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The famous Messiah composed by George Frideric Handel

Messiah, by George Frideric Handel, is an English oratorio crafted in 1741 in collaboration with Charles Jennens, who compiled the scriptural text. It premiered in Dublin on the 13th of April, 1742, and went on to become one of the most widely performed and well-known choral works in the Western music repertoire.

Handel and Charles Jennens

George Frideric Handel (Left) and Charles Jennens

 

Origin

Messiah was crafted for modest vocals and instrumentals, with elective settings for multiple individual numbers. After Handel’s demise, the oratorio was adopted on a bigger scale, with colossal choirs and orchestras. There were several other efforts to revise and amplify the orchestrations, most famously by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, titled “Der Messias.”

History & Performances 

Handel completed composing the oratorio in just 24 days. Charles Jennens had completed the text within mid-July 1741, and Handel began working on it in August. The composer’s personal record displays that the outline of Part I was completed by August, while Part II and III were completed within the second week of September. The finished work was completed on the 14th of September, 1741. However, Jennes wasn’t impressed with the fact that the final draft was crafted on such short notice. He further accused Handel of “careless negligence,” that the composer had vehemently refused to make suggested improvements, which ultimately sprained their relationship. There is evidence of haste in the score, including some uncorrected errors, unfilled bars, and blots, but critics argue that the volume of such errors is remarkably small when compared to the length of the document. The original score is now stored in the British Library.

Handel made several revisions to his original manuscript before the premiere in Dublin. He continued making recompositions and revisions for the next decade, mostly to suit the singers associated with performance. Also, Handel chose Dublin for multiple reasons. He was aware of the criticism he faced in London the previous season and wanted to avoid another critical failure, especially with an unorthodox composition like Messiah. Frideric Handel’s oratorios generally offered dramatic confrontations anchored by a powerful plot. However, Messiah offered a slackened narrative, covering the journey of Christ from birth and sacrifice to resurrection. Back then, Dublin was one of the most prosperous and rapidly developing cities in Europe, with a wealthy and sophisticated Elite community who enjoyed the eagerness and financial clout to stage such a cultural event. The success of Messiah in the now Irish Capital gave him the confidence to bring it back to London, where it repeated the feat.

London wasn’t as rosy to Messiah as Dublin, and the “Covent Garden Theatre” it was performed in was deemed a disreputable and inappropriate place to perform such a sacred story. It even forced Handel to suppress the word Messiah in his advertisements. He instead opted for “A New Sacred Oratorio.” In 1750, Handel decided to perform at the annual charity of the Foundling Hospital. The benefit concert turned out to be a massive critical and financial success, and Messiah never had to look back again. It was extensively performed at cathedrals and festivals throughout Britain. In 1768, performances were organized in Florence. It crossed the Atlantic in 1770 and was performed in New York City. The late 1770s saw it travel to Hamburg and Mannheim, where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart got his first taste of a Handel oratorio. In 1767, the complete score of Messiah was published for the first time, eight years after Handel's demise.

Messiah performance at Foundling Hospital

Performance at Foundling Hospital

 

Musical Overview

Part I

The opening symphony of Messiah is set in E minor for strings. This was also Frideric Handel’s inaugural usage of the “French overture.” This “Sinfony” attracted some criticism, with Charles Jennens depicting it as “unworthy of Handel” while Charles Burney, his biographer, found it “uninteresting and passive.” It was followed by a key change to E major, completing the transition to the first prophecy. Multiple key changes follow as the prophecies unravel, culminating into the chorus titled, “For unto us a child is born” set in G major. The choral exclamations of these sections are inspired by Handel’s own Italian cantata titled “Nò, di voi non-vo'fidarmi.” The passage offers a flawless dramatic effect, a Handel trademark.

The next part offers a “pastoral interlude” which begins with precise instrumental movement. The pastoral interlude that follows begins with a short instrumental movement called “The Pifa” derived from “pifferari” or shepherd bagpipers, who performed during Christmas on the streets of Rome. “The Pifa” is followed by a group of short recitatives, which further introduce the solo soprano. The soprano also performs the aria, “But who may abide” in G minor. The final recitative is set in D major and subsequently followed by the chorus, “Glory to God.” The remaining portion of the first part is dominated by a soprano in “B flat,” offering a much welcomed tonal stability. The aria used in this section, titled, “He shall feed his flock” experienced multiple transformations. The composer utilized it in various forms, namely soprano, duet, alto aria, and recitative. The original version was restored much later, in 1754. The part concludes with the chorus, “His yoke is easy,” one which the critics consider as a masterstroke, offering a delicious blend of musical charm and dignity.

Part II

It starts off in G minor, exuding a tragic sentiment, and is quickly followed by an elongated sequence of Passion numbers. Next, the rhetorical chorus “Behold the Lamb of God” is presented in fugal form, subsequently followed by an alto solo in E flat major, titled “He was despised.” It is the longest piece in the oratorio, emphasizing a sense of abandonment. Soon, short choral movements follow in F minor, with the aria “All we like sheep,” set in F major, offering a brief respite. The opening sequence offers a combination of music depth and grandeur, once again highlighting the composer’s genius.

The sense of misery returns soon in B flat minor, for the recitative titled “All they that see him.” Another chorus titled “Lift up your heads” completes the sequence, lifting the tempo slightly. Handel had initially segregated this section into two distinct choral groups but later reformed it by adding a third (two horns) with the original bass, tenor, and choir. The effect was palpable towards the end of the chorus. Next, the celebratory aria, “Let all the angels of God worship him,” set in D major paves the way for a set of contrasting arias. “How beautiful are the feet” induce calm, while “Why do the nations so furiously rage” is more theatrical, culminating in the effervescent “Hallelujah.” The enthusiasm evoked here is highly contagious, as it feels like a full circle after deceptively building the tempo from the mild orchestral opening. The short ensemble chants carry the middle passages effectively, with the frequent reappearance of the trumpets duly elevates the musical essence.

Hallelujah: Handel's original score

Hallelujah: Handel's original score

 

Part III

Part III opens with a solo titled “I know that my Redeemer liveth” set in E major. It is also one of the few numbers that remain untouched from its original form. The simple and consoling rhythms along with the violin accompaniment are enough to tickle the audience’s emotions. The solo is followed by the chorus titled, “Behold, I tell you a mystery” set in D major. Next, the long aria titled “The trumpet shall sound” picks up the pace minimally. Handel had originally set this in ‘da capo’ form but later changed it to ‘dal segno.’ This section exudes the traditional extended trumpet tune is the only significant solo instrumental used in Messiah. After introducing a brief ‘solo recitative,’ the tenor comes into play with the duet titled, “O death, where is thy sting?” The music is adapted from “Se tu non-lasci amore,” Handel’s own cantata. The duet is succeeded by the chorus titled “But thanks be to God.” A reflective solo called “If God be for us” ushers in the aria “Worthy is the Lamb” set in D major. This choral finale manages to overshadow the mighty genius of the “Hallelujah” chorus.

Handel's original score of "Worthy is the Lamb"

Handel's original score of "Worthy is the Lamb"

 

Recordings 

Messiah is scored for violins, oboes, and trumpets together with viola, timpani, and basso continuo. The original published score, along with more documented recompositions and adaptations, has been the main basis for the future versions performed since Handel’s lifetime.

  • In 1928, Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the first performance of Messiah’s near-complete recording. In 1947, he recorded another version of his work to widespread critical acclaim.  
  • In 1954, Hermann Scherchen recorded another version based on the original scoring of the oratorio. 
  • In 1965, John Tobin edited and published the “Bärenreiter Edition” of Messiah.
  • In 1965, Watkins Shaw edited “The Novello Edition,” which was published earlier as a vocal score.  
  • Colin Davis and Charles Mackerras conducted two new recordings in 1966 and 1967 for Philips and HMV, respectively. 
  • In 1972, Donald Burrows edited “The Peters Edition” of the oratorio. The vocal scores were also published in that year and utilized the adapted numbering format concocted by Kurt Soldan.
  • In 1979, Christopher Hogwood utilized period instruments to implement authentic styles of performing the oratorio. In 1982, John Eliot Gardiner followed his footsteps and crafted another version.  
  • In 1993, Leonard Van Camp edited another version titled “The Van Camp Edition,” which was subsequently published by Roger Dean Publishing. 
  • In 1998, Clifford Bartlett recorded “The Oxford University Press” edition of Messiah.
  • In 2009, the latest edition of the oratorio was recorded by Jan H. Siemons and Ton Koopman, titled “The Carus-Verlag Edition.”

Like a Thunderbolt

In 18th-century Britain, crafting an opera or oratorio was a financially precarious task, as it is to date. The composer had to bear the pocket pinch for hiring musicians, singers, their costumes, and even had to rent theatres on their own. Profits were scarce, and Handel was already struggling with his Italian operas at the start of his London career. Developing an oratorio in English at that point in time turned out to be a masterstroke. He not only carved a way to perpetuate the essence of orchestra, choirs, and soloists but also dispensed off the exorbitant expenditure on props, costumes, and sets.

Messiah offers a “high baroque” style, with various conventions of the Baroque era embedded within the oratorio. Similar to Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach, Frideric has dished out large works, albeit in separate pieces with unique and contrasting themes. For instance, a rapid chorus following a slow aria - or a recitative devoid of metrics exploring various emotions and ideas preceding an aria, which is more metrically and melodically bound.

Messiah is a testament to these characteristics. The writings ooze a rapid harmonic rhythm, with frequent and regular changes in harmony. Fast-paced sections offer an almost motor-like tempo, with vividly portrayed melodic ideas. This is where George Frideric Handel stamps his musical authority. Even the peerless Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart offered self-confessed humility when faced with Handel's genius. Mozart touted him as a true master of effect, one whose music struck like a thunderbolt. Messiah remains an iconic palette of music from Handel’s playbook of oratorios, one so ingrained in the music repertoire - that it’s easier to take its eminence and exuberance for granted.

 

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