC’s Head of Legal Affairs, which stated that the work to be performed at the Royal Albert Hall was ‘in our view, Sir Eugene Goossens’ orchestration of Handel’s Messiah. It is not an adaptation of Sir Eugene’s work by a third party.’
'Beecham commissioned this version to make Messiah available to major symphony orchestras and symphonic choruses', notes Jonathan Griffith. 'The rediscovery of the score means that we can now judge Goossens’ reorchestration in the concert hall. We’ve seen how audiences respond with such affection to his wonderfully inventive and sensitive instrumentation, and want our recording to introduce it to a new generation of listeners.'
Andrew Stewart © 2020
Jonathan Griffith © 2020