Handel: Messiah

Messiah, A Sacred Oratorio

GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
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 2016. Patrick Dupré Quigley conducted, with soprano Lauren Snouffer, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, tenor Zachary Wilder, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and organ, strings, 4-part mixed choir, and 4 vocal soloists (soprano, alto/mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass)

DURATION: About 2 hours

George Frideric Handel was at heart a man of the theater, whether the opera stage or the “ecclesiastical theater” of the oratorio. He infused everything he wrote with drama. That’s one of the qualities that makes his music so memorable: His arias, vocal ensembles, and choruses, not to mention his concertos, sonatas, and sinfonias, contain emphatic turns of phrase that engrave themselves on the mind. In an age that valued adherence to Classical standards and, by extension, did not disdain a certain interchangeability of style, Handel exhibited brash independence of musical character. In his mature works, he rarely sounds like anybody else. “Handel understands effect better than any of us,” wrote Mozart, one of his dedicated admirers. “When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.” Other qualified listeners concurred. When asked to name the all-time greatest composer, Ludwig van Beethoven exclaimed, “Handel—to him I bow the knee.” (Lying on his deathbed, Beethoven asked for a volume of Handel to console him in his extremity.)

Handel’s oratorio Messiah dates from a crucial moment in his career. The work’s success in turn proved crucial to the history of the oratorio as a genre. While Handel composed his first oratorios during his early years in Rome, he did not essay an oratorio in English until he composed Esther in 1718, by which time he had already achieved distinction as an opera composer. Italian opera would be his principal concern for thirty-six years, during which he rode both the waves of success and the troughs of indifference that seem always to have marked the topsy-turvy world of lyric theater. By the late 1730s, however, Handel had his fill with the high-stress management of opera productions, and the opera he wrote for the 1740-41 season—Deidamia—was his last.

Just then he received an invitation to produce a series of concerts in Dublin in 1741, and the idea of a change of scenery appealed to him. He traveled from London to Dublin in mid-November 1741 and remained until August 13, 1742. The high point of Handel’s Dublin season was without a doubt the premiere of his new oratorio Messiah. He had composed it while still in London during the summer of 1741, over the course of about three weeks. His librettist, Charles Jennens, had been pressed into service to assemble a text for the new work. This he apparently did in the early summer of 1741, drawing creatively on Biblical passages from the Books of Isaiah, Haggai, Malachi, Matthew, Luke, Zechariah, John, Psalms, Lamentations, Hebrews, Romans, I Corinthians, and Revelation to create a loose story comprising historical narrative about the life of Jesus and reflections on his life by Christian believers. He organized his texts in three discrete sections, the first relating to the prophecy of Christ’s coming and the circumstances of his birth, the second to the vicissitudes of his life on earth, and the third to the events surrounding the resurrection and the promise of redemption. With the libretto in hand, Handel leapt into action on August 22. He finished the draft of Part One on August 8, of Part Two on September 6, and of Part Three on September 12—and then he took another two days to polish details on the whole score.

This prodigious pace was not exceptional for Handel, and it is no more than Romantic fantasy to view it (as it once was routinely) as a fever of Divine inspiration peculiar to the composition of Messiah. At least some of Handel’s fluency can be attributed to the fact that Messiah borrows liberally (albeit ingeniously) from his earlier vocal works. As further evidence of Handel’s facility, the composer allowed himself about a week’s rest after finishing Messiah before embarking on his next oratorio, Samson, which he wrote in the relatively leisurely span of five weeks.

Handel’s Dublin season began auspiciously with performances of several earlier works—L’Allegro, Acis and Galatea, Esther, Alexander’s Feast—that paved the way for the excitement attending the premiere of Messiah. An open rehearsal on April 9 was followed by two official performances, on April 13 and June 3. The first performance was given as a benefit, organized with the assistance of the Charitable Musical Society, “For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in St. Stephen’s street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay” (as The Dublin Journal announced it a couple of weeks in advance). After the open rehearsal The Dublin News Letter pronounced that the new oratorio “in the opinion of the best judges, far surpasses anything of that Nature, which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom.” The Journal concurred that it “was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard, and the sacred Words as properly adapted for the Occasion.” It continued with a bit of advice for persons lucky enough to hold tickets for the official premiere, a matinee on April 13: “Many Ladies and Gentlemen who are well-wishers to the Noble and Grand Charity for which this Oratorio was composed, request it as a Favour, that the Ladies who honour this Performance with their Presence would be pleased to come without Hoops as it will greatly encrease the Charity, by making Room for more Company.” To which it added in a follow-up article: “The Gentlemen are desired to come without their Swords’, to increase audience accommodation yet further.” Messiah was an immense success, and its reputation spread quickly to London, which had to wait nearly a year to hear it, and where some controversy erupted over whether sacred texts had a place in an “entertainment.”

The work gradually established itself as a classic. It was revived in London in 1745, again in 1749, and again in 1750—in this last year at both Covent Garden and as a benefit for the Foundling Hospital, which would make Messiah performances an Easter tradition. By the 1750s Messiah was becoming widely performed. For many of the early productions Handel revised his score, largely to fulfill the practical demands of differing soloists and instrumental ensembles, although partly (many argue) to reflect his changing conception of the piece. Surely no work in the standard repertory offers so vast a buffet of performing possibilities to choose from. From one version to the next, we find variations in which numbers are sung and in what order, which solo parts are assigned to which vocal soloist, even which competing versions of individual movements should be used. There are no easy answers, although performers should not discount that practical considerations are as important today as they were in Handel’s time.

In the 1780s England began giving free rein to its penchant for musical gigantism by presenting Messiah with ever-increasing masses of performers: 513 in Westminster Abbey in 1784, 616 the next year, and so on until the forces reached 1,068 musicians in 1791, when an ecstatic Franz Joseph Haydn happened to be in attendance. That marked a temporary climax in Messiah interpretation for Londoners, but by that time the Handel mania had begun to radiate out from London to Birmingham, Sheffield, York, and Manchester, all homes to major choral societies. The piece was also becoming famous elsewhere. It was an Englishman—Michael Arne, son of the composer (and Handel contemporary) Thomas Augustine Arne—who introduced Messiah to Germany, leading a performance in Hamburg in 1772. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach introduced it to Berlin audiences three years later, in a German translation, and in 1777 it reached Mannheim.

In other European countries, Handel remained a harder sell. The French viewed his music as simply not to their taste. Berlioz dismissed Handel as “a barrel of pork and beer,” and Messiah didn’t get a French performance until 1873. The Italians seem to have lost track of Handel almost entirely once he completed his apprentice years in their country. America showed enthusiasm, as might be expected from a land still dominated by British cultural taste, and already in the 1770s and ’80s Messiah had become a staple of concert life in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, sometimes with the more modest American equivalent of the familiar massed forces of Britain.

Back to England. The grand Handel festivals at Westminster Abbey dropped off after 1791 but started again in 1834, presenting Handel spectacles to a new generation of listeners and sparking the Messiah tradition. Armed with cheaply printed scores or librettos, audiences devoutly followed the performances of their favorite choral societies. The Crystal Palace in London became the site of choice for Handel displays in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1883, Sir Michael Costa stood on the podium before an ocean of 500 players and 4,000 singers. Behind him was an audience of 87,769. Thomas Edison’s phonograph had just been introduced, and somebody thought to record one of these mammoth Handel performances. The Edison cylinder made at the Crystal Palace on June 29, 1888, a similarly grandiose interpretation of the composer’s Israel in Egypt, became not only the first recording of classical music ever made, but also the first on-location recording. It had to be on location, of course, since 4,500 performers could not quite have fit into a recording studio.

This account hardly begins to suggest the scope of what must be classical music’s most beloved masterpiece. Messiah has captivated audiences since it was first heard, and it has been re-invented often since, made new to meet the exigencies of specific performers and evolving generations. Through all its changes it has remained pure, powerful, and moving: a classic. 

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

(December 2017)