by Kalindi Bellach ©2017
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Since its composition in 1741 and premiere in Dublin in 1742 ,George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah has become a holiday tradition. Although nowadays it is performed almost exclusively at Christmastime, it was originally presented at Easter. The current institution of performing Messiah during Christmas, especially popular in the United States, may have been born at least partly of necessity: Laurence Cummings explains that “there is so much fine Easter music – Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, most especially – and so little great sacred music written for Christmas.” However, if you read the libretto, written by Charles Jennen, you will see that an Easter performance is fitting. Jennen drew his text from the Old Testament prophecies of Christ’s coming all the way through the New Testament accounts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Jennen was not trying to create a narrative as much as a contemplative piece. He writes, “[The oratorio is] a meditation on our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief.”
Handel’s Messiah is an example of a new genre, the English oratorio, which was explored, shaped, and developed by Handel, and has ensured his lasting popularity. It’s not that the oratorio form was new; it was tied more to Italian opera than to the English vocal tradition, which served as one of Handel’s chief inspirations. The Italian oratorio, however, is similar to an opera, based on a sacred subject, and performed in a concert hall rather than a theatre. For Handel, the oratorio was no less dramatic or vital than opera. Essentially, he viewed the oratorio as a sort of transposed opera, the main difference being the expanded roles of the chorus.
Handel’s use of chorus is one of his most significant modifications to the genre of oratorio, which traditionally used a minimal number of ensembles. Handel gave the chorus much more distinction within the structure, as evidenced in Messiah. Laurence Cummings, director of the London Handel Orchestra, explains, “The chorus propels the work forward with great emotional impact and uplifting messages.” The chorus’s viral contribution in Messiah serves several key roles: sharing in the drama, moving the narrative along, and, as musicologist Peter Burkholder adds, even “commenting on events like the chorus in Green drama…. The grand character of his choral style… [places] emphasis on communal rather than individual expression.” Handel’s generous and appropriate use of the chorus (and orchestra to support the vocal parts) is certainly a factor in the popularity of Messiah.
Handel completed Messiah in only twenty-four days during August 1741. No doubt this sounds like a ridiculously short time to us, but it was not unusual for Handel to produce sizeable works in the gap between theater seasons. Also, while many of his works show evidence in the sketches and correspondence of extensive collaboration with the librettist(s) – there are many letters between Handel and Jennens concerning Saul and Belshazzar, for example – it seems Handel worked on Messiah without such collaboration. The assumption that he left the text virtually untouched is further borne out in a letter written in July 1741 from Jennens to a friend: “Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion Week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”
In creating new compositions, Handel often borrowed from his older works and the works of others. This was fairly common practice at the time, and no doubt also facilitated the speedy completion of new pieces. Handel lifted material more gracefully than most and usually managed to improve upon it in some way. For example, the section in Messiah that begins, “All we like sheep have gone astray” is based faithfully on one of Handel’s earlier Italian duets; the text fits perfectly with that older melody. As Burkholder points out, the chorus sings, “All we like sheep” as a group, then the words “have gone astray” in separate melodic lines. “We have turned” is set to an undulating figure, and “everyone to his own way” is characterized by the persistent repetition of a single note. The only new material in this section appears at the end, as the chorus shifts inexorably into a slower, minor key with the words “And the Lord hath laid on Him in iniquity of us all.”
Messiah is set in three main parts. Musicologist Donald Burrows describes Part I as “[dealing] with God’s promise and God’s comfort, and its season is Advent and Christmas.” “Comfort Ye” and “Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted” are especially lovely sections – with “ecstasy being expressed in vocal brilliance,” according to Burrows. “Thus Saith the Lord” submerges us into the darker key of D Minor, coloring the references to the trembling of the heavens and earth. The first allusions to the Nativity story also appear in Part I, with the joyful “For Unto Us a Child is Born” following Isaiah’s proclamation that “darkness shall cover the earth.”
Part II contains the darkest moments in Messiah, including Christ’s suffering and Passion. It opens with “Behold the Lamb of God” and, according to Burrows, is intended for the season of Passiontide and Easter. The famous “Hallelujah” chorus ends Part II.
Part III is associated with Ascension and Pentecost and concerns the promise of redemption and resurrection. Following the glory of the “Hallelujah” chorus, the gentle soprano air “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” welcomes us into the lovely glow of E Major. The key change and the character are exactly what we need; Handel’s excellent orchestration skills are evident as he manages to heighten the effect left by the “Hallelujah” chorus, which in the moment feels like the climax of the entire work. He closes the work with a double chorale finale: “Worthy Is the Lamb” and “Amen.”
Although Messiah is performed hundreds of times each year around the world, there is no definitive version of it. Handel reworked parts for soloists with varying abilities as well as for whatever group of instrumentalists were available to him at any one time. Therefore the instrumentation has remained inconsistent. Critic Michael Steinberg explains, “Messiah is a moving target. Until 1754, Handel changed it every time he revived it, which was often; in fact, even the first performance departed from what he had originally written.” In 1798, Mozart re-orchestrated Messiah to give it a “more modern sound” more in keeping with the ideals of the Classical period, but included a note that his changes should not be viewed as any “effort at improvement.” On hearing Messiah, Beethoven remarked that its composer was the “greatest composer that ever lived.”
Messiah calls for four soloists, a soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass, and a full four-part chorus. The orchestra part is scored for pairs of oboes and bassoons to double the choral lines, two trumpets, timpani, strings, harpsichord, and organ. Accounting records from early performances indicate that Handel sometimes included two French horns as well, but there’s no record of what they played, as there are no horn parts.
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