Handel’s Messiah

Handel's Messiah

Another musical Christmas tradition is Handel’s Messiah, although originally it was an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin in April 1742, and it was the most famous concert Handel gave. The Dublin Journal of 27 March 1742, announcing the first performance of Messiah (it was the rehearsal performance), stressed its charitable aims: ‘For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12 April, will be performed at the Musick hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel’s new Grand oratorio, call’d the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handell.’

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner
George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner

Dublin was then the second-largest city in the British Isles, and this was Handel’s first and only visit there. There were several reasons for the choice of Dublin Messiah’s debut. Handel had been downcast by the apathetic reception that London audiences had given his works the previous season. Handel’s last two Italian operas, Imeneo and Deidamia, were both failures with fickle London audiences. Handel did not want to risk another critical failure, especially with such an unorthodox piece. Other Handel oratorios had strong plots anchored by dramatic confrontations between leading characters. But Messiah offered the loosest of narratives: the first part prophesied the birth of Jesus Christ; the second exalted his sacrifice for humankind; and the final section heralded his Resurrection.

Dublin was one of the fastest-growing, most prosperous cities in Europe, with a wealthy elite eager to display its sophistication and the economic clout to stage a major cultural event. The city had an active theatre and concert life and Handel’s visit coincided with the opening of a new concert venue, the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, where Handel gave two performances each of L’Allegro, Acis and Galatea and Esther between December 1741 and February 1742. Handel only brought over the soprano Avolio and a few assistants from London, but the Lord Lieutenant’s court at Dublin Castle boasted a small orchestra, and numerous professional singers worked at theatres and in the city’s two cathedrals. These local musicians formed the core of Handel’s musicians and the first series of subscription concerts was an enormous success. He was persuaded to stay longer than planned and produced another concert series which included Alexander’s Feast and Hymen, an unstaged serenata adapted from Imeneo. This was Handel’s last performance of an Italian opera.

The Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin
The Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin

During this time, Handel’s celebrity grew, both as a composer genius and as a major character. At one performance, a solo violinist called Dubourg took off on a flight of fancy, and got rather lost; eventually he found his way back to the place where he’d left off. To the delight of the audience, Handel’s voice resounded loudly through the hall: “You are welcome home, Mr Dubourg!”

The second series of concerts finished on April 7, 1742, but Handel was hungry to capitalise on his eager audience, so he arranged the first performance of Messiah for April 13. Expectation was high: the rehearsal on April 12 was ticketed and the following morning excited newspapers reported that the oratorio “far surpasses anything of that Nature, which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom”. Not a bad review! Advertisements requested that Ladies attend ‘without Hoops’, and that ‘Gentlemen are desired to come without their swords’ in order to increase the capacity of the hall. Handel estimated that the venue could hold 600, but an extra 100 people crammed in. No fire regulations then!

The premiere of Messiah was a triumph. The alto soloist, Susanna Cibber, was an actress who had attracted scandal in the past, but legend has it that her emotional performance of ‘He was despised’ moved Dr Patrick Delany – the husband of one of Handel’s most ardent champions – to exclaim “Woman, for this, be all your sins forgiven”. The Dublin Journal’s review proclaimed that “the best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded 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.”

Memorial plaque for Messiah's first performance, Dublin
Memorial plaque for Messiah’s first performance, Dublin

The performance was repeated a few weeks later to another crowded audience. Messiah has taken its place ever since as the most famous oratorio of all time. Citing Messiah, Ludwig van Beethoven himself called George Frideric Handel “the greatest composer that ever lived”.

Now, of course, Messiah is a fixture of the Christmas season. Woe to the concert hall in the western world that fails to schedule the piece around the holiday, when, as well, CD sales and Web downloads of the oratorio soar. Little bears are partial to Tafelmusik and their performance of Messiah is sublime.

For many amateur choirs, the work is the heart of their repertoire and the high point of the year. In most of Handel’s oratorios, the soloists dominate and the choir sings only brief choruses. But in Messiah the chorus propels the work forward with great emotional impact and uplifting messages.

He was born Georg Friedrich Händel in Halle, Germany, into a religious, affluent household. His father, Georg Händel, a celebrated barber and surgeon in northern Germany, wanted his son to study the law. But an acquaintance, the Duke of Weissenfels, heard the prodigy, then barely 11, playing the organ. The nobleman’s recognition of the boy’s genius likely influenced the doctor’s decision to allow his son to become a musician. By 18, Handel had composed his first opera, Almira, initially performed in Hamburg in 1705. During the next five years, he was employed as a musician, composer and conductor at courts and churches in Rome, Florence, Naples and Venice, as well as in Germany, where the Elector of Hanover, the future King George I of England, was briefly his patron.

Handel’s restless independence contrasted him with the other great composer of the age, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), whom he did not meet. Bach never moved out of the cocoon of court patronage or church employment. Handel, on the other hand, rarely attached himself to any benefactor for long, although he would compose court music when asked. He wrote The Water Music (1717), one of the few of his pieces other than Messiah recognizable to the average concertgoer, for George I, to be performed for the monarch as His Majesty’s barge navigated through a London canal on a summer evening. But Handel didn’t hang around palace antechambers waiting for his lordship or royal highness.

Such free-spirited musical entrepreneurship was more than possible in London, to which Handel moved permanently in 1710. A commercial boom underpinned by overseas trade had created a thriving new merchant and professional class that broke the monopoly on cultural patronage by the nobility. Adding zest to the London music scene were rivalries that split the audience into two broad musical camps. On one side were defenders of the more conventional Italian opera style, who idolized the composer Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) and brought him to London. Enthusiasts of Handel’s new Italian operas cast their lot with the German-born composer. The partisanship was captured in a 1725 verse by poet John Byrom:

Some say compared to Bononcini,
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny;
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle.

Increasingly elaborate opera productions led to rising costs due, in part, to hiring musicians and singers from Italy, as it was generally agreed Italian singers were better trained and more talented than local products. But beautiful voices were often accompanied by mercurial temperaments. At a 1727 opera performance, Handel’s leading sopranos, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, actually came to blows onstage, with their partisans cheering them on.

In the 1730s, the emotional and financial toll of producing operas, as well as changing audience tastes, contributed to Handel’s growing interest in sacred oratorios — which required neither elaborate scenery nor foreign stars — including, eventually, Messiah. The oratorios generally caused Handel fewer problems than the operas, but they weren’t all plain sailing either. Many of the stories of the oratorios were taken from the Bible, two of them directly quoting text from the Holy Book. Some people were shocked by this – to them it was sacrilege to set sacred text to music intended for performance in theatres. And then, when the stories weren’t from the Bible, the same people would complain that it was wrong to present non-religious stories during Lent – which was when the oratories were generally performed.

There were also difficulties with the people who wrote the libretto. The most troublesome librettist was a man called Charles Jennens, who selected the text from the Bible for Messiah. Jennens was a good writer but he criticised Handel’s music quite nastily at times. He once wrote Handel such a horrible letter that it made him ill – much to Jennens’ delight. Not impressive!

Charles Jennens by Thomas Hudson
Charles Jennens by Thomas Hudson

Still, in July 1741, Jennens wrote to his friend Edward Holdsworth: ‘Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion Week. I hope he will layout his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.’ Handel began composition on Saturday 22 August 1741, completed drafts of each Part in about a week each, and ‘filled up’ the score in a couple more days, a total of 23 days for the complete work – an astonishing work-rate. It is generally believed that Handel composed Messiah in the composition room, on the first floor at the back of the house at 25 Brook Street, where Handel moved in 1723 and lived for the rest of his life. The house is now open as the Handel House Museum and little Puffles and Honey visited the museum in 2014.

Handel House Museum
Handel House Museum

Jennens and Handel produced great works together, and Handel probably wasn’t an easy collaborator either. Intensely loyal to friends and colleagues, he was capable of appalling temper outbursts. Because of a dispute over seating in an orchestra pit, he fought a near-fatal duel with a fellow composer and musician, Johann Mattheson, whose sword thrust was blunted by a metal button on Handel’s coat. Yet the two remained close friends for years afterward. During rehearsals at a London opera house with Francesca Cuzzoni, Handel grew so infuriated by her refusal to follow his every instruction that he grabbed her by the waist and threatened to hurl her out an open window. “I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!” he screamed at the terrified soprano.

Amassing a fortune through his music and shrewd investments in London’s burgeoning stock market, Handel donated munificently to orphans, retired musicians and the ill. A sense of humanity imbues his music as well — a point often made by conductors who compare Handel with Bach. But where Bach’s oratorios exalted God, Handel was more concerned with the feelings of mortals. Even when the subject of his work is religious, Handel is writing about the human response to the divine. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Messiah. The feelings of joy you get from the Hallelujah choruses are second to none. And how can anybody resist the Amen chorus at the end? It will always lift your spirits if you are feeling down.

Messiah’s success in Dublin was repeated in London. At first the London premiere on March 23, 1743, seemed disappointing by comparison. But the intense emotional power unleashed by the Hallelujah chorus assured the work’s eventual immortality and Handel’s lasting popularity. It took time for Messiah to find its niche as a Christmas favourite. There is so much fine Easter music — Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, most especially — and so little great sacral music written for Christmas. But the whole first part of Messiah is about the birth of Christ.

There is little doubt about Handel’s own fondness for the work. His annual benefit concerts for his favourite charity — London’s Foundling Hospital, a home for abandoned and orphaned children — always included Messiah. And, in 1759, when he was blind and in failing health, he insisted on attending an April 6 performance of Messiah at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Eight days later, Handel died at home.

His total estate was assessed at 20,000 pounds, which made him a millionaire by modern standards. He left the bulk of his fortune to charities and much of the remainder to friends, servants and his family in Germany. His one posthumous present to himself was £600 for his own monument at Westminster Abbey, final resting place for British monarchs and their most accomplished subjects. Three years after Handel’s death, the monument by French sculptor Louis François Roubillac, was installed.

Westminster Abbey, Monument to George Frederic Handel in the south transept
Westminster Abbey, Monument to George Frederic Handel in the south transept
Westminster Abbey, Monument to George Frederic Handel in the south transept, detail
Westminster Abbey, Monument to George Frederic Handel in the south transept, detail

Abroad, Handel’s reputation — and that of his best-known composition — only continued to grow. Mozart paid Handel the supreme compliment of reorchestrating Messiah in 1789. Even Mozart, however, confessed himself to be humble in the face of Handel’s genius. He insisted that any alterations to Handel’s score should not be interpreted as an effort to improve the music. “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect,” Mozart said. “When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”

Handel’s dramatic treatment of the oratorio’s content and subject matter has never been surpassed. The list of oratorios by Handel is truly impressive: Esther (1720), Deborah (1733), Saul (1739), Israel in Egypt (1739), Messiah (1742), Samson (1743), Semele (1743), Joseph and His Brethren (1743), Belshazzar (1744), Judas Maccabaeus (1746), Joshua (1747), Solomon (1748), Theodora (1749) and Jephthra (1751), to mention only the best known! All of these were first heard in London, with the exception of Messiah. Messiah has become synonymous with the most inspiring and most inspired example of oratorio writing. Here the glory of baroque music has reached a pinnacle shared only by Bach’s great Mass in B Minor.

From The Glorious History of Handel’s Messiah, The story behind the triumphant premiere of Handel’s Messiah and Why Handel Waggled his Wig by Steven Isserlis.

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