|Messiah, A Sacred Oratorio Completed in 1741
During the second decade of the eighteenth century, Handel settled in
England, there to win his greatest fame and influence. One of his
reasons for locating there was the current popularity of a type of
music with which he was already quite familiar, and through which he
had won great success: Italian-style opera. Over the next 30 years, he
devoted the major portion of his creative energies to supplying English
audiences with that type of piece. London’s music lovers received
his operas enthusiastically; Julius Caesar, Ariodante, and Serse proved
especially popular. Listeners found Handel’s purely instrumental
music very much to their liking as well.
As time passed, fashions in music changed. The English public grew
tired of Italian opera’s absurd plots, posturing soloists, and
ornate vocal style. Another reason for its decline stemmed from the
unending stream of satiric assaults launched against it by such widely
read wits as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.
They found what they were looking for on several fronts. One source was
comic stage pieces based on the popular melodies of the day, such as
The Beggar’s Opera (1728). The most important new entertainment
style, however, was oratorio. It represented not only a change from
opera, but also a chance for audiences to hear and to relish
presentations given in their own language–a powerful inducement
to enjoyment on several levels.
Handel, to his great financial distress, caught on to this trend only
slowly. He had actually contributed to the decline of Italian opera by
throwing together too many pieces too quickly, thus allowing the
quality of his output to decline. But once he finally did recognize the
direction the musical wind had shifted, he began producing a most
successful series of English language oratorios. They gradually helped
him regain his title as his adopted country’s favorite composer.
In structural terms, opera and oratorio have a great deal in common.
They both involve casts of solo singers, a chorus, and an orchestra,
performing a sequence of recitatives, arias, ensembles, and
instrumental interludes. But in oratorios there are no costumes,
scenery or props, and this type of piece is performed in concert halls
and churches, rather than in opera houses. Another important difference
lies in subject matter. Operas deal strictly with secular topics;
oratorios frequently treat sacred ones as well.
By 1741, the waning of interest in opera had reduced Handel’s
financial stature dramatically. It had also left him deeply depressed
and in sore need of stimulation. During the summer of that year, the
Lord Lieutenant of Ireland offered Handel the opportunity to visit
Dublin to stage a series of concerts featuring Handel’s music.
Shortly after receiving this request, and in the period of just over
three weeks, the composer created a new oratorio. Charles Jennens
prepared the libretto, drawing on sources from both the Old and New
Testaments. Handel took along Messiah, as he had named the piece, to
Dublin when he journeyed there in December 1741.
He staged a dozen successful concerts over the following months, then
announced with great fanfare that his new oratorio would receive its
première on April 13, 1742. He cannily arranged for a public
rehearsal to take place the day before. It caused a sensation. As a
result, hundreds of eager listeners had to be turned away from the
official first performance. Since then, performances of Messiah have
been countless, its impact incalculable. As English musicologist
Charles Burney wrote 40 years after the première, "this great
work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing
reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked,
fostered the orphan, and enriched succeeding managers of the oratorios."
The first London performance of Messiah took place in 1743, a year
after the première, but nearly a decade passed before it began
to find favor with that city’s audiences. British soldiers first
occupied Pensacola in 1763 at the close of the French-Indian War. The
eighteen years that the British flag flew over Pensacola was a period
of prosperity. In London during this same period, Handel’s
Messiah became so popular that in 1784, audiences heard two significant
performances in Westminster Abbey as part of a festival known as a
"Commemoration of Handel." Huge performing forces—possibly as
many as 500 musicians—were gathered together for this occasion,
setting a standard for large-scale stagings that endures, in many
circles, to the present day.
Messiah cemented its popularity in Britain even further during the
nineteenth century, at a time when amateur choral societies, spurred on
by the new availability of inexpensively printed vocal scores, began to
spring up throughout the land. In 1836, Messiah was the first
full-length oratorio which London’s Sacred Harmonic Society took
into its repertoire. Other amateur choral groups followed suit, until
Messiah became the one piece which virtually all of them performed,
usually on an annual basis.
Many elements have won Messiah its enduring popularity: the richness
and variety of the music, the insightful matching of word and sound,
and the consistently inspired evocations of such universal emotions as
pathos, serenity, and joy. It is also a deeply satisfying work to
perform, whether the artists are seasoned professionals or enthusiastic
Messiah is unusual as an oratorio, as it does not relate a specific
story. Nor do the soloists sing particular roles. Jennens designed the
work as a contemplation. Messiah consists of three sections. Part One
tells of the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah, and the nativity.
Part One ends with the chorus singing "His yoke is easy, His burden is
Part Two describes the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It
concludes with the familiar "Hallelujah" Chorus. One of Handel’s
servants is said to have come upon him directly after he had composed
this portion and heard him exclaim, "I did think I did see all Heaven
before me, and the great God Himself!" It was at this point, during one
of the early London performances, that King George II spontaneously
rose to his feet in a spirit of exaltation. Audiences have
traditionally repeated this practice ever since.
Part Three considers the Word that is left behind. The spiritual
messages represented by Christ’s teachings are set forth for the
instruction and benefit of all. It opens with the moving soprano aria
"I Know That My Redeemer Liveth," and concludes with a final chorus of
Although purists may object that the number of singers at our
performance strays far from the size chorus for which Handel composed,
one suspects that he, the consummate showman, would have been delighted
to marshal such forces, as long as they did justice to his music.
Tonight’s "Legacy from London" performance of Messiah continues,
with affection for this beloved masterpiece, the tradition begun so
notes for Handel's Messiah" Anonymous. Choral Society of