Handel: Messiah

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 2015. Ragnar Bohlin conducted, with soprano Sydney Mancasola, mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal, tenor Brian Stucki, and bass Adam Lau, 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, alto, tenor, bass)

DURATION: About 2 hours

Messiah: A Joy and a Quandary

In America, we as listeners most often encounter Messiah at Christmastide. Our brothers and sisters in the United Kingdom, on the other hand, perform Messiah, in the words of one English friend, “whenever they possibly can.” Originally conceived as an Easter piece, the work quickly morphed into one appropriate for all joyous occasions.

Indeed, Messiah has been in year-round performance since virtually the day it was premiered. Like no other piece in the repertory, it transcends its compositional era (the English Baroque). Arranged by musicians disparate as Mozart, Goosens, and The Yellowjackets, Messiah has been constantly adapted to its surroundings. Yet, even in its timelessness, we must not forget that this work was written for a place, a set of musicians, and an occasion with their own majestic world of sound. Tonight, we endeavor to bring you into that world.

Such a journey, however, presents its own set of problems. How do we—a twenty-first-century choral-orchestral ensemble numbering well over one hundred musicians, performing in a 2,000+ seat hall with modern instruments, a higher pitch center, and both male and female singers—capture even a tiny part of the sound of an eighteenth-century Irish orchestra and a chorus of men and boys performing in the composer’s presence? Our performance tonight hopes to answer this question.

In the beginning…

In 1741, Handel penned Messiah under seemingly banal circumstances. Unarguably the most famous living musician in England, Handel initially developed his reputation composing Italian-language operas. Yet, by the time of Messiah’s writing, Handel had stopped his Italian opera output in favor of the more fashionable English-language oratorio (a non-staged, semi-sacred, musical-theatrical form).

Prior to Messiah, Handel premiered five other oratorios (Esther, Deborah, Athalia, Saul, and Israel in Egypt) to spectacular acclaim—university students reportedly sold their furniture to attend these happenings. His collaborator for at least one of these (Saul) was the English librettist Charles Jennens. In July 1741, Jennens sent Handel a new libretto comprising abstract biblical prophesies of the Old and New Testaments, titled Messiah.

On August 22, Handel took up this new work, and, by September 14, he put his final touches to the manuscript and moved on to other projects. That Handel completed Messiah in only twenty-four days would seem miraculous to future minds; to Handel’s contemporaries, however, it would have been commonplace. (Immediately upon finishing Messiah, Handel wrote an even longer oratorio, Samson, in only a month.) One reason Handel completed Messiah so quickly was that he deftly adapted his own prior compositions for movements such as the choruses “And He shall purify,For unto us a Child is born,” “His yoke is easy,” and “All we like sheep.” Each began life as a secular Italian language duet for treble voices. In Messiah, Handel removed Italian words, expanded textures to full orchestra and chorus, added bars of homophonic choral singing, and under-laid Jennens’s English text. Far from being created from whole cloth, Messiah is replete with these self-borrowings.

Messiah’s premiere would not come for another year. In March 1742, Handel began discussions in Dublin regarding a charity concert. For the performance, Handel secured choirs from Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s cathedrals; choral singers numbered thirty-two, divided equally between boys and men. The orchestra was of similar size. Two female soloists sang most of the soprano and alto arias, supplemented by men of the choir on the remaining arias. In total, the forces would have numbered between sixty and seventy, roughly half of what we have on stage this evening. That performance on April 14, 1742 began an avalanche of near-constant performances of Messiah, both during Handel’s lifetime and after.

—Patrick Dupré Quigley © 2016

from conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley

What was it about early performances of Messiah that set the music world ablaze? And how can we, tonight, with such different musical circumstances, achieve even an ounce of that electricity?

First, our use of Baroque-style dynamics and speed should strike your ear as quite different from performances of Brahms or Beethoven. For musicians of Handel’s time, “loud” and “soft” were not on a continuum; rather, Baroque dynamics were surprising juxtapositions between forte and piano meant to grab the listener’s attention. Additionally, the performance tempi were much more fluid than those of music composed after the invention of the metronome. Contemporary accounts cite frequent uses of tempo accelerations and decelerations, as well as frequent “agogic” accents: the manipulations of speed to highlight harmonic or melodic motives.

Second, advances in period instrument-making and playing over the past forty years have given us a considerably more accurate idea of the sound differences between Handel’s orchestra and a modern ensemble. The smaller Baroque violin bow and soft-sounding gut strings (as opposed to metal) required a much lighter touch, lest the bow bend or strings go out of tune. The SFS strings are playing this evening’s performance with very little downward pressure on the bow and strings, making their articulations through bow speed, attack, and manipulation of vibrato (or omission thereof).

Third, in Handel’s time, there would have been vast textural contrasts between assembled musical forces. Tonight, certain moments employ solo instruments for particular lines; for others, full symphonic forces will be brought to bear on the same musical lines. Note the contrast between soloists and full chorus in “And He shall purify” and “For unto us a Child is born,” two of the movements that were born out of earlier Handel duets.

Finally, the musicians will use ample manipulation of written rhythms and notes. Handel based “And the glory of the Lord” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth” on fashionable French dance forms well known to eighteenth-century English musicians and audiences. As such, we are using the French Baroque convention of playing the notes of these movements “inégal,” or unequal, resulting in a distinctly jazzy, swung feeling to the rhythms. Like eighteenth-century musicians, the chorus and orchestra make liberal use of trills not written in the score, and soloists freely improvise upon their lines, particularly at cadences—commonplace in Handel’s time to show a singer’s individual vocal prowess.

Through these additions, subtractions, and manipulations, we attempt to give a hint of what might have caused the excitement at that first performance. Every performance of Messiah is special; it is our hope this evening that we can do our part to continue that tradition. 

(December 2016)