Handel: Messiah, A Sacred Oratorio

Messiah, A Sacred Oratorio

BORN: February 23, 1685 (as Georg Friederich Händel) in Halle, Saxony
DIED: April 14, 1759. London.

COMPOSED: Between August 22 and September 14, 1741

WORLD PREMIERE: April 13, 1742, conducted by Handel at Neale’s Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin. The soloists included Christina Maria Avoglio (or Avolio), Susanna Maria Cibber, Mr. and Mrs. Maclaine (a London organist and his wife), and various singers from the Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral choirs in Dublin

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST December 1925. Alfred Hertz conducted, with soloists Lorna Lachmund, Belle Montgomery, Paul Althouse, Arthur Middleton, and Warren D. Allen. MOST RECENT December 2014. Jane Glover conducted, with soprano Yulia Van Doren, mezzo-soprano Leah Wool, tenor Nicholas Phan, and baritone Troy Cook with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord (played by Robin Sutherland) and organ (played by Jonathan Dimmock), strings, 4-part mixed choir, and 4 vocal soloists (soprano, contralto/mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass)

DURATION: About 2 hours

The history of Handel’s Messiah, the most loved of classical works with voices and one of the most loved of all compositions, unfolds in five stages.

Stage One took place between 1741 and 1745. This period witnessed the assembling of the word‑book, Handel’s composition of the music, its tremendously successful premiere in Dublin (in a version already much revised), its indifferent reception in London, and its disappearance from the repertory for a time.

Stage Two took place between 1749 and 1759. This period witnessed the successful revival at Covent Garden, which began the series of annual performances in London under Handel’s direction. Handel continued to make changes in the score.

Stage Three took place between 1759 and 1784. This period witnessed the continuing tradition of the annual Messiah, culminating in Westminster Abbey performances in 1784 that commemorated the twenty‑fifth anniversary of Handel’s burial in the Abbey. Those performances, which enlisted 261 singers, 229 players, and three conductors, set the Messiah style for the next century and a half and completed the transformation of Messiah from a sublime “Musical Entertainment” (as Handel billed all his Dublin concerts) to a religious totem.

Stage Four took place between 1784 and approximately 1960. These are the years that demonstrated the truth of art historian Leo Steinberg’s observation that interpretation proceeds “independent of the object interpreted.” Mozart's beautiful distortion of Messiah appeared in 1789 and was followed by many other editions that were distortions only. The basic assumption of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth is that Messiah was solemn and dark brown.

Stage Five encompasses the last fifty years or so—During this time we have witnessed the return to the presumed letter and spirit of Messiah as it was given under the composer’s direction. Tempo, articulation, embellishment of the written notes, weight and color of sonority, all contribute to this. In this country, this change was first wrought through influential performances by Alfred Mann, Thomas Dunn, and Robert Shaw, and the important recordings by Adrian Boult, Hermann Scherchen, Colin Davis, Shaw, and Charles Mackerras.

A physician who met Handel in Dublin said that “with his other excellences [he] was possessed of a great stock of humor; no man ever told a story with more. But it was required for the hearer to have a competent knowledge of at least four languages: English, French, Italian, and German; for in his narratives he made use of them all.” (He also swore fluently in all four languages, plus Latin.) His music was similarly polyglot. He had his first training in Halle and his first job in Hamburg, after which he spent almost five years in Italy. Having taken a position in Hanover, he found himself much drawn to England, which he visited in 1710 and where he settled in the fall of 1712. Winton Dean points out Handel was “by training and inclination primarily a composer for the theater”; his chief efforts in his new country, where he was naturalized in 1726, were in Italian opera, though he quickly found himself involved as well in the world of music for religious and state ceremonies.

The British public was in fact beginning to tire of Italian opera, though Handel was amazingly stubborn about ignoring that. He fell into his new calling as an oratorio composer by accident, and the backstage hero in this development was Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London. This is what happened: To celebrate Handel’s birthday in 1732, the Children of the Chapel Royal mounted a production of Esther, a masque based on Racine and first performed in 1718. It pleased so much that plans were made for a series of public performances at the King’s Theater. This was when the Bishop intervened. The theater, as far as he was concerned, was a site of sin and not a fit place for the presentation of a work based on the Bible. The upshot was that Esther was given in concert as an oratorio. This genre was then unknown in England, but the public took to it at once. Over the next ten years, Handel composed eight such works, including Messiah and Samson.

Handel arrived in Dublin on November 18, 1741, and stayed nearly nine months, until August 13, 1742. He had gone at the invitation of the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Devonshire. Handel’s music was known in Dublin, and popular; presumably the Lord Lieutenant promised patronage, assured the composer of success, and requested a new work to be presented for the benefit of some of the major Dublin charities, Handel being famously generous. Handel presided over performances of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Acis and Galatea, the Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, Esther, Alexander’s Feast, the opera Imeneo (but in concert), a good many concertos along the way, and to climax a successful season, Messiah.

The first Messiah performance was given for relief of jailed prisoners, and for the support of a hospital and a charitable infirmary. A large crowd being expected, the concert announcement requested “the Favour of the Ladies not to come with Hoops this Day. . . . The Gentlemen [were] desired to come without their Swords.” Some days later, Faulkner’s Dublin Journal reported this of Messiah: “The best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring, crowded Audience.” After a public rehearsal, the Journal said nothing less than that Messiah “was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard.”

London, on the other hand, did not think much of Messiah. Handel gave it three times in March 1743 and twice more in April 1745. Both seasons it was billed as The Sacred Oratorio, Handel fearing to give offense by a title explicitly tied to the New Testament. The small number of performances and the failure of the publisher John Walsh to issue an album of favorite airs suggest that the work did not please.

In March 1749, Handel revived Messiah, calling it by its proper name, and at last the work became established. Thereafter it was given every season at Covent Garden, the scene of the 1749 revival, and on May 1, 1750, Handel conducted the first of what became his annual benefit performances for the Foundling Hospital. By 1759, Messiah was sufficiently popular to warrant three performances at Covent Garden. At the third, on April 6, the composer, now blind and nearly crippled by a succession of strokes, made his last public appearance. He took to his bed that night and died eight days later.

The compiler of the Messiah text was Charles Jennens, a Leicestershire squire whose name first enters the Handel chronicle in 1725 as one of the subscribers to the score of the opera Rodelinda. His own literary talents were not considerable, but his Messiah is one of the great achievements in Christian literature. Handel himself will surely have taken part in preparation of the book, but we do not know the extent of his contribution. Jennens imbues the presentation of the messianic idea with depth and mystery by using for the most part the words of prophet and psalmist. Sometimes he adds comment from the epistles, and Part Three, whose subject is the conquest of death and the resurrection, is drawn almost entirely from the New Testament. The familiar verses from Luke that tell the nativity story in Part One are especially touching because, as the only direct narration, they are so different from all that surrounds them. (And the nativity story is preceded by the purely orchestral “Pastoral Symphony,” which Handel titles Pifa, indicating it should suggest the sound of pifferi, or shepherds’ pipes.) Handel had a beautifully shaped libretto to work with, and he took it on with the relish and skill of a great master of musical theater.

Handel’s resources are simple in the matter of the sound of Messiah. He used voices in what are now the standard four registers of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, though in some of his performances he added an extra level of differentiation in the arias by distinguishing between boy soprano and adult female soprano and between male and female altos (his male alto soloists were castrati). His orchestra consists basically of strings, with oboes and bassoons providing a reinforcement in the choruses, and with harpsichord and organ to help fill out the harmony. The only special resource is the pair of trumpets and the kettledrums. Even within his string group, however, Handel gets diversity by using just a group of soloists much of the time, for example in most of the arias and even for the beginnings of most of his choruses. With his trumpets and drums he is wonderfully economical and, as a result, miraculously effective. We first hear trumpets a bit more than two‑thirds of the way through Part One in the chorus “Glory to God,” but “from a distance and rather quietly.” Their next appearance is in “Hallelujah!” but even there Handel begins with solo strings, moves to the full string section with oboes and bassoons after the voices come in, and holds the trumpets in reserve—and the drums for their first entrance at all—until after the first proclamation that “the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.” When at last these emblems of glory do strike in, the impact is more thrilling than most of what has been achieved by more glamorous orchestrators. (George Bernard Shaw wrote that the English custom of standing for the “Hallelujah!” chorus is the nearest sensation to the elevation of the host known to English Protestants. The custom was begun by King George II at one of the first London performances of Messiah. When the King stood, everyone had to stand. The conductor Robert Shaw suggested that the King’s rising was caused not by religious or musical emotion, but by his failure to realize how close the next intermission was.)

During the fourteen seasons of Messiah performances under the composer’s supervision, the score underwent substantial changes. Over the years pieces were shortened or lengthened, eliminated or added, recomposed entirely, transposed into other keys or for other voices. Most modern conductors and editors (including Ragnar Bohlin) treat the score with its variants as a sort of kit from which to build an edition of their own.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.