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Robert Shaw Conducts Handel's Messiah

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Program Notes

Messiah, a Sacred Oratorio

Composed: August 22 - September 14, 1741. First performance: April 13, 1742, Dublin, Ireland; Handel leading. Performing forces: vocal soloists (soprano, alto, tenor and bass), four-part mixed chorus; two oboe parts, three bassoons, two trumpets, timpani, organ, strings, and basso continuo. ASO recording: Telarc CD-80093 (1983); Kaaren Erickson and Sylvia McNair, sopranos; Alfreda Hodgson, mezzo-soprano; Jon Humphrey, tenor; Richard Stilwell, baritone; ASO Chamber Chorus; Robert Shaw conducting.

Handel's greatest work (and perhaps his least characteristic oratorio), Messiah was the source of his return to popularity in London in his last years, starting with the first time he performed it at and for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital in 1750. Thwarted by the antipathy of London's musical connoisseurs, he premiered Messiah in Dublin during a very successful season in the Irish capital. Even Dublin's acclaim, however, did not soften London audiences to the new work, which was given before meager, sometimes hostile crowds in the customary theater setting, with few performances during the 1740s.

Only the association with the Foundling Hospital, a well-regarded London charity with strong financial backing from King George II himself, was able to break the ice and bring people back to Handel's concerts in numbers. The first Hospital performance was more than sold out, and from then on he found himself once more England's most revered composer. He last led Messiah (with the help of an assistant, for he was by then totally blind) in 1759, only eight days before his death.

Most of Handel's oratorios were composed during the summer, long before their intended performances the following Lenten season, and Messiah is no exception. His notations show that it took him only 24 days - working at a white heat, skipping meals, scribbling, blotting, trying to keep up with the pace of his inspiration - to transcribe and orchestrate the entire work.

"Transcribe" seems a good term since Handel, like Mozart, apparently worked out a composition more or less completely in his head before committing it to paper. In the case of Messiah, he had had nine months since completing his previous major work, and a good part of the time doubtless was spent in mental contemplation and creation.

As Messiah was gestating in his mind, parts of the music that would be included found their way into some chamber duets on Italian love lyrics, which he composed six weeks before beginning to write down the oratorio. The graceful melodic pirouettes of "For unto us a child is born" first saw light with Italian words meaning "No, I will not trust you, blind Love, cruel Beauty!" The grave choral pronouncements of "And he shall purify" share their music with "Life, too, is a flower," and "His yoke is easy" is congruent with "The flower that laughs in the rosy dawn."

Handel was a frequent borrower from the works of his colleagues, an accepted Baroque practice, but no part of Messiah has ever been shown to be adapted from another composer. It is believed, however, that the Sinfonia in Part I, the orchestral interlude with which he marks the holy birth, is his arrangement of some Neapolitan tune played at Christmas time by Italian bagpipe players or pifferari, an assumption he seems to acknowledge by titling it "Pifa."

For Handel, oratorios were to be performed during Lent. Fashionable London's taste for Italian operas having waned, he began producing oratorios (in English) that could be presented without staging during the season when operas and other dramatized performances were not permitted. His Dublin premiere of Messiah was given during Lent, and of his London performances - 23 at Covent Garden and 11 in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital - none occurred at Christmas time.

But although the preponderance of Messiah's text deals with sacrifice and redemption, Part I concerns itself with the prophecies and portents of Christ's coming. Thus there is a sizable portion of the work connected with Christmas, even if Magi, star, and stable are missing. Dublin re-assigned Messiah to the Christmas season only shortly after Handel departed. London maintained the Lenten tradition long after his death; the city's first Christmas performance did not occur until 1791. America's first complete hearing of Messiah came on Christmas Day, 1818, given by the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston.

Analysis of Handel's conducting scores and of press announcements and listeners' accounts reveals that he never arrived at a definitive version of Messiah. Solos were added, transposed, rewritten or even replaced by recitatives on various occasions, and they were often assigned to different voice parts, depending on the soloists available for particular performances. A few years ago in New York City, Thomas Dunn conducted four different Handel versions of Messiah in four successive concerts. Robert Shaw's response to the problem of authenticity was to select one well-documented Handel performance, that of May 15, 1754, and to recreate that one each time in terms of soloist assignments and vocal-instrumental balance, using modern instruments.

- Nick Jones
Program Annotator
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
©1997, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

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Artist Profiles

Robert Shaw

ROBERT SHAW, Conductor

Robert Shaw was Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1967 until 1988 and continued to serve the orchestra as Music Director Emeritus and Conductor Laureate until his death in 1999. During his tenure he built it into a major American orchestra, garnering widespread acclaim through national and international tours and award-winning recordings.

A regular guest conductor of major orchestras in this country and abroad, Mr. Shaw was also in demand as a teacher and lecturer in leading U.S. universities. He founded the Robert Shaw Institute to foster excellence in music making, especially in the choral arts. The Institute's summer festivals in southwest France and later at Furman University in South Carolina attracted admiring attention from the international press and produced a number of recordings from the Robert Shaw Festival Singers. In Atlanta, he performed and recorded with the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers. His highly regarded Carnegie Hall Choral Workshops drew music professionals from across the nation and resulted in a number of important videotapes in the series Robert Shaw: Preparing a Masterpiece.

Mr. Shaw's distinguished career began in New York, where he prepared choruses for such renowned conductors as Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter. In 1949 he formed the Robert Shaw Chorale, which for two decades reigned as America's premier touring choral group and was sent by the U.S. State Department to 30 countries in Europe, the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Latin America. During this period he also served as Music Director of the San Diego Symphony and then as Associate Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, working closely with George Szell for 11 years.

Throughout his career, Mr. Shaw received admiring recognition for his work. His honors include degrees and citations from 40 U.S. colleges and universities, numerous Grammy Awards, England's Gramophone Award, a Gold Record for the first RCA classical recording to sell more than a million copies, four ASCAP Awards for service to contemporary music, the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever awarded to a conductor, the Alice M. Ditson Award for service to contemporary music, the George Peabody Medal for outstanding contributions to music in America, and the Gold Baton Award of the American Symphony Orchestra League for distinguished service, to music and the arts.

Mr. Shaw was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts, and he was a 1991 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation's highest honor to artists who "through a lifetime of accomplishment, have enriched American life by their achievement in the performing arts." He was named Musician of the Year for 1992 by Musical America, the international directory of the performing arts, and during the same year was awarded the National Medal of Arts in a White House ceremony. He was the 1993 recipient of the Conductors' Guild Theodore Thomas Award, in recognition of outstanding life achievement in conducting as well as his contributions to the education and training of young conductors. In March of 1997, the French government awarded him its medal as "Officier des Arts et des Lettres."

Dominique Labelle


Known for the luminous beauty of her voice, her committed stage presence, and the impeccable musicianship she brings to her appearances in opera, concert, and recital, Dominique Labelle has appeared with many of the finest symphony orchestras, including those of Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Minnesota, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Saint Louis, and Toronto, among others, and with such conductors as Charles Dutoit, Christopher Hogwood, Raymond Leppard, Kurt Masur, Nicholas McGegan, Eiji Oue, Seiji Ozawa, and Franz Welser-Möst. Her operatic appearances have included leading roles with Boston Lyric Opera, Canadian Opera Company, Glimmerglass Opera, Minnesota Opera, and Vancouver Opera.

Miss Labelle came to international attention through her performances in Purchase, Paris, and Vienna of Donna Anna in Peter Sellars's production of Don Giovanni (telecast on PBS and released on home video). Her discography includes Rameau Cantatas (McGill Records), Mozart's Mass in C Minor (with Andrew Parrott on Denon), and Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antartica (with Leppard on Koss Classics).

A native of Montreal, Canada, Miss Labelle attended Boston University on a Dean's Scholarship and in the summer of 1988 was a Vocal Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center. She was a winner of the 1989 Metropolitan Opera National Council") Auditions, a recipient of the 1996 George London Foundation Award, and a 1997 Boston University Distinguished Alumni Award winner.

Marietta Simpson


Well known for the rich beauty of her deeply expressive voice, Marietta Simpson is one of the most admired and sought-after mezzo-sopranos on the music scene today. She has sung under many of the world's great conductors, including Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel, Sir Simon Rattle, Charles Dutoit, Michael Tilson Thomas and Gunther Herbig, performing with orchestras such as the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, National and Toronto Symphonies, Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras, and symphony orchestras of San Francisco, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Phoenix, Cincinnati, Seattle, and Birmingham, England.

A native of Philadelphia, Miss Simpson graduated from Temple University and received her master's degree in music from the State University of New York at Binghamton. Temple University honored her in 1994 as a distinguished alumna, and Philadelphia's National Political Congress of Black Women presented her with its Chisholm Award as an outstanding African-American woman in music. Her other awards include Philadelphia's Music Fund Society Annual Award, first prize and a study grant from New York Opera Index, the Stewart Award from Tulsa, the Minna Kaufman Ruud Award, and the George London Award. She was a finalist in the Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions in 1983 and a prize winner in the Naumburg International Vocal Competition in 1989, the same year she won first prize in the Leontyne Price Vocal Arts Competition sponsored by the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs.

Alan Bennett


Lyric tenor Alan Bennett has a diverse repertoire that spans many style periods and includes opera, art-song recitals, vocal chamber music, and oratorio. He has studied voice with Charles Lynam, Paul Elliott, and the late Norman Farrow and is currently a member of the voice faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington. He has performed extensively throughout the United States and in Canada, Europe, and South America, both in recital and with numerous organizations including the Robert Shaw Festival Singers, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, the Oratorio Society of New York, Basically Bach of Chicago, Seattle Chamber Singers, Tafelmusik, His Majestie's Clerkes, the Boston Early Music Festival, the Handel and Haydn Society, Chicago Baroque, and many others. He is also a member of Theatre of Voices, a vocal ensemble directed by Paul Hillier that performs vocal chamber music of all periods. His performances of German Lieder with pianist Leonard Hokanson, along with his interpretation of the Evangelist roles in Bach's Passions, have received wide critical acclaim.

Mr. Bennett has recorded for Harmonia Mundi USA, Nonesuch, Telarc, and Focus Records.

Victor Ledbetter


Rapidly gaining a reputation as a baritone of great range and sensitivity, Victor Ledbetter has been called, "a model of incisive, impeccable vocalism" by the San Francisco Examiner's reviewer. He has appeared in opera houses throughout the United States, Europe, and the Far East and continues to make an indelible impression wherever he performs. The Los Angeles Times advised its readers to "Remember his name."

Mr. Ledbetter has sung Belshazzar's Feast with the Boston Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony; Messiah and Haydn's Harmoniemesse with the Saint Louis Symphony; Messiah with the Orchestra of St. Luke's (under Robert Shaw), the National Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, and Boston Baroque; Hindemith's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd both with the Houston Symphony and with Robert Shaw at the National Cathedral; The Wound-dresser by John Adams with the Dutch Radio Orchestra; and Zemlinsky's Lyrische Symphonie with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. His opera roles include Ford in Falstaff, Marcello in La Bohčme, Germont in La Traviata, Valentin in Faust, Malatesta in Don Pasquale, Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, the Count in Le nozze di Figaro, and John Sorel in The Consul. In 1988 he traveled to Shanghai to sing Scarpia in the Chinese premiere of Tosca.

Victor Ledbetter has appeared in recital at Weill Recital Hall in New York and as part of San Francisco Opera's Schwabacher Debut Recital Series. His recordings include The Bells by Rachmaninov and Szymanowski's Stabat Mater, both with the Atlanta Symphony and Robert Shaw; as well as Handel's Messiah with Boston Baroque, which was nominated for a Grammy award in 1992.


Founded by Robert Shaw in 1967 to supplement community choruses in performance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the ASO Chamber Chorus is made up of the area's finest singers, all of whom volunteer their time and services after selection through a rigorous audition procedure. Many are also members of the larger ASO Chorus.

Although the Chamber Chorus has performed 20th-century works by Stravinsky, Poulenc, Britten, and Bartók, the majority of its repertoire is drawn from music of the great masters of the Baroque era. Highlights of its history include participation with the ASO in Telarc recordings of masterworks by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, and Schubert, an appearance on national television in 1987 to perform Handel's Messiah under Robert Shaw's baton, and several Carnegie Hall appearances with Shaw.


Since its first concerts in 1945, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has grown from a local youth group to become one of America's major orchestras, noted for its impressive list of Grammy-winning recordings as well as the excellence of its live performances. The foremost cultural organization in the southeastern United States, it serves as a cornerstone for artistic development in the region.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs more than 200 concerts each year to a combined audience estimated at over half a million. In addition to its 72-concert main subscription season, the ASO presents light classical concerts, family concerts, annual summer festivals, outdoor summer pops concerts, free concerts in city parks, tours to other parts of the USA, and special programs for young people, reaching more than 50,000 youngsters annually.

The Symphony's annual King Celebration concerts honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are broadcast by National Public Radio. "Building Bridges to the Community" is the orchestra's community engagement initiative for the metropolitan area, whose programs include the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, the Talent Development Program, and young people's concerts. In addition, the ASO has launched a number of ambitious outreach partnerships through the "Partners in Performance" program, taking the orchestra's musicians, individually or in groups, into the lives of school children who otherwise would never meet a professional musician. Through partnerships with Georgia State University's Neighborhood Music Schools program, the Rialto Performing Arts Center, and the Sphinx Competition, the ASO provides expanded performance and educational opportunities for many budding musicians.

Recordings by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have drawn international praise, winning an Audio Excellence Award, Gramophone and Ovation magazine awards, and eighteen Grammy Awards. The ASO records for Telarc, with additional releases available on the Argo, New World, Nonesuch, Pro Arte, Sony Classical, and Vox labels.

The 95-member orchestra is complemented by the acclaimed Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus of 200 voices. In 1988 the orchestra and chorus reached new levels of recognition during their European Debut Tour, performing under the baton of Robert Shaw. More than 300 musicians participated in concerts in cities from East Berlin to London. Yoel Levi led the orchestra on its second European tour in 1991, presenting sixteen concerts in fifteen cities, including London, Paris, and two concerts in Vienna. The ASO was also prominently featured in the Opening Ceremonies of the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996.

Robert Spano is now the ASO's Music Director, in creative partnership with Donald Runnicles as Principal Guest Conductor. Yoel Levi became Music Director of the ASO in 1988 and now is Music Director Emeritus. Robert Shaw, after guiding the orchestra for 21 years, served as Music Director Emeritus and Conductor Laureate until his death in 1999. Henry Sopkin founded the organization (as the Atlanta Youth Symphony) in 1945, presided over its transformation into a fully professional orchestra, and served as music director until 1966.

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In Depth

NPR's SymphonyCast -- Christmas with Robert Shaw

The PT 50 -- Performance Today's collection of 50 essential classical recordings, including Handel's Messiah

Facts About Handel's Messiah -- NPR's Susan Stamberg talks with classical music commentator Miles Hoffman about the glorious holiday tradition of singing Handel's most popular work.

Other Resources

  • Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Web site

  • -- A comprehensive site on Handel