Handel's Messiah: The First Performance

Handel's Messiah, first performed 250 years ago, is undoubtedly one of the great musical masterpieces of all time. Composed in only 24 days, it is the work of a genius which holds an extraordinary place both among the composer's works and in the history of music. No other work of its time has seen a continuous sequence of performances from 1742 to the present day.

In the course of these 250 years the Messiah has been performed in many different ways. The wish to adhere closely to the composer's own practice was followed by gestures of conscious departure, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the availability of piano scores spawned the practice of performing the work with large (usually amateur) choirs accompanied by a single instrument, an organ or even a piano, resulting in versions which not only distorted the Handelian score, but also ignored the composer's intentions. Recently, however, there has been a general awareness of the argument of authenticity in modern performances. Much research has been done and many articles and books have been published, particularly in
1985, the Handel anniversary year, all of which have led up to a greater understanding of the work. Nevertheless, despite the frequent use of original instruments, large scale performances are still very much the norm.

It is therefore perhaps surprising to many to discover that Handel, when composing the work, was guided by an unusual wish for economy. Uncertain of what forces he would find in Dublin, he had written for a small string ensemble with trumpets and timpani. Nor was there a complete distinction between soloists and choristers. Some of the soloists were drawn from the Dublin Cathedral choirs used by Handel and the other soloists also sang in the chorus. The modern practice of performing the work with four soloists and a separate choir was not Handel's intention. In fact, he rarely used less than six soloists and they almost always sang in the choruses as well. The Scholars Baroque Ensemble's version of the Messiah is an attempt to be faithful to Handel's original intentions and provides an opportunity to hear the work as first performed on 13th April 1742.

Handel himself made several changes during the seventeen years of performances before he died, so The Scholars Baroque Ensemble make no claim that their version to celebrate 250 years since the first performance is the definitive one. The following notes will be of interest to those who are familiar with the work:

Instrumentation: There were no oboes or bassoons in the first performance, only a small string band with 2 trumpets and timpani. (There are, for example, no con or senza ripieno marks in the
original score, these being added later for larger-scale performances in London.) Oboes were also added for later performances, but only served to double the voices. Although there are no separate parts for a double bass, there are clear indications in the score of its use by changes of clef in the part.

Singers: Handel had sixteen singers including both female and boy sopranos. The soloists formed part of the choir and Handel used both contralto and counter tenor soloists as well as more than one soprano, tenor and bass. For later performances in London he also revised two bass arias for a castrato soloist.

"But who may abide", known nowadays as an aria for alto, was originally written for bass and entirely in 3/8. The version for alto was probably re-written by Handel in 1750, some eight years after the first performance, and often was performed by a castrato.

Pifa suggests by its title shepherds' music played traditionally at Christmas by the Italian pifferari (pipers, shepherds). The familiar middle section was added later by Handel but eventually rejected.

"Rejoice greatly" The original shows Handel's notation in two different time signatures. The bass continuo part is in 4/4 whereas the violin and solo soprano part, both containing triplet patterns throughout, are marked 12/8. The final version, with the entire score in 4/4, probably did not appear until 1749. The aria in its original version was written for the only Italian opera soloist amongst Handel's singers.

"He shall feed his flock". The Recitative and entire aria were originally written for soprano.

"Thou art gone up on high" was originally written for bass. The commonly-heard versions for alto date from 1750 and were written for a castrato.

"How beautiful are the feet" The now famous aria for soprano was marked as "A Song ommitted in the performance" and was probably reinstated in 1749 to precede immediately the chorus "Their sound is gone out", which was written in 1749 and therefore not part of the earlier performances (this chorus is the only one with separate oboe parts which gives added support to the fact that oboes were not used until about 1749). The original version was for alto duet leading straight into the chorus "Break forth into joy".

"If God be for us" The aria (these days normally sung by a soprano soloist accompanied by solo violin) was sung in the first performance by the famous contralto Mrs Cibber who sang it transposed down to C minor accompanied by tutti violins.


"Handel's Messiah: The First Performance"  David van Asch.  1992.  Naxos Liner Notes for Scholars Baroque Ensemble. <

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