Handel’s Messiah

Program note


Opera had made Handel famous: since coming to England in 1712 he had written more than 35 operas (Julius Caesar, Alcina and Rinaldo are probably the best-known today) and made arrangements of over a dozen more. These operas were sung in Italian with plots based largely on history and mythology. The story was told by the soloists in recitatives and virtuosic arias, and these soloists would often come together as a ‘chorus’ to sing the finale of each act.

Handel had written two oratorios in his 20s during his time in Rome, when opera was temporarily banned by the Pope. But oratorio was a relatively new phenomenon in 1740s England. Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions were still unknown there.

Handel’s first English oratorio, Esther (1718), was written at a time when there was no point in writing opera: the Haymarket opera company had been closed and a new company was yet to be established. When Handel advertised the first public performance of Esther, in the King’s Theatre, the audience was reassured that ‘There will be no Action on the Stage, but the House will be fitted up in a decent Manner, for the Audience’: the Bishop of London would not allow the singers of the Chapel Royal choir to act in the opera house, ‘even with books in the children’s hands.’ Handel brought in Italian opera singers for many of the solo roles – one wit reported that they ‘made rare work with the English Tongue…’

The final shape of Esther owed a great deal to opera. It was in three acts and lasted three hours, and the characters are richly drawn. But Handel also drew on another tradition: his grand and formal Coronation Anthems (such as Zadok the Priest) with their strong chorus writing. The combination was a great success ‘performed six times and very full’; Handel, however, remained committed to Italian operas, writing only the occasional oratorio over the next nine years.

In 1741, however, things changed dramatically. The public had grown tired of opera. Deidamia was a box-office failure and Handel gave up on the theatre. Instead, he turned his attention seriously at last towards oratorio, and in just over three weeks produced, complete with blots, smudges, and traces of what looks like an upset ink bottle, the score of Messiah.

It is a reflection on the significance of Christ’s life and death to the Christian believer, a meditation on the supreme goodness of God.

He broke new ground in the very genre he had created. An oratorio, according to Grassineau’s Musical Dictionary of 1740, was ‘a sort of spiritual opera…the subject thereof is usually taken from the scripture, or is the life and actions of some saint, &c.’ Handel’s previous English oratorios were either stories from the Old Testament (Esther, Deborah, Athalia) or morality play-type conversations between allegorical figures (L’allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato). But Messiah is not a dramatisation of the life of Christ. There are no ‘characters’: nobody sings the ‘role’ of Jesus or Mary or Pilate. Indeed, apart from the angels announcing the birth of the Christ-child, almost none of the text actually comes from the gospels.

The libretto approaches Christ in a round-about way, through Old Testament prophecies, letters written to the early Christian communities some years after the death of Christ, and the apocalyptic visions of St John, author of the Book of Revelation. It is a reflection on the significance of Christ’s life and death to the Christian believer, a meditation on the supreme goodness of God in offering to the world his only Son; on the sufferings of this sacrificial victim; and on the hope of salvation for humankind now that the risen Christ stands at the right hand of God.

The man who took on the task of encompassing such profound concepts in words was Charles Jennens. He had provided words for Handel’s Saul and Belshazzar. He may have also been responsible for the libretto of Israel in Egypt, which shocked many by actually quoting Holy Scripture. In 1741 he wrote to a friend about ‘another Scripture Collection I have made for [Handel]…I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject.’

It was some two years before Jennens heard the fruits of his labour, because Handel, having completed the score, promptly took it to Dublin, for its first performances. Even before he heard the work, Jennens wrote, ‘His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great hast, tho’ he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d.’

Over time, Jennens’ opinion of the work seems to have mellowed. The general opinion, however, was overwhelmingly positive. Some 700 people attended the premiere, on 13 April 1742 in Dublin’s new Music Hall in Fishamble Street: ticket sales had been so successful that the organisers asked the ladies to come without their hooped skirts, and the gentlemen without their swords, to be sure everyone would fit in. It was a charity matinee, for the benefit of the Society for Relieving Prisoners, the Charitable Infirmiary, and the Mercer’s Hospital: Handel and several of the singers donated their fees and some £400 was raised from the event.

There were seven or eight soloists: the Italian soprano Signora Avolio (and possibly a second soprano), three altos (the actress Mrs Cibber and two male altos from the Cathedral), one tenor and two basses. Handel revised his original score to accommodate this collection of soloists: the sequence ‘Then shall the eyes – He shall feed His flock – Come unto Him’, originally written for soprano solo, was transposed down for Mrs Cibber, as was also the aria ‘If God be for us.’ Handel also wrote a duet setting of ‘How beautiful are the feet’ for his pair of male altos. In fact, though certain allocations of voice types have become traditional, Handel himself was extremely flexible.

Dr Edward Synge, the bishop of Elphin, reported that the Dublin audience ‘seem’d indeed throughly engag’d frome one end to the other…’ Clearly, not all the clergy were as scandalised by the idea of ‘God by the most sacred the most merciful Name of Messiah’ being represented on the stage for ‘Diversion’ and ‘Amusement’ – scruples which would result in Messiah being presented in London without its name, advertised simply as ‘A New Sacred Oratorio.’

As in Dublin, the 1743 London performances of Messiah took place in Lent, the season of fasting and self-discipline which precedes the solemn commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday. The Lord Chamberlain’s Office prohibited the performance of operas in London during this period, and even oratorios were only allowed on Wednesdays and Fridays. (As performances of Messiah spread beyond London, the work came to be associated more with choral festivals and the timing became more flexible. The tradition of performing Messiah at Christmas seems to have started in Boston in the nineteenth century.)

The lack of competition from secular entertainments would obviously have made oratorio an attractive financial prospect to Handel, but Messiah quickly attracted a following of its own. Part of the reason seems to have been a strong association with charity. When Handel started the tradition of an annual Foundling Hospital oratorio performance, it was Messiah that he performed every year. Such was the work’s popularity that from 1753 onwards, Handel also finished his annual Covent Garden every year with performances of Messiah.

Today it is possible to hear everything from sing-along Messiah with hundreds of choristers to chamber versions with one voice to a part…Messiah, it seems, has something for everyone.

Messiah quickly became known throughout England, starting with Oxford in 1749 and in less than 20 years reaching Salisbury, Bath, Bristol, Gloucester, Cambridge, Liverpool, Birmingham… In the 1780s there seems to have been a more or less complete performance in Calcutta and at least a part performance in Jamaica. The first complete performance in the US – three parts over three nights – was in 1817.

In Germany, C.P.E. Bach gave a full performance in German in 1775. There were performances in Copenhagen and Stockholm in 1786. Mozart reorchestrated Handel’s original in 1789. In France, the first performance was not until 1873.

In Victorian Britain, carried along by ideals of progress and improvement, choral societies produced larger- and larger-scale performances. At the Great Handel Commemoration Festival of 1859, it was performed by a chorus of 2,765 and an orchestra of 460 to an audience of 81,000 people. But by the 1880s, there were some performances trying to recapture something closer to the original scale of Handel’s performances. Today it is possible to hear everything from sing-along Messiah with hundreds of choristers to chamber versions with one voice to a part. Not to mention Norman Miller’s soul version with gospel and R&B performers. Or the Carolina Ballet’s dance adaptation. Messiah, it seems, has something for everyone.

© Natalie Shea, Symphony Australia 2002

Republished with the permission of Symphony Services Australia

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