At  Last, Messiah

On this day — April 9 — in 1742, Handel's best-loved oratorio, Messiah, had its first public airing. The occasion, an open rehearsal before the official Dublin opening on the 13th, proved auspicious. The public response was enthusiastic; word quickly spread through the town that a major musical event was at hand. The fifty-seven year old composer had arrived in Ireland some months before, preceded by considerable fanfare. He was an international celebrity already, and the public was full of curiosity about the man, whose reputation had dazzlingly preceded him, and his music. Tickets were hard to come by. He had brought with him a bag full of appealing treats sure to please- L'Allegro, his highly praised setting of Milton was one such, as was Acis and Galatea, the Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, the early oratorio Esther, and even mighty Saul, the incomparable masterpiece composed only two years earlier. The treats were devoured happily by the public. Any misgivings Handel might have entertained as to the acceptability of Messiah's subject matter being performed in a secular context were assuaged for the moment.

However, that very issue of acceptability surfaced the following year at the London premiere, as indeed it had in 1739, with Israel in Egypt. Shocked by the idea of a work based entirely on Holy Writ holding forth in a profane venue, in operatic, albeit unstaged, trappings, London clerics and some members of the public hurled epithets such as "sacrilegious" and "heretical" at Messiah, with even greater vehemence than those cast earlier at Israel in Egypt.

It took several years for Messiah to find an audience and place. Handel's own Foundling Hospital performances in the years of his final decade prompted a number of revisions, including expanded or newly composed versions of some of the airs, and a general tightening of the overall structure. This procedure of altering works, sometimes substantially, in revivals was a common one with him, and not always a happy one - sometimes indeed causing dramatic and musical chaos in previously solid works! (One wonders at times: what could the man have been thinking?) It is a sign of his special devotion to Messiah that virtually all Handel's changes in it can be considered artistically and dramatically viable, made to accommodate the strengths/weaknesses of changing solo artists, but not at the expense of the continuity or integrity of the work. The recent fashion of presenting Messiah in one or another of Handel's own performing versions is commendable. I have chosen a more-or-less "standard" version, one that attempts to showcase the strengths of those who are participating in it, taking Handel's practice as example though not adhering specifically to a version he performed.

Almost immediately after Handel's death Messiah entered into a sad, but fascinating journey through a couple of centuries of bloat, distortion, and stylistic misrepresentation. Were it a less hearty work, had it not the strength of an artistic Samson (Samson, by the way, was completed barely forty-five days after Messiah) the distortions might have proved fatal.

The fact that they didn't is proof not just of Messiah's heartiness, but of its eminence as a true masterpiece, immutable in the face of the gargantuan choruses, Mahlerian re-orchestrations, and numbingly slow tempi which have been imposed upon it over time. Even in the face of stylistic misunderstandings and numerical immoderation, musicians and audiences willing to search for the underlying message - the truth - in Jennens's and Handel's collaboration have, I believe, generally found it. Audiences always seem to respond to honest attempts to get at Messiah's core. For some, faith is reinforced by the experience. For others, the satisfactions are intellectual and/or visceral (Jennens, after all, described Messiah as "a fine entertainment"). Religious considerations aside, the human drama implicit in the Scriptural narration is compelling. For those who need it, there is the satisfaction to be found in Jennens's straight-forward iteration of Christian orthodoxy - in the reconciliation of Old Testament prophecy with New Testament fulfillment. As with all great art, the world is a better place with each generation's discovery of Messiah's message.

What, then, is Messiah? One might begin by saying what it is not. It is not church music; has nothing to do with things liturgical. Handel's real church music, usually ceremonial, often celebrating a military victory or royal birth/wedding/death, can be full of attractive and/or stirring gestures, but often tends to lack the humanistic core of his dramatic works. Unquestionably, the center of Handel's creative life lay in the theater - with opera. Forced by changed circumstances to forego that medium, he took up, indeed invented, a new medium - not historically new, of course, but vastly different from any pre-existing models - that allowed him to stay as close to the aesthetic world of opera as possible. Oratorio allowed him - here's the truly new element - to promote the chorus (a benign nonentity in most operas of the period) to the role of participant and commentator at critical moments in the drama.

How do Messiah and Handel's other oratorios differ from Bach's passion-oratorios? I think Bach would never have considered his settings of John or Matthew suitable for a performance life outside the church. They are intrinsically liturgical in concept, even if unique in their expansiveness and complexity. They are firmly rooted in the Good Friday Lutheran tradition. The secular settings in which they are now most commonly performed would likely surprise, if not appall, him. Yes, like Handel's, they draw heavily on the prevailing Italian operatic models in terms of style, but the coloration, declamation, pacing, and tone are uniquely of the church, and specifically of the historic liturgical style of Lutheran Germany of his, and earlier times.

Handel's oratorios, on the other hand - even, and perhaps especially Messiah - have nothing to do with the church. They may have had some side purpose/benefit of attracting people to the church through Scripture. But they are of the theater. They are surrogate operas - all of them - intended for a diverse audience, not a congregation of same-thinking believers. It is perhaps ironic that Messiah is the only oratorio of Handel's that was performed in a sacred building during his lifetime - the chapel of the Foundling Hospital, annually during the last decade of his life - though, as Winton Dean points out, "only after it had won its spurs in several theatres and concert halls and at least one tavern." I don't know if Handel was a religious man. I know he was a spiritual one. He seems to have been comfortable living in and around the Anglican church. He was often, especially in his later years, seen on his knees at prayer in St. George's Church, Hanover Square, near his home in Brook Street. I have conducted eleven of Handel's oratorios over the last eighteen years, plus several oratorio- length masques, odes and operas "after the manner of an oratorio." That experience has been a great teacher.

I think the principal lesson I have learned is to respect Handel, the dramatist, an exuberant musical story-teller who, above all else, is determined to draw the listener into the story, and thereby perhaps to change his life. Whenever a librettist gave him an image - be it a scene from nature, a meditation on a loving relationship, a panegyric about an unjustly persecuted person or a whole subjugated people, a hymn to filial devotion, any allusion to conflict, personal or national - he never failed to find the exactly appropriate musical metaphor.


 "At Last, Messiah" Donald Teeters. 2004. The Boston Cecelia. <>

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