Handel: Messiah

 

Musical score for the oratorio Messiah, by German-British composer George Frideric Handel 1685-1759. Title page. Printed by Messers Randall & Abell, London, 1747. Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, Bologna Italy. (Photo by: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images
Musical score for the oratorio Messiah, by George Frideric Handel.

Every Christmas the music of the Hallelujah Chorus fills our churches and concert halls, is streamed over the radio, television, and on Social Media.  Originally intended as an Easter work, the oratorio from which it is taken, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, has become synonymous with Christmas around the world for over two and a half centuries.

Handel

George Frideric Handel was born on February 23rd, 1685 in Halle, Germany, roughly forty-four km northwest of the city of Leipzig.  His father, a ‘surgeon-barber’,  intended his son to pursue a career in law, however, the Duke Johann Adolf I of Saxe-Weissenfels [1] on hearing the eleven year old Friederich (which was the way his name was spelled at that time)  play the organ, persuaded the elder Handel to allow  his son  to  use his talents in the world of music.

In 1702, Handel then 17 years old, was offered the organist position at the Cathedral of Halle.  The following year he traveled to Hamburg and befriended Georg Philipp Telemann, a ‘reluctant lawyer, who introduced him to opera [2]. In 1705 Handel presided over the premiere in Hamburg of his first opera, Almira [3]. It contained an epilogue, created by Reinhard Keisser, one of the preeminent opera composers of the day [4].

Between 1706 and 1710 Handel visited Italy, where some of the greatest musicians of the day–Alessandro Scarlatti and his son Domenico, Francesco Gasparini, and Arcangelo Corelli—were based. Handel was invited to Florence by Marchese Frencesco Ruspoli, who would later become a patron to the young musician [5].  He composed ‘many works’ in Italy, including, two operas, numerous Italian solo cantatas (vocal compositions), another oratorio, and Latin choral music [6].

In June 1710, at 25, he landed the post of Kapellmeister (a director or conductor of music) to Georg, Elector of Hanover, ‘on terms so favourable as to stretch credulity: a generous salary, plus “leave to be absent for a 12-month or more if he chose it, and to go whithersoever he please”’ [7]. Also appreciative of the Handel’s talent was the British Ambassador, Charles Montagu, who invited him to visit England [8]. Handel accepted the Ambassador’s invitation and, prior to starting his position of Kapellmeister, he travelled to England where he would remain for a year.

In England Handel was sought out by the manager of the Queen’s Theatre (later, the King’s Theatre) at Haymarket, Aaron Hill,  who had ‘sketched out’ [9] a libretto based on the story of  Rinaldo and Armida from Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), an epic poem by Torquato Tasso. With a final libretto by the theatre’s own Giacomo Rossi, Handel, in two weeks, composed the music for Rinaldo, his first opera performed in England [10].   Rinaldo premiered on February 24th, 1711 at Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, [11]. Gramophone.co.uk, reports Rinaldo contained ‘a string of show stoppers… recycled, like so many of the arias, from music [he] had written in Italy’ [12].

As in Italy, Handel’s work on Rinaldo was a ‘total success’ [13].  At the end of the London theatre season, Handel returned to his position in Hanover [14].

In 1712 he visited London again to follow up on his previous year’s success. His second opera produced in London, Il Pastor Fkikdo (The Faithful Shepherd), was not well received however, [15]. Nonetheless the following year he won the ‘favour’ of Queen Anne of England with his Ode for the Queen’s Birthday, and other pieces.  The Queen granted him an allowance of   £200 for life [16].

Upon the Queen’s death in 1714 Handel’s patron, Gerog, Elector of Hanover, became George I, King of England. (The great grandson of King George I, George III, would decades later lose Britain’s American colonies in the American War of Independence.)

In 1717 George I, experiencing difficulties both personal and political, decided to hold a concert on the River Thames. He enlisted his court composer, Handel, to write the music.  The result, a ‘suite for small pieces’ called Water Music, was first performed by an orchestra of fifty musicians on a barge on the river [17]. Water Music, together with Messiah, would become two of Handel’s best known works.

In 1719, Handel was invited to become the Master of the Orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music, the first Italian opera company in London. He accepted [18].

In 1727 Handel became a British subject which gave him the opportunity to compose pieces for the coronation of George II in that year, and the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline a decade later [19]. Also in 1727 Handel broke away from the Royal Academy of Music, and formed his own company, The New Royal Academy of Music. He wrote much music at this time, including two operas a year for ten straight years [20].

The revivals in 1732 of Handel’s masques Acis and Galatea and Haman and Mordecai (later, renamed Esther) led to the establishment of the English oratorio—a large musical composition for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, without acting or scenery, and usually dramatizing a story from the Bible in English-language lyrics [21].

During that time, a noted literary scholar and librettist became an admirer of Handel’s music. His name was Charles Jennens.

Jennens was educated at Ballol College, Oxford, [22].  Handel biographer, Christopher Hogwood, says Jennens was a wealthy ‘country gentleman…whose ostentation made many of his contemporaries his enemies’ [23].

Nonetheless, despite his alleged shortcomings, Hogwood notes, he was a ‘man of taste and learning,’ well versed in the Classics.

[F]or sometime he had subscribed to all of Handel’s publications and obtained manuscript copies of most of his output.  He had, moreover, a remarkable ability to construct the type of libretto that suited Handel best: whether dealing with the Scriptures or Milton, he could isolate and distil the drama and characterization without adopting a moralizing posture. Handel clearly respected his views, however conceited their expression [24].

Jennens had purchased regular subscriptions to Handel’s music since 1725, and by the 1730s  had become personally acquainted with the composer. He furnished ‘texts for the dramatic oratorio Saul (1738), [and] collaborated on the extensive masque L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il moderato’ [25].

In January of 1739 Handel premiered the oratorio Saul [26], the libretto for which, Hogwood postulates, Jennens had sent to him, unsolicited, in 1735 [27]. The oratorio was a success.

On July 10th, 1741, Jennens wrote 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… [28].

Messiah

The Creation of Messiah

Jennens libretto may have remained untouched for years had Handel not received an invitation from William Cavendish, an Irish diplomat, to participate in the following season’s ‘oratorio concerts for a number of Dublin charities.’  Handel, coming off a disappointing season the previous year, a year where his previous oratorio, Israel in Egypt, flopped.  So when the opportunity arose to perform a brand new oratorio to a different audience, Handel jumped at the chance.

The prospect of a new public, a charitable cause and a series of concerts (instead of the single benefit Jennens had proposed) galvanized Handel into planning a series of entertainments’… For the sacred component he immediately took up Jennens’s new libretto and began work on Monday, August 22, 1741 [29].

Twenty-four days later, on September 14th, the music for Messiah was completed.  Handel arrived in Dublin on 18th November and began to organize his concerts for the following season.  On April 13th 1742 Messiah premiered ‘at ‘the New Musick Hall in Fishamble-street’ [30]. It was a charity performance that benefited the imprisoned, the hospitalized and the infirmed [31].

Irish interest in Messiah was extraordinarily high from the beginning. The theatre in which it was first performed seated 600, but was forced to accommodate 700 [32]. Ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses and men were asked to leave ‘the swords at home.’  Handel directed the performance from the organ [33].

In 1743 Handel took Messiah to Covent Garden in London and then to the King’s Theatre two years later. The reception in England was quite different from Dublin. How could such a sacred work be performed in a public venue, an opera house, and not a church? How could the scandalous actress and singer, Susanna Cibber, who performed the alto parts, be allowed to perform ‘He Was Despised’ and other pieces?  It was not until 1750 when Handel presented Messiah to benefit the Foundling Hospital, a hospital for orphaned children, that the success Messiah initially received in Dublin was finally repeated in England. How could anyone object to sacred music performed for orphaned children?  Messiah was performed at the hospital every year for the rest of Handel’s life [34], and at the time of his death in 1759 Messiah had become as ‘firmly established’ as it is today [35].

The Structure of Messiah

Jennens takes eighty verses from the Bible and weaves them into a concise and essential narrative of the birth, sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Though Messiah is about Christ, says Handel and Jennens expert, Ruth Smith of Cambridge University, seventy of the eighty scripture passages on which Jennens based his libretto are taken from the old testament.  “[H]e’s showing that the Bible is a whole, that it is consistent, that it is to be believed in and that these prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament were fulfilled by Jesus” [36].

For a performance of the oratorio at the Moody Bible Institute on November 16, 2016, Messiah is described as follows: [The work features] three distinct parts: prophecy, passion and resurrection. The solos and choruses of each section reflect the emotions identified by listeners: anticipation and comfort, grief and pain, and hope and victory [37].

Here are the three parts of Messiah represented by purely subjective selection of musical pieces, and their accompanying scriptures.

Part 1: The Messiah through Old Testament Prophecy

No. 2:   Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Isaiah 40: 1-3       Recitative, accompanied.

No. 8: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son., and shall call his name Emmanuel. Isaiah 7:14

God with us. Matthew 1:23 Recitative.

No. 12: For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6 Chorus.

Part 2: The Sacrifice and Suffering of Messiah for the Sins of Mankind

The suffering is not just the suffering on the Cross, but of being rejected and despised by man.

No. 23: He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Isaiah 53: 3. He gave his back to the smiters and his cheeks to them who plucked off the hair, he hid not his face from shame and spitting. Isaiah 50:6 Aria.

No. 24: Surely he hath born our griefs and carried our sorrows: he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him. Isaiah 53:4,5 Chorus.

No. 26: All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:6 Chorus.

Towards the end of Part 2 is the hope of deliverance, the hope of reconciliation.

No. 30: But thou didst not leave his soul in hell nor didst thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption. Psalm 16:10 Arioso.

No. 36 Thou art gone up on high, thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men, yea even for thine enemies, that the lord God might dwell among them. Psalm 68:18, Aria.

And, at the end of Part 2, is the famous Hallelujah chorus (Praise ye the Lord) ushering Part 3

No. 44 Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Revelation 19:6. The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and eve., Revelation 19:15. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Revelation 19:16 Chorus.

Part 3:  The Redemption of Mankind through the Messiah’s Resurrection

No. 45 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 I shall see God. John 19:25,26 For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep, Corinthians 15:20 Aria.

No. 50 O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. I Corinthians 15: 55,56 Duet.

No. 53 Worthy is the lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, glory and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen Revelation 5:12-14 Chorus.

The Message of Messiah

Why has Messiah resonated with audiences for almost 275 years?  Three experts provide their respective  points of view.

Messiah goes to the very heart of the Christian faith and it articulates it in a way which is subtle but simple… [I]t’s music that speaks to me of a profound spiritual longing for mankind to be raised up. And if I didn’t have that vision before my eyes I think I would flounder. It’s part of my moral and musical landscape that will never fade and, I think, my feelings are probably echoed by millions of other musicians and music lovers around the world. John Rutter, Composer, Professor, King’s College, Cambridge University, [38].

I think the dominant force of…Messiah is the symbiotic relationship between the words and the music that cannot really be separated…I go back to ‘He Was Despised’ which seems so obvious to me but it was the most natural outpouring, “He was despi-sed…despi-sed and rejected. Rejected of men…”, I mean, how can you separate those?  Ellen T. Harris, Professor of Music, MIT [39].

It’s about the ‘big issues, isn’t it…that’s why it’s a great piece. It’s about belief. It’s about darkness. It’s about finding light. And that can be interpreted in the strict religious…tradition, or it can be seen as a metaphor for our lives, and that’s why, I think, Messiah, like so much of the Christian repertoire, is of great value to us, even in a world that has become increasingly secular. It’s almost the gift that keeps giving. Paul D. McCreesh, Conductor, Gabrielli Consort and Players, England. [40].

The Legacy of Messiah

By 1759, the year of Handel’s death, Messiah was a firmly established piece. Music festivals, choral societies, choirs, performed the work regularly, often with a much larger number of participants than originated the work.   When Handel conducted the piece, Messiah was performed by about fifty or sixty people, as it was at the premiere in Dublin. As the work grew in popularity the number of participants increased as did the audience size. At one event an orchestra of 500 musicians and 4,000 signers performed for an audience of 87,000. [41].

Several men and women of note have gravitated towards the piece.  In 1784 and 1785 John Newton, the former slave ship captain and author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, delivered a series of fifty sermons on the scriptural passages on which the Messiah libretto was based [42]. (For my blog on John Newton, please see John Newton, Amazing Grace). Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart produced a version of the oratorio in 1789 [43].  Upon hearing Handel’s music, Joseph Haydn was ‘struck as if he had been put back in the beginning of his studies and had known nothing up to that moment. He meditated on every note and drew from those most learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur,’ [44]. Ludwig van Beethoven is reported to have said, citing Messiah, that Handel was the “greatest composer that ever lived” [45].

Final Thoughts

Depending on your religious beliefs, Messiah is the result of either a wild series of coincidences or a stroke of Divine intervention. Three of the principals involved were undergoing severe personal trials. The alto, Susanna Cibber had been suffering an abusive marital relationship, and had birthed two children out of wedlock, children who were then taken away from her; the devout protestant Jennens was mourning the suicide of his brother; and Handel was recovering from health problems as well as suffering a dismal musical season the previous year. Into this is thrown an unsolicited libretto which Handel probably would have set aside had it not been for an unexpected invitation to compose, for charity, for an audience for whom he had never written. Whatever the explanation, Messiah came into being under the most unlikely of circumstances, and, 275 years later still speaks to millions of people around the world—still enthralling, still inspiring, still universal.

© Weldon Turner, 2016 All Rights Reserved.

Next month: C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.

Image

Musical score for the oratorio Messiah, by German-British composer George Frideric Handel 1685-1759. Title page. Printed by Messers Randall & Abell, London, 1747. Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, Bologna Italy.

(Photo by: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images

Editorial license secured.

References

[1] Christopher Hogwwod, Handel, Thames and Hudson, 2007, p12
[2] Hogwood, Handel, p21
[3] Hogwood, Handel, p26
[4] Hogwood, Handel, pp26-27
[5] Hogwood, Handel, p31
[6] Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Frideric-Handel accessed, December 17, 2016
[7] Gramophone.co.uk, http://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/focus/handel-conquers-london,  accessed, December 17th, 2016
[8] Hogwood, Handel, p47
[9] Hogwood, Handel, p62
[10] Hogwood, Handel, p62
[11] GFHandel.com, http://gfhandel.org/handel/chron1.html, accessed December 18, 2016.
[12] Gramophone.co.uk,  http://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/focus/handel-conquers-london, accessed December 17, 2016
[13] Hogwood, Handel, p63
[14] Hogwood, Handel, p67
[15] Hogwood, Handel, p66
[16] Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Frideric-Handel, accessed December 18, 2016
[17] Hogwood, Handel, pp 71-72
[18] Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/p eople/george-handel-9327378#opera, accessed December 22, 2016
[19] Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Frideric-Handel,  accessed December 18, 2016
[20] Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/people/george-handel-9327378#opera,  accessed December 22, 2016
[21] Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Frideric-Handel   accessed, December 17, 2016
[22] GFHandel.org, http://gfhandel.org/handel/messiah.html, accessed December 17, 2016
[23] Hogwood, Handel, p154
[24] Hogwood, Handel, p154
[25] GFHandel.org, http://gfhandel.org/handel/messiah.html, accessed December 18th, 2016
[26] Hogwood, Handel, p156
[27] Hogwood, Handel, p153
[28] Hogwood, Handel, p167
[29] Hogwood, Handel, p167
[30] Hogwood, Handel, p175
[31] Hogwood, Handel, p175
[32] Handel’s Messiah, BYU Broadcasting, 2015
[33] Handel’s Messiah, BYU Broadcasting, 2015
[34] Handel: Messiah, Philips, 2003
[35] Handel: Messiah, Philips, 2003
[36] Handel’s Messiah, BYU Broadcasting, 2015
[37] Moody.edu, https://www.moody.edu/unsorted/edu-pages-microsites-handel-messiah-handel-s-messiah/
[38] Handel’s Messiah, BYU Broadcasting, 2015
[39] Handel’s Messiah, BYU Broadcasting, 2015
[40] Handel’s Messiah, BYU Broadcasting, 2015
[41] Handel: Messiah, Philips, 2003
[42] Hogwood, Handel, p242
[43] Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-glorious-history-of-handels-messiah-148168540/ , accessed December 22, 2016
[44] Hogwood, Handel, p243
[45] Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-glorious-history-of-handels-messiah-148168540/, accessed December 22, 2016

 

Bibliography

Christopher Hogwwod, Handel, Thames and Hudson, 2007

Links

Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Frideric-Handel accessed, December 17, 2016

Gramophone.co.uk, http://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/focus/handel-conquers-london,  accessed, December 17th, 2016

GFHandel.com, http://gfhandel.org/handel/chron1.html, accessed December 18, 2016

Gramophone.co.uk,  http://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/focus/handel-conquers-london, accessed December 17, 2016

Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Frideric-Handel, accessed December 18, 2016

Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/p eople/george-handel-9327378#opera, accessed December 22, 2016

Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Frideric-Handel,  accessed December 18, 2016

Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/people/george-handel-9327378#opera,  accessed December 22, 2016

GFHandel.org, http://gfhandel.org/handel/messiah.html, accessed December 17, 2016

[37] Moody.edu, https://www.moody.edu/unsorted/edu-pages-microsites-handel-messiah-handel-s-messiah/

Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-glorious-history-of-handels-messiah-148168540/ , accessed December 22, 2016.

One thought on “Handel: Messiah”

  1. Thank you, I didn’t have any of the back-story of this musical work. So very interesting. I don’t believe it’s creation is due to coincidence, sure it’s Divine intervention.

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