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Program Notes - Handel's Messiah

George Frederic Handel

b. Halle, Germany / February 23, 1685
d. London, England / April 14, 1759

The Passion of Jesus Christ is such a compelling story that it has drawn many of the great composers of history to attempt doing it justice through music. If sheer number of performances is a reliable guide to success, Handel’s oratorio Messiah may be the greatest Passion setting of all.

He was 56 when he composed it, the necessary experience of life and music well in hand. Handel had developed into a true cosmopolitan, a widely skilled composer who wove together the various musical threads of his day into a rich and varied personal style. He began absorbing these influences early in his career. He spent that period first in his homeland, then in Italy.

During the second decade of the 18th century, he settled in England, there to win his greatest fame and influence. One of his reasons for locating there was the current popularity of a type of music with which he was already quite familiar, and through which he had won great success: Italian-style opera. Over the next 30 years, he devoted the major portion of his creative energies to supplying English audiences with that type of piece. London’s music lovers received his operas enthusiastically; Julius Caesar, Ariodante, and Serse proved especially popular. Listeners found Handel’s purely instrumental music very much to their liking as well.

As time passed, fashions in music changed. The English public grew tired of Italian opera’s absurd plots, posturing soloists, and ornate vocal style. Another reason for its decline stemmed from the unending stream of satiric assaults launched against it by such widely read wits as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. To add further fuel to Italian opera’s funeral pyre, English music-lovers were looking to cast off continental influences in favor of entertainment with a uniquely local flavor.

They found what they were looking for on several fronts. One source was comic stage pieces based on the popular melodies of the day, such as The Beggar’s Opera (1728). The most important new entertainment style, however, was oratorio. It represented not only a change from opera, but also a chance for audiences to hear and to relish presentations given in their own language – a powerful inducement to enjoyment on several levels.

Handel, to his great financial distress, caught on to this trend only slowly. He actually had contributed to the decline of Italian opera by throwing together too many pieces too quickly, thus allowing the quality of his output to decline. But once he finally did recognize the direction the musical wind had shifted, he began producing a most successful series of English-language oratorios. They gradually helped him regain his title as his adopted country’s favorite composer.

In structural terms, opera and oratorio have a great deal in common. They both involve casts of solo singers, a chorus, and an orchestra, performing a sequence of recitatives, arias, ensembles and instrumental interludes. But in oratorios there are no costumes, scenery or props, and this type of piece is performed in concert halls and churches, rather than in opera houses. Another important difference lies in subject matter. Operas deal strictly with secular topics; oratorios frequently treat sacred ones as well.

By 1741, the waning of interest in opera had reduced Handel’s financial stature dramatically. It had also left him deeply depressed, and in sore need of stimulation. Relief came during the summer of that year in the form of an invitation from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He offered Handel the opportunity to visit Dublin, there to stage a series of concerts featuring Handel’s music.

Shortly after receiving this request, and in the period of just over three weeks, the composer created a new oratorio, possibly with his upcoming visit to Ireland in mind. Charles Jennens prepared the libretto, drawing on sources from both the Old and New Testaments. Handel took along Messiah, as he had named the piece, to Dublin when he journeyed there in December 1741.

He staged a dozen successful concerts over the following months, then announced with great fanfare that his new oratorio would receive its premiere on April 13, 1742. He cannily arranged for a public rehearsal to take place the day before. It caused a sensation. As a result, hundreds of eager listeners had to be turned away from the official first performance.

Since then, performances of Messiah have been literally countless, its impact incalculable. As English musicologist Charles Burney wrote, some 40 years after the premiere, “...this great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan and enriched succeeding managers of the oratorios, more than any single production in this or any other country.”

The first London performance of Messiah took place a year after the premiere, but nearly a decade passed before it began to find favor with that city’s audiences. Two significant performances were given in Westminster Abbey in 1784, as part of a festival known as a “Commemoration of Handel.” Huge performing forces – possibly as many as 500 musicians – were gathered together for this occasion, setting a standard for large-scale stagings that endures, in many circles, to the present day.

Messiah cemented its popularity in Britain even further during the 19th century, at a time when amateur choral societies, spurred on by the new availability of inexpensively printed vocal scores, began to spring up throughout the land. In 1836, Messiah was the first full-length oratorio which London’s Sacred Harmonic Society took into its repertoire. Other amateur choral groups followed suit, until Messiah became the one piece which virtually all of them performed, usually on an annual basis.

A combination of many elements has won Messiah its enduring popularity. The qualities which have elevated it above those created by so many other composers are the richness and variety of the music, the insightful matching of word and sound, and the consistently inspired evocations of such universal emotions as pathos, serenity, and joy. It is also a deeply satisfying work to perform, be the artists seasoned professionals or enthusiastic amateurs.

Messiah consists of three sections. In the first, the way is paved for the Redeemer’s coming. After His Advent is announced, there follow descriptions of the events of the nativity. Part One ends with the chorus singing “His yoke is easy, His burden is light.”

Part Two describes the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It concludes with the familiar Hallelujah Chorus. One of Handel’s servants is said to have come upon him directly after he had composed this portion, and heard him exclaim, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself!” It was at this point in the oratorio, during one of the early London performances, that King George II spontaneously rose to his feet in a spirit of exaltation. Audiences have traditionally repeated this practice ever since.

In Part Three, the spiritual messages represented by Christ’s teachings are set forth for the instruction and benefit of all. It opens with the moving soprano aria I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, and concludes with a final chorus of Amen.

© 2010 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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