Monday, December 3, 2018


George Frideric Handel
The 1728 portrait by Balthasar Denner
National Portrait Gallery

The enduring masterwork that is Handel's Messiah is a foundational pillar of the western Canon. Handel (born Georg Friedrich Händel) hailed from Halle, in Saxony, in that magical year of 1685, which also witnessed the birth of two other Baroque giants, Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. A gifted violinist, harpsichordist and organist by his teenage years, Handel did his Grand Tour in Italy, from 1706 to 1710, where he was deeply informed by Italian operatic and oratorio styles. Handel's early efforts in these genres were applauded by his patrons, with his opera, Agrippina, was all the rage in Venice, while in Rome, Prince Francesco Ruspoli bestowed upon him the monicker, "il caro Sassone" ("The beloved Saxon"). Handel returned to Saxony for a few years to work for George, the Elector of Hanover, who later became that George, King George I of England. Handel left his employ in 1712 and settled in London, two years before George himself came over for his coronation. The King and Handel were at odds for a while, but after Handel presented him with the elegant Wassermusik (Water Music Suites), things went smoothly thereafter, with Handel obtaining English citizenship in 1727.

Although Handel composed several oratorios soon after arriving in England, he made his name by composing operas, most of which were scored for Italian libretti (opere serie, or "serious" operas). For these, he wrote a seemingly endless succession of bravura arias sung by many of Europe's most famous and high-flying prima donnas and castrati, of which the London audience could never get enough. They would crow that Handel was the greatest German to bring Italian opera to an English audience. Although Handel crafted a trove of music in other genres - odes, anthems, cantatas, keyboard works, chamber music, serenades, and songs - for two decades he composed mostly operas. However, by the end of the 1730s, the public’s appetite for opera seria had faded. That posed little problem for Handel, as he switched gears and restarted composing oratorios, eventually totaling twenty-seven, virtually all set to English texts.
An oratorio is a composition for orchestra, choir and vocal soloists. Whereas opera is musical theater, and both oratorios and operas contain dramatic characters and arias, oratorios are usually composed around sacred topics, are not staged, nor are there props or costumes. In an oratorio, the chorus plays an essential role.

Charles Jennens (1700-1773)
The librettist of Messiah

In July, 1741, the librettist Charles Jennens offered Handel a set of passages from the King James Bible as material for a new oratorio, to be named Messiah. They had already worked together on several prior efforts, including the oratorios Saul and Israel in Egypt.  Jennens was optimistic: "I hope that Handel will lay out his whole Genius and Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other subject. The Subject is Messiah."

Jennens chose most of his selections for Messiah from the Old Testament (Isaiah, Malachi, and Psalm excerpts from the Book of Common Prayer), with verses from two of the canonical gospels of the New Testament (Matthew and Luke), the Book of Revelation, and the epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. The texts chosen by Jennens do not flow as a narrative, but rather, are a collection of passages which relate to the prophecy and witness of Christ's birth (Part the First), Christ's death and resurrection (Part the Second), and the redemptive response of believers (Part the Third). The oratorio follows the liturgical year. The textual material seemed to have resonated very well with Handel, who began composing Messiah on August 22, 1741 and completed it in just 24 days. He signed the autograph manuscript, SDG, an acronymic for Solo Deo Gloria (“Only to God goes the Glory”), prompting the suggestion that he had received some form of divine inspiration, given the rapidity of its composition and the beauty of its form. This astonishing speed, quality and inventiveness were a Handelian trademark; four weeks after completing Messiah, he put the finishing touches on his next oratorio, Samson.

Around this time, William Cavendish, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, invited Handel to Dublin to conduct a series of benefit concerts. Handel, who was already frustrated with the fickle taste of the London public, leapt at the opportunity. Messiah thus had its premiere not in London, where Handel’s many operas and prior oratorios had debuted, but in Dublin, at the newly opened Neale's Great Music Hall on Fishamble Street, to the consternation of a great many back in England.  Jennens himself was chagrined, commenting to a friend that “it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing Messiah here he has gone into Ireland with it."

Neale's Great Music Hall
Fishamble Street, Dublin

 Messiah was a smash hit from the very beginning. The morning after the first public rehearsal, a Dublin Journal critic said that, "it was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest 'Composition of Musick' that was ever Heard."  A week before the premiere, concert flyers around town cautioned "so that the largest possible Audience could be admitted to the concert, Ladies are asked not to wear Hoops in their Dresses," and "Gentlemen are requested to Remove their Swords." The premiere, on 13 April 13, 1742 was an unqualified success, with over 700 people jostling for the 600 available seats. A reviewer in another Dublin paper the next morning gushed that, "Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight that it afforded the Crowded and Admiring audience. The Sublime, the Grand, the Tender, adapted to the most Elevated, Majestic and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished ear."

The first London performance of Messiah did not take place until 1743 and received mixed reviews. Handel actually had to change its title to A Sacred Oratorio because of objections to using Biblical texts and theatrical performers in a concert setting. The story goes that at the first London performance, King George II was in attendance, and  was so taken by the famous "Hallelujah" Chorus, that he stood up, setting a precedent that is still adhered to by audiences worldwide.  By 1750, with a benefit concert for the Foundling Hospital, to which Handel also donated the autograph manuscript of the work, Messiah became a beloved annual London ritual which continues to this day.

Handel conducted Messiah over forty times in his life and tinkered with it incessantly, altering orchestral forces or changing the key of certain arias better to suit a particular vocalist. Foreseeing its popularity, he purposely wrote a spare orchestral score, assuming that future composers would modify it, adding new instruments here and tonal color there. In 1789, Mozart famously adapted the work to a German text, Der Messias, enriching it with the textures of clarinets, amplifying the bassoon line, and replacing trumpets with French horns (largely because the technique of celebratory trumpet had become a lost art). Beethoven, in his Missa Solemnis, channeled Handel's "And he shall reign" fugue. Messiah continued to gain in popularity that by the 1880s it was being served up by gargantuan forces: an 1883 performance at the Crystal Palace in London featured five hundred orchestral musicians and a chorus of four thousand!
Messiah is a universe unto itself. As a successful composer of opera, Handel crafted Messiah in operatic terms. The three Parts of Messiah can be likened to the three acts of his operas. Each Part is divided into Scenes. Each Scene is made up of recitatives, choruses and arias, and the arias require vocalists with operatic training to bring out all their texture and glory. A master of pacing and drama, Handel purposely composed a spare, restrained and almost muted orchestral line, with limited but effective use of trumpets. It unfolds with a gentle and plaintive orchestral introduction ("Sinfony" ) before the tenor and chorus enter. Handel cleverly uses word painting to enliven Jennens' text. In the opening aria, "Ev'ry Valley shall be exalted," he composes a wavering melody to underpin the word "crooked," whereas sustained whole notes support the word "straight."  The soprano's da capo aria, "Rejoice Greatly," is a spectacular tour de force, with stratospheric melismas on the word "Rejoice." In the aria "Though shall break them," from Part the Second, the text is accompanied by angular, ascending and descending lines in the strings, which evoke something that is shattered. In the middle of Part the First, another wonder occurs, a moment where time stands still: the pifa, a pastoral orchestral interlude.

The splendid choruses in Messiah are each an extraordinary example of power and dramatic effect while bringing out the textual setting. This is most evident in the Hallelujah Chorus, where one hears layers upon layers of intertwined and glorious melody. Although Messiah is not centered on any specific tonality, it aspires, according to the musicologist Anthony Hicks, towards the light and glory of D major (two sharps). Indeed, the sections which are accompanied by trumpet, and the triumphant ending of the oratorio, are all centered in that brilliant tonic.
Handel’s health inexorably declined through the last eight years of his life. He lost vision and was partially paralyzed as a consequence of a series of strokes. He became more religious and introspective, and retreated into a cocoon of solitude. He continued to play the organ and occasionally acceded to conduct his beloved Messiah; eight days before the end of his life, he was still able to attend a performance of his favorite composition. Handel died on April 14, 1759, at the age of seventy-four, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Having never married and having had no children, he left his estate to his niece, Johanna, and per four separate codicils, to a few friends, servants, and charities.

Handel Memorial
Westminster Abbey, London

Handel's greatest composition, Messiah, lives on as one of the most beloved works of classical music. It is heard around the world, by small forces and large, in intimate historically performed efforts, or with large instrumental and choral groups.  Most Handel Messiah performances are based on the historic 1959 Novello vocal score, edited by Watkins Shaw, which in turn is based on the revered 1902 edition of Ebenezer Prout, with Parts and Scenes stemming from the first London performance of 1743.  Yet, there is no right or wrong Messiah. There is simply Messiah, and it remains what had always been envisioned by "Mr. Handel": that wondrous oratorio - ever sonorous, sacred and sublime.