Handel's Messiah: The First Measure

Listen to the following interpretations of the first measure of the first section of Handel's Messiah:

Double-dotted, note extended / Trevor Pinnock


Double-dotted, with silence before eighth / Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra / http://www.emusic.com/album/10901/10901260.html

Double-dotted with ornamentation / Masaaki Suzuki, Bach Collegium Japan


As notated (no double-dot) / Hermann Scherchen, Vienna State Opera Orchestra

Vinyl recording. “original Dublin version (1742)” on cover


The Double-Dot Convention: Yes or No for Handel?

The double-dot convention in essence calls for the duration of notes to be performed differently than they are notated. Simply put, let's assume we have a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note. In modern convention, a dot (augmentation dot) placed after a note means one should add to the note half its value. So a dotted-quarter note should be held for a duration of a quarter note plus an eighth note, and the following eighth note is played for its normal duration. However, according to the double-dot convention, sometimes called the French style, the eighth note would be reduced to a sixteenth, or even a thirty-second, meaning that the augmentation dot is conceived of as a double (or even triple) dot, taking away time from the eighth note. Whether the dotted quarter is played for the duration of the implied double dot, or whether there is a short rest, the effect on the eighth note is the same—it is shortened.

Musicologists differ on whether the double-dot convention is applicable to Handel. In Handel's Messiah: A Critical Account of the Manuscript Sources and Printed Editions (London: Cassell & Company Ltd, 1969), John Tobin includes a chapter on "Style in Performance" and devotes a section of that chapter to "The Double-Dot Convention." According to Tobin, the double-dot convention was not strictly applied in all cases. An exception would be in cases where "music of a tender mood does not accord with the defiant effect of dotted notes" (pg. 88). As for the opening notes of Messiah, Tobin is unclear whether or not these belong to a tender mood, and thus he allows room for individual interpretation, though he personally favors the regular note values since "the mood of this music is reflective" (pg. 89).

Much more aggressively opposed to the double-dot convention applied to Handel (and others) is Frederick Neumann, who has written volumes on issues of baroque ornamentation and related matters. The conclusion to one of his many essays on the subject suffices to capture the "tone" of his argument:

Indeed, for the period from Lully to Rameau, the so-called French style is essentially a legend, and its first formulation by Dolmetsch is an invention which has been wrongly taken for discovery.

When we play the overtures, sarabandes, chaconnes, etc., of Lully, Rameau, Handel, and Bach, it is a mistake to deprive them of their majestic dignity in favor of the frantic style of jerks and jolts. In any case, for many listeners a prolonged series of such jerks and jolts can be rather irritating. Others might find such a style stimulating, perhaps because it reflects the nervous tensions of our age; they have the privilege of their taste, but they must cease the claim of historical authenticity.

Frederick Neumann, "The Dotted Note and the So-Called French Style (FN1)," in Essays in Performance Practice (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982), 98.