What Is It About Messiah?
By Thomas May
Handel’s masterpiece has long been at the heart of the repertory, but it marked an unusual departure for the composer
If you could do the time warp and choose a few of the legendary premieres in music history to be teleported back to, what would make your list? Likely contenders might be Beethoven’s Ninth, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, perhaps Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and — surely Messiah?
This list forms the basis for Thomas Forrest Kelly’s lecture series, published as First Nights, which teems with fascinating factoids to help us reimagine what the scenes of said premieres may have been like. Following the public rehearsal of Messiah on April 9, 1742, the official world premiere occurred on April 13, 1742, at the Great Music Hall in Dublin, having been postponed a day to allow for “several persons of distinction” to be able to attend; the “ladies who honour this performance with their presence” were requested to attend “without hoops” so as to make room for others. All told, the Great Music Hall would have accommodated about 700 (hoopless) people — though of course a seat would be reserved for our prospective time-traveler.
The composer may not have initially intended Messiah for this purpose (scholars still debate about this), but it ended up concluding a nine-month seasonal “residency” in Dublin by George Frideric Handel — as the composer who was born Georg Friedrich Händel in Halle (just northwest of Leipzig in modern-day Germany) had become known.
Back in his adopted home city of London, where he’d settled more than three decades earlier, the previous season had been particularly disastrous at the box office: Deidamia, Handel’s final essay in the Italian opera format he imported to London, had proved that by this time the waning public taste for the art, so prohibitively expensive to produce, made it a losing gamble to try to sustain. Precisely this economic reality became a major impetus for Handel’s recent experiments with English language oratorio.
In fact, if you prolonged your visit until February in the following year and ferried over to London, you could also enjoy Samson, often regarded as Messiah’s “twin” and another of Handel’s greatest oratorios. Handel embarked on Samson just two weeks after completing Messiah, which he composed between August 22 and September 14 of 1741. In his preface to Samson, which was based on John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, the librettist Newburgh Hamilton offered a handy definition of oratorio as “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.”
But it was just that combination of moral uplift with the entertainment values of opera (and free of the expense, costumes, and overpaid star singers of the latter) that made the idea of Messiah as a “sacred oratorio” initially uncomfortable for London critics. The late Christopher Hogwood observes that the exalted status Messiah enjoys “makes it difficult for us to realize that for Handel its composition was an offbeat venture, unsure in its rewards and probably unrepeatable.”
Despite its acclaim by the Dublin audience, back in London — where Handel introduced Messiah under the title “New Sacred Oratorio” in 1743 — it became the subject of controversy in a debate that raged in the press. Messiah’s method of setting actual scriptural texts, not to mention its depiction of the life 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 theater context of the performances, not against Handel’s music. Soon, though, Messiah was accepted and became the engine of an annual charity event in London starting in 1750.
In any case, Dublin turned out to be an ideal place to unveil the still-untested work. The legendary April concert would have started at noon, giving the audience an opportunity to encounter a brand-new oratorio by the celebrated Mr. Handel even before London audiences got to hear it. The performance took place in the recently built New Music Hall on Fishamble St. (It later became a theater but was closed at the end of the eighteenth century and eventually torn down.)
That venue’s construction had been funded by the Charitable Music Society on College-Green, an organization devoted to the relief of imprisoned debtors. “Music and benevolence were symbiotically entwined” in Dublin, writes Kelly. “Charity helped draw audiences, and music helped draw charitable givers. In this way, benefactors were elevated musically while at the same time accomplishing good works.” In the case of Messiah, the “feel-good” aspect was enhanced by the fact that, as the Dublin Journal announced, the performance proceeds would be “for Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay…” In later years, proceeds would benefit orphans at the Foundling Hospital in London. Handel left a fair copy of the score to the hospital’s governors in his will so that they could continue the tradition of annual benefit concerts after his death.
Along with the soloists, there was a chorus of 16 men (alto, tenor, and bass) and 8 boys, comprising the combined choir ensembles of two of Dublin’s cathedrals. (Permission had to be given by the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame, who initially denied it but relented.) With the three women soloists added on for choral movements, the total chorus would have numbered 27, though Kelly points out that “not all the available cathedral singers” necessarily took part.
Handel himself led the performance from the harpsichord, but he was aided by violinist Matthew Dubourg, who was responsible for keeping the small orchestra together. From the performance parts Handel left in his will to the Foundling Hospital, Kelly deduces that the original orchestra plausibly would have consisted of four oboes and bassoons, possibly horn(s), two trumpets, organ and harpsichord as continuo accompaniment, and of course strings (possibly 20). On the other hand, such experts as Hogwood surmise that the premiere performance would have been “restricted to strings and a single solo instrument (the trumpet) used only once,” claiming that the wind instruments would have been added later for the London performances.
The packed hall would have opened around 11 am for the noon performance; with two intermissions that featured Handel playing organ concertos, the event should have finished by a little past three in the afternoon. Sixpence (no credit cards) would purchase a copy of the “wordbook” by Charles Jennens (see sidebar) — a wealthy, opinionated landowner and arts donor who had collaborated previously with Handel on several oratorios, including Samson and, probably, Israel in Egypt (1739).
The latter anticipates the method he used for Messiah, which was to arrange and juxtapose primary texts culled from the Bible in such a way that they cohere into an indirect narrative that calls for very little dramatic impersonation of actual characters. The result is a narrative recounting the essential story of Christian redemption more than a biographical sketch of the life of Jesus. (Regarding the use of the article-less “Messiah” instead of “the Messiah” as the title, see sidebar.)
As Hogwood, notes, there is a remarkable paradox in the fact that Handel, by nature a man of the theater, wrote such inspired music for a work that “contains no drama in the theatrical sense.” The libretto is divided into three “acts” on the model of a Baroque opera, but Jennens calls these “parts.” Part One centers around prophecy and the nativity of Jesus, culminating in his miracles. This is the part of the oratorio that has led to Messiah’s close association with the Christmas season in North America. Following its evocation of hope comes a concise retelling of the Passion story of sacrifice and redemption in Part Two. Part Three concludes with the further implications of Christ as the savior of humanity and follows the outline of the Anglican Burial Service, as Hogwood points out.
Messiah in general “has a higher choral element than any other of the oratorios” (with the exception of Israel in Egypt), writes Hogwood. The centrality of the chorus in Messiah allows for greater diversity, compared with the aria-centric structure of Baroque opera. Part One establishes a pattern of recitative, aria, and chorus, which then allows for further variation in the other two parts. The German Passion tradition, Hogwood adds, leaves its traces in Part Two, yet there are only two choruses that play the role of the turba or crowd (“He trusted in God” and “Let us break”). Handel also recycled music from some of the Italian duets he had recently composed and turned them into choruses.
Handel additionally profits from the full palette of international styles of his era. He contrasts thrillingly complex Northern European counterpoint with flowing, Italianate lyricism, majestic French rhythms, and sturdy, homophonic choruses. Throughout, there is a remarkable economy of instrumentation (especially for ears accustomed to the luxuries of the Romantic orchestra — or to the old-fashioned, blown-up sonorities of pre-historically informed performance practice). Notice, for example, how the trumpet remains silent in Part One until “Glory to God” and then disappears until the “Hallelujah!” chorus at the end of Part Two. (Incidentally, in contrast to what is often assumed, the glory this chorus depicts refers not to the moment of Christ’s resurrection but to the triumph of redemption).
Consider, too, the psychological range Handel explores, encompassing in Part One alone the fathomless darkness associated with the period of universal waiting for a savior; the oasis-like calm of the purely instrumental “Pastoral Symphony,” with its evocation of the music of shepherds (Pifa refers to their music); and the dancing exuberance of “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion.” Such emotional “psychograms” are hardly done justice by the standard Baroque aesthetic terminology of “affects,” of discrete musical movements intended to explore a single emotional state.
Handel finds continually fresh and inventive ways to “paint” the words through music — the “straying” lines of “All we like sheep” — but subtler surprises are often hidden within his settings as well. In that same chorus, Handel engineers a detour from the cheerful mood that predominates into the tragic minor when the consequences of human failure are suggested. One of the pleasures of hearing Messiah repeatedly is to discover subtler surprises within the familiar patterns.
Amid all this variety, by the end of Part Three Handel has taken us on a journey that will later become familiar in the symphonies of Beethoven: the passage from darkness to enlightenment and final victory. The “Hallelujah!” chorus may seem unsurpassable, yet Handel manages to top this with still more glorious music, whether in the simple but moving affirmation of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” or the soaring certainty of “The trumpet shall sound.” The conclusion to the entire journey is, of course, a choral finale, a summation of the community’s voices singing “Amen.” As the voices weave their threads together in this stirring fugue, that final word evokes a serene, all-encompassing chant.
— Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.
Messiah or The Messiah?
The original autograph score bears the heading Messiah, without the definite article. According to Watkins Shaw, famous for his critical edition of the oratorio, the only exception to Handel’s own references to the work as Messiah is in the codicil to his will (bequeathing a fair copy to the Foundling Hospital). Although there have been notable deviations, such as G.B. Shaw’s preferred formulation “The Messiah,” the consensus has tended toward Messiah. Shaw suggests the analogy of a title like Bizet’s Carmen, which we wouldn’t see referred to as “the Carmen.”
The libretto Charles Jennens crafted through his collage technique of juxtaposing Old and New Testament “found material” should not be underestimated, and it clearly prompted some of Handel’s finest inspirations. As a person, however, Jennens could be quite a piece of work to deal with. A letter he wrote about his own frustrations with their collaboration declared that “Mr. Handel’s head is more full of maggots than ever.” One of these, he explained, “is a Hallelujah which he has trump’d up at the end of his oratorio since I went into the Country, because he thought the conclusion of the oratorio not Grand enough… this Hallelujah, Grand as it is, comes in very nonsensically, having no manner of relation to what goes before…”
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 history of performance traditions 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.
Often a few cuts from Parts Two and Three are taken, as is the case in this performance, which segues from the chorus in No. 30 to No. 36 (Part Two) and from 43 to the concluding No. 47 (using the Bärenreiter edition numbering).