by ROBERT STEVENSON
No choral masterpiece in history has won such universal acclaim from non musician and musician alike as Handel's Messiah. Premiered April 13, 1742, in Neale's Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin, before an audience of 600, it caused "exquisite delight" and at the same time raised 400 pounds for the release of 142 prisoners. Handel continued directing annual performances in London from 1750 through 1759 to raise funds for his favorite charity, the Foundling Hospital. Thirty years after his death Charles Burney wrote that it was continuing to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and foster the orphan."
In 1852 Lowell Mason (1792-1872), composer of the tune for "Joy to the World" (1839) "adapted from Handel" and many of Charles lves's other favorite tunes, heard Messiah at the Birmingham Festival – thereafter ecstatically reporting that a single morning performance raised the equivalent of $13,500 "for the succoring of the orphan, comforting of the widow, and relief of the distressed." He continued by equating Handel with Shakespeare and claiming that after a century Messiah was "still as fresh and new" as in 1742: adding that "indeed the more it is heard the better it is appreciated."
Nor has its fame abated in 1977. In 1975 when the BBC conducted a survey of listeners' top ten favorites in the religious-text category, only Handel entered the list twice - with the Hallelujah Chorus that ends Part II of Messiah and "I know that my Redeemer liveth" that begins Part III occupying third and fourth slots. By contrast, Bach entered the list once -with the selection now known as "Jesu, joy of Man's desiring" from Cantata 147 (1716) taking eighth place.
Various explanations have been given for the uniqueness of Messiah. The more romantically inclined enjoy repeating Sir Newman Flower's unconfirmed story of Handel's having been swept aloft into other worldly ecstasy while in the white heat of putting the score on paper between August 22 and September 14, 1741. Other expositors rank Messiah as unique because all the music in it was his own original creation: none of it arranged from Carissimi, Urio, Erba, or their ilk, and only the four duet choruses "And He shall purify," "For unto us a Child is born," "His yoke is easy," and "All we like sheep" being adaptations of his own Italian duets composed July 1 and 3, 1741. That Handel himself regarded Messiah as unique is also argued from the fact that, contrary to his frequent habit, he later on adapted none of it for use in subsequent works.
Still other commentators ascribe the uniqueness of Messiah to the grandeur of the Biblical texts selected and linked together with consummate tact and skill by Charles jennens (1700-1773), the librettist of not only Messiah but also of Saul (1735), L'AIlegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740), and Belshazzar (1745). Then again, there is the obvious fact that of Handel's 17 English oratorios spanning the two decades from Esther (1732) to Jephtha (1752), only Messiah treats of the central figure of the Christian religion. None of the rest treads on New Testament ground. All the others having been composed for London, where the figure of Christ was kept off theatre boards, perhaps Messiah (disguised with A Sacred Oratorio as its title when produced at Covent Garden in 1743) would not even have been allowed an absolute premiere there, as a theatre piece. Nonetheless, once produced, its subject drew the public as did none of the subjects of his dramatic oratorios. Winton Dean, the outstanding authority on his dramatic oratorios, even goes so far as to assert in his 1973 Encyclopedia
Americana article on Handel that its unique present-day popularity rests squarely on its uniquely appealing subject.
Ironically, the bulk of the texts come from the Old, not the New Testament. Among the 56, 52, or 47 numbers (depending on which recitatives are counted as separate numbers), the book of Isaiah is the scriptural source of ten items in Part I treating of the Promise and the Coming of the Messiah, and of five numbers in Part II dealing with Christ's Rejection and Sufferings. The book of Psalms accounts for eleven items in Part II. Haggai 2:6-7, Malachi 3:1-3, and Zechariah 9:9-10 supply texts for four items in Part I. Job 19:25-26 furnishes the opening lines of the ineffably beautiful aria with which Part III on the Conquest of Death begins: "I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God." The rest of the texts in Part III duplicate the scriptural passages read in the Church of England Burial Service.
All told, Jennens supplied Handel with 31 numbers quoting Old Testament texts. With great discretion, he chose not only passages that allow for contrasting recitatives and arias, solos and choruses, but also he now and then slightly altered the wordage (not the meaning). Above all, he "showed great skill in the choice of sentences and words peculiarly susceptible of smooth musical declamation. For the first time in musical history, the mighty drama of human redemption was treated as an epic poem. Jennens translated the facts of Christ's life into exalted symbols of human destiny. Logically, Handel’s masterpiece should be called Redemption, for the texts celebrate the idea of Redemption rather than the merely temporal events in Christ's life" (R. M. Myers: Handel's Messiah [New York, 1948], 57, 59-60).
To account for the libretto, one 19th-century debunker invented out of whole cloth a secretary named Pooley who did most of the compiling (William Hone: The Every-Day Book [London, 1827), III, part 2, column 651) . But Handel himself always acknowledged Jennens as solely responsible. So also did Jennens's funeral orator, the Reverend George Kelly, who in preaching the obituary sermon January 2, 1774, justly remarked: "As long as the Love of Taste and genuine Harmony prevail, so long should his Memory meet with a due Regard for that judicious arrangement of Words we find in the sacred performance of the Messiah ."
Not only did Dublin provide the necessary commission for Messiah and the needed permission for an "Entertainment" based on Christ's mission, but also Paul Henry Lang argues in his monumental George Frideric Handel (New York, 1966), chapter XIII, that Handel while composing Messiah kept constantly in mind the more modest vocal and instrumental resources likely to be met in Ireland. Rather than an established Italian diva it was to be the actress of small voice but large dramatic instinct, Susanna Cibber (Arne's sister), who sang the mezzo soprano air "He was despised" at the Dublin premiere on April13 and repetition on June 3, 1742. The soprano soloists were Christina Maria Avoglio "who appeared from nowhere in London in 1740 and just as suddenly disappeared without a trace four years later" and the otherwise unknown Mrs. Maclean whom Handel met with her organist husband at Chester en route to Ireland; the alto soloists were William Lambe and Joseph Ward, the tenor soloists James Baileys and John Church, the basses John Mason and John Hill. All the men soloists and choristers were recruited from Dublin church choirs. Two soloists to a part means that one sang some of the airs in his range, the other the rest. The combined choirs of Christ Church and St. Patrick's Cathedral furnished the 16 men and 16 boys that sang the choruses. Those from St. Patrick's sang with the reluctant permission of the now half-mad dean, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), victim of his own Gulliver fancies.
The choruses in Handel's autograph 138-folio score for Dublin (at the British Library- British Museum since 1957 with call- number R.M. 20.f.2 [obi. 4to.]) are all accompanied by strings and continuo, augmented in " Glory to God" with two trumpets, in "Their sound is gone out" with two oboes, in "Hallelujah," "Worthy is the Lamb," "Blessing and honor," and "Amen" with trumpets and kettledrums. Four oboes were used at London performances (after 1750 and possibly earlier) to bolster the boy sopranos in 14 choruses, two bassoons to double the basso continuo in the Overture and Pastoral Symphony. Because even for London performances Handel's instrumentation was by later standards considered sparse (56 English performances were given in his lifetime), Mozart was commissioned by Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1734-1803) to provide "additional accompaniments" for Viennese performances directed by Mozart March 6 and April 7, 1789. In such numbers as ''The people that walked in darkness" (Isaiah 9:2) Mozart went so far as to defeat Handel's express intentions by adding counterpoints to his dramatically stark unisons. Other later fattenings of Handel's instrumentation fall even wider of the mark, sullying the transparencies that he intended. However, since any one performance that he himself directed always took careful account of the singers and instrumentalists available for that specific occasion, any pretended " authentic" Messiah must recognize the variants sanctioned by Handel himself.
The concertmaster of the Dublin orchestra (mostly strings and continuo, with oboes and trumpets sparsely indicated in the score and timpany held in reserve until the Hallelujah Chorus) was Matthew Dubourg (1703-1767). A London-born pupil of Geminiani who at 25 was appointed to lead the viceroyal music at Dublin, he returned to London to play a violin solo and lead the orchestra at the London premiere of Messiah, March 23, 1743, when (as on the following March 25 and 29) it was disguised as merely A New Sacred Oratorio to avoid offending those who resented the Covent Garden theatre environment for a commercialization of Christ's activities.
Among changes for London, the last soprano aria in Part I, "Rejoice greatly" (Zechariah 9:9-10)- in the autograph for Dublin da capo aria in 12/8 lasting 204 measures- was advantageously thinned to the 108 measures of 4/4 now universally preferred, the rhythms all being muscularly tightened during the revision. In the Dublin version, the duet immediately following "Rejoice greatly" was for two sopranos and in B flat throughout. But in London versions he divided "He shall feed his flock" between an alto singing the first section in F and a soprano singing the rest in B flat. Numerous other smaller and greater changes force our concluding that even his thoughts during the memorable 24 days when the heavens were opened before his eyes and he saw the Lord God sitting on His throne later proved susceptible of improvements.
No other paramount composer is now so exclusively remembered by an achievement of his 56th year. No other masterpiece has so consistently retained its hold on the public. None other more effectively bridges the gap between the masses and the classes. No prior composer did so much to democratize great music. As his reward, none other's fame and name have been so steadily enshrined for two centuries.