Difficult as it is to imagine, there was a time when Messiah was being performed for the very first time. To be part of that original audience, you’d just have to go back in time 275 years: to April 13, 1742 (for the official world premiere, that is; a public rehearsal had been given on April 9, 1742). And you would need to make sure to be in Dublin, armed with a ticket to be admitted among the 700 lucky audience members in attendance for the noon performance at the Great Music Hall on Fishamble Street. (As the name implies, this part of town had indeed served as Dublin’s official fish market until the end of the previous century.) The venue was new at the time, having opened only the year before.
Along with the soloists, there was a chorus of 16 men (alto, tenor, and bass) and 8 boys borrowed from the 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 the cultural historian Thomas Forrest 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 violist Thomas Dubourg, who was responsible for keeping the small orchestra together. From the performance parts Handel left in his will, Kelly deduces that the original orchestra plausibly would have consisted of four oboes and bassoons, possibly a horn(s), though no parts survive in the score he willed, two trumpets, organ, and harpsichord as continuo accompaniment, and of course strings (possibly 20). On the other hand, such experts as Christopher 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.
Why Dublin and not London, George Frideric Handel’s home base since he’d relocated there decades earlier from his native Germany? It so happened that the composer was wrapping up a winter residency in Dublin at the invitation of the Whig politician and aristocrat William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire. Handel had composed Messiah between August 22 and September 14 in 1741. No one knows for certain why he decided to have the new score premiered in Dublin — without even telling his collaborator, the librettist Charles Jennens (1700-1773), of the plan. Jennens did not keep a secret of taking offense.
Perhaps Handel was inspired by the enthusiastic response that greeted him in Ireland. Demand for his concerts was so high that a follow-up series was programmed. By contrast, his opera Deidamia had been a dismal failure in London the season before — the last straw in the declining fortunes of his career writing Italian opera for the English public. Because of the bleak outlook for the genre, which previously had brought Handel so much success in London, the had begun experimenting again with the English-language oratorio format.
In any case, Messiah was an add-on separate from the Dublin concert series. And it was a smash with those first audiences as well as with the press. It was also great PR for Handel, since he had organized the premiere as a charity event for Mercer’s Hospital for the sick and poor (Jonathan Swift was on its board) and for prisoners. The reception in London was another story. Handel waited until the following season, in 1743, but a controversy started raging in the London press. Was he really using the life of Jesus “for diversion and amusement” as one critic put it?
The debate had more to do with the secular context of the performance — at Covent Garden — and with the rather worldly reputations of some of the singers than with Handel’s music. He even attempted to meet these objections head-on by advertising Messiah as a “New Sacred Oratorio.” The original number of performances planned for London was cut down, and Messiah was revived for only one season (in 1745) before 1749, but the work then began to catch on. Starting in 1750, the oratorio became a charity event for London’s Foundling Hospital. The composer gave midday performances in the hospital’s newly built chapel. Note that the seasonal association ever since the premiere was still during the spring, at Eastertide. Only after Handel’s death did the association of Messiah with the Christmas season take root.
As mentioned, Handel composed the score within what to contemporary audiences can only be described as a miraculously short time frame: less than a month?! Yet such speed was not unusual for Handel nor for his contemporaries. He took a mere two-week break after writing Messiah to plunge into his next oratorio, Samson, which is considered a kind of “twin” to its predecessor. He did slow his pace a tad, this time taking more than a month and finishing it just before taking off for Dublin. (One is reminded of Donizetti’s quip when told that Rossini composed The Barber of Seville in 13 days: “I always knew Rossini was a lazy man.”)
Samson was based on John Milton’s Samson Agonistes. In the preface, Samson’s librettist Newburgh Hamilton gave a helpful definition of the 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.”
In other words, a winning combination of moral uplift with the entertainment values of opera — which was moreover free of that artform’s expense, costumes, and overpaid, egocentric star singers. Messiah quickly became not only a perennial favorite but one of the very first cornerstones of the very (modern) idea of the canon itself: a body of masterpieces that can stand the test of time and deserve to be performed repeatedly, for each new generation to discover their meaning within. This has in the interim become such a powerful development that Messiah eventually eclipsed the rest of the incredibly varied and rich career of Handel — and even the history of the oratorio.
That’s a strange situation, as Christopher Hogwood points out in his book on Handel. The exalted status Messiah enjoys, he writes, “makes it difficult for us to realize that for Handel its composition was an offbeat venture, unsure in its rewards and probably unrepeatable.”
Far from being the quintessential English oratorio, Messiah’s text represents an exceptional approach to the genre. Charles Jennens had collaborated previously with Handel on Saul, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, and Israel in Egypt (which will be presented in a staged performance by the Master Chorale in February), and later partnered with him on Belshazzar. Israel in Egypt had anticipated the method of construction of Messiah in the sense that its libretto arranges actual texts from the bible. But the process — which brings to mind a Baroque era Peter Sellars — is less straightforward in Messiah. Jennens, though a wealthy patron, was an outsider disaffected with contemporary English politics who wanted to posit is own theology of history. His idea was to juxtapose extracts from both the Old and the New Testaments to represent the basic narrative of Christian redemption. Rather than a biographical sketch of the life of Jesus, Messiah thus concerns the very idea of divinity becoming manifest in human history (hence the lack of the definite article — “the Messiah” — in its title).
There is very little dramatic impersonation of characters: the narrative is indirect and suggestive. Put bluntly, it’s 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 condensed version 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’s musical expression concentrates on the universal emotions that underlie each stage of the Christian redemption narrative. He was, after all, essentially a man of the theater, and Handel’s “operatic” genius for establishing the mood to suit a given situation is everywhere apparent.
But in opera, Handel typically accomplishes this through a lengthy chain of arias. The centrality of the chorus in Messiah allows for greater diversity: Part One establishes a pattern of recitative, aria, and chorus, which then allows for further variation in the other two parts. Handel moreover draws on the gamut of international styles of his era, mixing highly wrought, thrillingly complex Northern European counterpoint alongside straightforward, Italianate lyricism, majestic French rhythms, and homophonic choruses. He avails himself as well of an astonishing range of colors in the accompanying textures, though with a remarkable economy of instrumentation. Notice, for example, how the trumpets remain silent in Part One until “Glory to God” and are subsequently kept in the wings until the “Hallelujah!” chorus at the end of Part Two. (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 compelling 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; and the dancing exuberance of “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion.” Handel continually finds freshly inventive ways to “paint” the words through music — witness 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.
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 unbeatable, yet somehow Handel manages to follow it with still more glorious music: the soaring certainty of “The trumpet shall sound” and the progression of the choral finale, with its fugal setting of “Amen.” As the voices weave their threads together, that final word becomes a serene chant, all-encompassing in its resonance. At the end of his score, Handel wrote: Soli Deo Gloria: “To God Alone [Be] the Glory.”
Thomas May, program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.