Messiah - George F Handel (1685 - 1759)


When Handel settled in London in 1712 there was already a thriving Italian opera scene and he soon became its leading figure, with a succession of brilliant works flowing from his pen. However, then, as now, the economics of opera were constantly on a knife-edge and making a profit on these costly ventures was difficult and unpredictable. Despite their critical acclaim, Handel’s Italian operas never attracted large audiences. They were mainly supported by the aristocracy and the upper classes. Public taste was changing quickly, though, and by the 1730s people were becoming increasingly intolerant of the unfamiliar language, ridiculous plots, arrogant soloists and over-elaborate music. They now demanded something less highbrow and more home-grown. Box office revenues started to plummet as rival companies competed with each other for the dwindling audiences and the costs of opera production escalated. Handel had invested heavily in his own company and this alarming collapse seriously affected his finances.


Faced with possible bankruptcy the ever-resourceful composer turned to oratorio as a potential solution to his financial difficulties. Though oratorio has much in common with opera it is not staged and is consequently a great deal less costly to produce. It was a genre in which Handel had already experienced some modest success, beginning with his first English oratorio, Esther, composed in 1720. He now found himself working more and more on oratorios and in February 1741 he staged his last Italian opera, which closed after just three performances.


Handel's oratorios were deliberately aimed at a new audience: the Protestant middle classes. The musical style was largely direct and straightforward and the librettos, in English, were generally based on passages from the Old Testament, a common literary heritage with which everyone was thoroughly familiar. In an era of increasing prosperity and expanding empire these vivid Biblical stories of larger than life heroes leading a people who, if they followed God’s law, were specially protected and given victory over their enemies, must have held particular resonance for the middle classes of eighteenth century London. Musically, Handel’s most significant innovation was his use of the chorus, which was given a much greater role and now enjoyed equal status with the soloists. His monumental style of choral writing, calculated to impress with great blocks of vocal sound – exemplified in such pieces as the 1727 coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest was ideally suited to the task.


In 1741 Handel had already begun work on a new work, Messiah, when he received an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to visit Dublin. He accepted the invitation, taking his Messiah score with him. It was first performed at the New Music Hall, Dublin, in April 1742, and was an unqualified success. One effusive review ran: ‘Words are wanting, to express the exquisite Delight [Messiah] afforded to the admiring, crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.’ In addition to its musical impact, its success was also due to the general approval of the donation of a large part of the proceeds to various Dublin charitable institutions, a pattern later repeated in London with Handel’s association with the Foundling Hospital.


Though Messiah shares many common characteristics with Handel’s other twenty or so oratorios, it is the least typical in several respects: it has more choruses than any other except Israel in Egypt; it does not have a newly written libretto but one compiled from existing short passages from the Bible; and it has no named characters or overall narrative, presenting instead a series of contemplations on the life of Christ and Christian redemption. The success of Messiah owes much to the fine libretto compiled for Handel by Charles Jennens, who had previously collaborated with him on his oratorio Saul. Jennens’ extensive knowledge of literature and music made him in many ways an ideal creative partner for Handel, though the relationship was not without its tensions.


The work is divided into three parts. Part One deals first with the prophecies concerning Christ’s birth. An appealing sequence of Christmas movements follows, comprising the chorus ‘For unto us a child is born’, with its powerful setting of the words ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Counsellor’; recitatives depicting the angels bringing the good news to the shepherds; and the imaginative final chorus, ‘Glory to God’, which ends with a diminuendo as the angels disappear from sight.


Part Two is the dramatic heart of the work. It tells of Christ’s passion, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Here we find a wide range of emotional expression, from the crowd’s derisive taunts in ‘He trusted in God’, to the heartbreaking alto aria, ‘He was despised’ and the bass soloist’s fierce rage in ‘Why do the nations’. This part ends, though, on a gloriously optimistic note, with trumpets, drums and chorus blazing out their triumphant ‘Hallelujah!’.


Part Three consists entirely of commentary, principally on the resurrection and the theme of Christian redemption. In a work that abounds in superb music, this section contains some of Handel’s most inspired writing, beginning with the radiant soprano aria, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’. Equally superb is the bass aria, ‘The trumpet shall sound’, with its spectacular trumpet solo. However, it is in the towering final choruses, ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and ‘Amen’, that Handel truly surpasses himself with music that carries all before it in an exultant affirmation of faith.


Throughout, Handel’s writing for orchestra and solo voices is masterly, the fruits of a lifetime’s musical experience. Arguably, though, it is the choruses that raise Messiah onto a different plane, thanks to Handel’s unerring ability to grasp the dramatic potential of each text and the astonishing power and variety of his choral writing.


Handel composed Messiah in just twenty-four days, a remarkably short space of time but not exceptional by his own extraordinary standards. What is almost beyond comprehension, however, is how in these three weeks he was able to create a work of such sustained inspiration, power and seemingly inexhaustible invention. More than 250 years have passed since its first performance, yet Messiah’s status as one of the great icons of European music remains undiminished, and it continues to speak to millions of people of many cultures and faiths around the world.


 John Bawden

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