Messiah: Handel's Atypical Masterpiece
By Thomas May
From Opera to Oratorio
Early in his career, the well-traveled, cosmopolitan Handel tried his hand at various forms of sacred music, including both the German Passion and the Italian oratorio. But it was to the opera stage that he directed much of his creative energy during his prime — above all to the genre of tragic opera set to Italian librettos (opera seria), with its story lines drawn from mythological or historical figures and its call for dazzling vocal display. Messiah actually belongs to a later period of transition, when Handel needed to reinvent himself. Despite his earlier successes writing opera for the London stage, by the late 1730s taste and fashion in his adopted country had shifted significantly. Poor box office, increasingly nasty competition, and the elaborate sets and pricey singers that were all part of the enterprise eventually made opera an unsustainable business model.
Handel had meanwhile been experimenting with a new brand of oratorio set to English texts — an approach that was rooted to some extent in another significant source of his success in England: his choral music and anthems for British patrons. He developed the English oratorio into a thrilling substitute for opera. Although Handel still had a few more operatic projects up his sleeve, by the time he composed Messiah in 1741, he had ceased writing Italian operas altogether and was channeling his muse into oratorios; these he continued to produce over the next decade until blindness overtook the composer.
A handy definition of Handel’s English variation on the pre-existing oratorio format appears in the preface to Samson (on which he embarked just two weeks after completing Messiah and which is often considered its “twin”). An oratorio, writes Samson’s librettist Newburgh Hamilton, who used Milton’s poetic drama Samson Agonistes as his source, is “a musical drama, whose subject must be Scriptural, and in which the Solemnity of Church-Musick is agreeably united with the most pleasing Airs of the Stage” — a genre, in other words, that has it both ways. A sense of moral uplift is juiced along by the entertainment value of opera (but without the expense, costumes, and fussy, overpaid egos). Oratorio had an additional appeal in that it was more acceptable for emerging middle-class audiences wary of the scandal-tinged world of opera.
A Controversial Classic
Messiah’s success over the ensuing centuries caused it to eclipse Handel’s other works of music drama — operas and oratorios alike — and even gave it a reputation as the quintessential English oratorio. Yet Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens, took a risk by shaping Messiah as they did: in many ways it swerves away from the norm. Indeed, the oratorio initially touched off a controversy that raged for several years back in London, despite the acclaim Messiah received when it was first introduced to Dublin audiences at the conclusion of the 1741-42 season. (Handel had been invited to spend that year in Ireland.) The composer seems to have anticipated the resistance it would face when he brought Messiah to London in 1743, and so he billed the work simply as a “New Sacred Oratorio.”
Messiah’s method of setting actual scriptural texts and its evocation of Jesus within a secular genre that could be performed “for diversion and amusement” even triggered charges of blasphemy — although these were leveled against the secular context of the performances rather than Handel’s music itself. Thereafter, the only times Handel led Messiah in a non-secular space were in his last years, when he gave midday performances in the newly built chapel of the Foundling Hospital. (The fact that the composer donated proceeds from Messiah concerts to charitable causes added to the work’s allure.) In any case, this was a short-lived cultural skirmish, and annual performances of Messiah during the composer’s final decade became a highlight of the season. These always took place in the spring, at Eastertide. It was only after Handel’s death that the association of Messiah with the Christmas season became firmly embedded.
Messiah’s Structure and Music
Charles Jennens — a wealthy patron who was nevertheless alienated from contemporary English politics — juxtaposes extracts from both the Old and New Testaments to represent the basic narrative of Christian redemption. Rather than a biographical sketch of the life of Jesus, Messiah concerns the very idea of divinity becoming manifest in human history (hence the lack of the definite article—“Messiah,” not “the Messiah” — in the title).
There is very little dramatic impersonation of characters: the narrative is indirect and suggestive — and, as has been often noted, downright confusing to anyone not familiar with the implied events involving the life of Jesus. Jennens divides the libretto into three acts (although he calls them “parts”), much like the organization of a baroque opera. Part One centers around prophecy and the nativity of Jesus, ending with his miracles. This is the part of the oratorio that is most closely tied to the Christmas season. Following its evocation of hope comes a concise retelling of the Passion story of sacrifice in Part Two. Part Three concludes with the implications of Christ’s redemption of humanity from the fall of Adam.
Handel was above all a man of the theater, and his operatic genius for establishing the mood to suit a given situation is everywhere apparent. Overall, his musical choices zoom in on the universal emotions that underlie each stage of the Christian redemption narrative. Whereas he typically accomplishes this in the operatic arena through a chain of richly expressive arias, Messiah makes use of greater structural diversity. Part One establishes a basic pattern of recitative, aria, and chorus, which then allows for further variation in the other two parts. Handel moreover freely avails himself of the full spectrum of international styles, with which his experience had made him well acquainted. Messiah draws on an encyclopedic variety of choral textures, interspersing these with a profusion of individually characterized arias. Highly elaborate counterpoint is juxtaposed with homophonic choruses as solid as granite, while majestic French postures and soulful Italianate lyricism further enliven the score. And what an astonishing range of colors Handel’s palette contains. Though the actual instrumentation is remarkably economical, Handel uses it with a characteristic genius for reinforcing the pacing of the drama. For example, in Part One he withholds the trumpets until “Glory to God” but then keeps them in the wings again until the “Hallelujah!” chorus at the end of Part Two (which refers not to the moment of Christ’s resurrection, as is sometimes mistakenly thought, but to the triumph of redemption).
Handel moreover reveals his mastery of a range of psychological expression that transcends stereotypical baroque “affects” or moods. In Part One alone, he paints the fathomless darkness of the sense of universal waiting for a savior but also includes the tranquil oasis of the instrumental “Pastoral Symphony” (Pifa refers to the music of shepherds) as well as the dancingly exuberant gestures of “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.” Over and over, Handel finds freshly inventive ways to add to the venerable tradition of “painting” words (and their subtexts) through music. One of the pleasures of hearing Messiah repeatedly is to discover subtler surprises within the familiar patterns. We immediately sense the “straying” lines of “All we like sheep” — but the same chorus also shifts from a cheerful demeanor into the minor mode to deepen the sense of pathos when the consequences of human failure are depicted.
Amid all this variety, by the end of Part Three Handel has taken us on a journey that will later become familiar — and re-secularized — in the symphonies of Beethoven and his followers: the passage from darkness to enlightenment and final victory. Of course the “Hallelujah!” chorus introduces one of the most remarkable musical challenges a composer could face, which is to avoid a sense of anti-climax in what follows. Yet that’s exactly what Handel accomplishes, pressing his inspiration further in the simple, direct affirmation of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and the soaring certainty of “The trumpet shall sound.” And in the choral finale, as the voices weave their threads together in Handel’s fugal setting of “Amen,” this final word acquires an all-encompassing resonance — a serenely chanted, transporting “Om.”
Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale
So What Exactly Is an Oratorio?
The word “oratorio” comes from the Italian for a hall of prayer, but by Handel’s time works of this genre were being performed in secular venues as a substitute for the far more expensive — and sometimes ideologically forbidden — project of staged opera. (This differs from J.S. Bach’s Passions, which were intended for liturgical performance.) The oratorio originated in Italy around the same time as opera and similarly represents a kind of musical drama, though one performed without costumes and scenery. But it tends to recount stories that are religious in nature (whether drawn from the Bible or from literary sources that use the Bible). And in an oratorio the chorus, which usually played a minor part at best in the earlier, aria-centered forms of opera, takes on a far more prominent role. Handel had begun experimenting with an English-language format of the oratorio for his aristocratic patrons as early as 1718, but with his shift away from Italian opera in the late 1730s, his new approach to oratorio took wing and became a creative focus throughout the 1740s.
Versions of Messiah
There is, simply put, no clear “gold standard” or ultimate version of the score for Messiah. Handel himself introduced changes during the revivals he led in his final years, taking into account the strengths or limitations of particular soloists and players he had available. The complex history of performance traditions in the nearly 270 years since the first Messiah tended at first toward increasing expansion of choral and orchestral forces, followed by a pendulum swing in recent decades back to dimensions that reflect practices in Handel’s own time. Typically — even in such “reworkings” as Mozart’s version of Messiah — a few cuts from Part Two are made, as is the case in this performance, which segues from the chorus in No. 33 to No. 37.
Grant Gershon studied an early edition of the score published in 1777 (a gift of composer Morten Lauridsen) as he was preparing for this performance. In general, he remarks, the most important decision comes down to which soloists sing which arias:
“You tailor that to the singers you have at hand, just as in Handel’s own time. Above all, I wanted to balance the solo duties as equally as possible, so that all the soloists have something meaningful to do in all three parts.”