By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
One would rightly be considered presumptuous today were he to advance or dwell on any statement respecting the greatness of Handel's Messiah. That judgment has been confirmed by two hundred and forty years of acclaim. Perhaps the view of Handel's eminent American biographer, Paul Henry Lang, can serve to bring home to us this universal judgment. Even in his own time, Lang asserts, Handel considered Messiah an exceptional work since he clearly exempted it from his notorious habit of shifting music form one oratorio to another, a practice from which none of his other oratorios escaped.
Handel the composer was before all else a sound businessman. Up until 1739 he had through his creation and production of Italian opera seria, managed to make a respectable living, if not a great fortune. But at that time general English enthusiasm for Italian opera flagged and the London public tired of Mr. Handel's productions. Even King George II relegated him to the hasbeens.
The failure of the operas Serse (Xerxes) and Deidamia, the latter of which closed after three performances, greatly disappointed Handel. Moreover his two ventures at the same time into oratorio, Saul and Israel in Egypt likewise failed.
All see the resulting crisis for him as the greatest single turning point in his life. Even though Israel proved an initial failure, its composition provided the magic key unlocking the avenue toward all of Handel's subsequent success. His enthusiastic acceptance of the great English anthem and choral tradition in Israel henceforth placed the Chorus in the central role, a role in Messiah it was never to surpass. For it is the choral achievement there upon which Messiah's fame justly rests. Lang gives little credence to the traditional stories about Messiah's composition which depict Handel closeted in his rooms at his house in Brook Street under an almost heavenly inspiration. Absorbed thoroughly and gazing half mystically into space, he frequently, it was observed, failed to eat his meals which had been quietly and unobtrusively left in his room.
Messiah was rather the product of a commission. William Cavendish, Third Duke of Devonshire and lord lieutenant of Ireland invited Handel, perhaps in February of 1741, to Dublin to present a new work on behalf of three of the city's charitable organizations. Handel was well known there, since his works had previously graced charitable benefits. The three groups to benefit from his largess this time were the Societies for Relieving Prisoners, for the Charitable Infirmary, and for the Mercer's Hospital. They were all musical societies that raised funds to alleviate the horrendous conditions of the Irish poor and to pay off the debts of those in debtors' prison.
Handel now burst into furious activity, commencing Messiah's composition on August 22, 1741, and in the incredibly short time of twenty-four days had it completed and orchestrated. His inspiration continued and by October 29 he had likewise completed the first draft of the oratorio, Samson.
Freighted down with a trunkload of music and other impedimenta such as a portable organ, Handel and his company stepped ashore in Dublin on November 18, after having been delayed by tempestuous seas. Once arrived, however, in his quarters in Abbey Street, he set a brisk pace of concert production.
His business astuteness capitalized on the Dubliners' expectations of him. Two subscription series of six concerts each in the new Music Hall offered compositions he knew the Dubliners would find attractive, further whetting their appetite for what was to come; for a performance of Messiah was not part of these series. Meanwhile he was engaged with long and careful preparations for the upcoming premiere. The buzz of anticipation and excitement reached fever pitch on April 9, 1742.
Two Dublin newspapers reported on the open public rehearsal at Neale's New Music Hall on Fishamble Street. The rehearsal permitted opportunity for critical review. Both papers indicated that in the opinion of the "Best judges" the new oratorio "was performed so well that it gave universal Satisfaction to all present... and was allowed to be the finest Composition of Musick that was ever heard in this or any other Kingdom!" One may suspect a certain journalistic extravagance in these comments. It should be noted that these same "best judges" bestowed an almost identical encomium on the later performance of Samson.
Even though the New Music Hall was regarded as especially spacious providing seven hundred seats, notice was placed in the papers requesting the ladies to avoid wearing hoops so as to make available for charity every possible seat.
The premiere on April 13, 1742 realized 400 Pounds, 127 of which was given to each of the three charities. After this performance Handel received ownership again of Messiah, thus permitting him to sell tickets for a subsequent performance.
The antipathy which the rather Puritanical London public expressed toward the propriety of producing in playhouses works using Biblical texts led Handel to attempt surreptitiously in 1743, after his return from Ireland, a production of his New Sacred Oratorio. The ruse failed and performances of Messiah in London were desultory, greeted rather savagely by the public, and were generally unsuccessful until 1750. The breakthrough came that year when Handel mounted a successful benefit performance of the piece in the chapel of the London Foundling Hospital. Hereafter it continued to be performed in such a religious context through the rest of the 18th century, fostering the totally unfounded belief in its character as sacred service music. Never again for various reasons was Handel to compose an oratorio of such a Christian contemplative character. Perhaps no other great musical work has in its history of performance been subjected to so much radical alteration. The tasteful Dublin premiere utilized a modest but competent chorus comprising members from Christ Church and St. Patrick's Cathedral. They were accompanied by Matthew Dubourg's small but accomplished Dublin State Band, made up of a few strings, two trumpets, and timpani. Handel was not able to write concertato for the instruments, although he later accommodated for London, where he had a large string band, by adding parts for oboes, bassoons, and horns.
In March, 1789, Mozart awed by Handel's greatness, added instrumentation for two flutes, two clarinets, and three 'trombones to make the oratorio more palatable for Viennese audiences. Beethoven later tartly commented that "Handel would have survived without it."
Gargantuan transformations reached absurd proportions in the vulgar bowdlerized presentations of Messiah in Londonís Crystal Palace, where a chorus of 2000 singers was bolstered by a vast romantic orchestra. After Sir Thomas Beecham's "modernization" of the oratorio, scientific and scholarly musicologists have striven to return to authenticity. Grappling with a multitude of contemporary changes, additions and versions, they have made redoubtable efforts in this quest. Many modern audiences can now have the opportunity through reasonably authentic performances to bear out Beethoven's astute remark.
Julian Herbage in 1954 wrote a succinct and adequate summary of Messiah's stature. "Messiah stands apart from all Handel's other oratorios. Its text alone places it in a category by itself. But its setting also is more continuously inspired than anything else that Handel ever wrote. It is a spiritual epic that could have been conceived only by a composer with an instinctive sense for the dramatic in music. Its keynote is simplicity and directness of statement, but it is a simplicity in which are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."