Program Notes

Messiah – Handel


The Messiah is probably the best known and most enjoyed choral work today, and for good reason. It is a very singable piece. Its wide variety of choruses and solos provide an ever-changing treat for the ear. But the popularity of the Messiah is not new. The love of the Messiah by a German nobleman led to a commission for Mozart to write a new orchestration for the Messiah in 1789. What new can be said about this work, probably the most performed choral work, even discounting the multitudinous “do-it-yourself” or “sing-along” Messiahs? It is the one classical vocal work known to almost all non-classical audiences. (Many of us find too much truth, and too little humor, in the recent commercial featuring the record store clerk who identifies “classical” with the Rolling Stones!)

Handel’s real love was Italianate opera but Italianate opera was losing popularity. and the uncertain future of opera in England had pushed him in the direction of oratorios. In fact, 1728 saw the decline of the Royal Academy of Music, Handel’s London opera company. and the successful premiere of The Beggars’ Opera, written by John Gay and scored by John Christopher Pepusch to then-popular tunes. (This opera was rewritten by Brecht and Weil as The Three-penny Opera). Gay’s operetta satirized Italian opera, and reflected the changing tastes of the British public. Handel attempted to reconstruct a base for operatic productions, but met little success. He succeeded in keeping bread on the table with a series of oratorios and incidental music, including a number of concerti grossi which were used as intermission music for the oratorios.

The Messiah was composed from August 22nd to September 14, 1741 by George Frideric Handel, a 56-year-old naturalized British citizen of German birth. He set a libretto derived from the Bible and the Prayer Book Psalter by Charles Jennens. The Messiah was first performed at a benefit concert in Dublin Ireland on April 13, 1742. The proceeds were shared with several local charities, including the Foundlings Hospital, in Dublin The composer himself conducted. That success led to its subsequent performance in London. on March 23, 1743. After revisions, the performance of the Messiah became an annual tradition. With the Messiah and other oratorios, Handel made the oratorio the most important musical form in England.

Why did Handel write the Messiah?: Did he embark upon the furious creation of this work imbued with religious fervor? Or was it purely a commercial product? Robert Shaw has been a strong advocate of the position that Messiah, for all its Biblical background, is really a secular work, a work written to entertain more than inspire. We have the oft-repeated story of Handel telling his servant that while composing the Hallelujah Chorus he had seen the heavens themselves open. The story is suspect, not least because the listener may have been told what he wanted to hear, or perhaps may have misread a comment intended sardonically.

Handel himself does not appear to have been particularly religious. He had close associations with the Church of his time. His first employment was as a church organist in Halle. He had composed numerous sacred works such as the Chandos Anthems and the Coronation Anthems (including Zadok the Pries). He also had conflicts with Church, including his attempt in 1732 to stage a Biblical opera, Esther. The performance was thwarted by the Bishop of London, who banned stage productions of Biblical works. (Dramatic productions of any sort were already banned by ecclesiastical authority during Lent.) On the other hand, Handel’s devotion to the support of the Foundlings’ Hospital testifies to a strong charitable streak. It is probably fair to say that Handel, a shrewd exploiter of opportunities, viewed the church as part of the environment in which he operated, and which could stimulate audiences if the cards were played right.

However, even if Shaw is correct about the entertainment or commercial focus of the work, this does not tell us how to perform it. Handel’s productions typically employed about 40 singers and a chamber-size orchestra, 16-18 instruments. There is evidence that the original production was intentionally kept simple, possibly because Dublin lacked musical talent and/or facilities. Even though Handel conducted the work repeatedly, added instruments when available, and frequently omitted certain numbers, he made few permanent changes, evidently satisfied by what he had. Since that day, the Messiah has been performed by small chamber choirs and choruses of thousands. How fast were Handel’s tempos? They were unlikely to be greatly accelerated with the inexpert singers and instrumentalists he conducted. Were tempos pompously slow, as we have heard in some recordings – and have been forced to abide in some of the sing-alongs, with upwards of a thousand singers? Again, probably not. The truth, as always, lies somewhere between.

However, interpreting music, the comments of the noted musicologist, Dr. Hugo Goldschmidt (quoted by Max Spicker in the Introduction to the Schirmer edition): “The essence of reproduction, to feel and re-create that which was felt and imparted by the creator, does not exclude…the assertion of creative power… The interpreting artist creates, in a sense, the work anew…Whether singer or instrumentalist, he is a child of his time. His artistry is a product of its mental culture…Much that charmed former generations has no effect in ours; so much is part and parcel of the time that gave it birth, and decays with its passing…Here, again, another generation finds new treasures that earlier ones passed by unheeding. This is the unfailing criterion of true greatness, that its creations continually beget ever-new, ever-changing values, that they bring to each successive generation new revelations.”

J. R. Fancher