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Handel Messiah


Handel's Messiah (often called "The Messiah")is one of the Christian world's most popular musical works ever. It's a sort of 18th Century musical which can be appreciated on many levels, since it contains hummable tunes, rousing choruses, virtuoso arias, many memorable moments, and deeply spiritual texts. It's a great favourite with amateur choirs, and there is at least one choral society which exists for the sole purpose of performing Messiah, raising money for good causes in the process - the Messiah Choral Society, based in central Florida, USA. It is an oratorio which, apart from a couple of purely instrumental movements, consists of Bible passages from the Old and New Testaments sung by solo voices (with an occasional duet) or chorus, with orchestral accompaniment.

This enduring masterpiece was written in 1741 in London, UK, in Handel's house at 25 Brook Street (now a Handel museum open to visitors), at tremendous speed, and was completed in the space of about three weeks. The texts were selected by Charles Jennens (1700 - 1773), who was a literary scholar and an editor of the plays of Shakespeare. They encapsulate the central beliefs of Christianity, from the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Messiah1 through to the Nativity and crucifixion of Jesus, the Resurrection and Ascension, and the belief in final victory over sin, death and decay. So although Messiah is often thought of these days as a Christmas piece, it was quite rightly originally associated with Easter.

This is heavy stuff, imbued with profundities and hidden meanings, and the deep implications of life and death, good and evil, the past and the future, retribution and salvation, man and God. But Handel deals with all this in his distinctive style, in highly original music which is easy on the ear yet never banal. Some of the best-known numbers are:

'For Unto Us a Child Is Born'
'Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion'
'I Know That My Redeemer Liveth'
'The Trumpet Shall Sound'

In his earlier London years Handel had already achieved considerable fame and success, particularly with his operas, but by 1741 things were not so good. Performance costs had risen and he was losing money fast. He was suffering from insomnia, depression and rheumatism. His operas were loudly denounced by influential churchmen as profane and unseemly, and theatres such as the Covent Garden Theatre, which Handel ran at the time, were regarded in some quarters as the low haunts of dubious characters.

So when Handel received an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire to go to Dublin (the capital city and the seat of government of Ireland) and produce a series of charity concerts, he readily accepted. After all, Dublin in the 18th Century was one of the important musical centres of Europe, and he would be able to take Messiah with him and produce it there.

On his way over to Ireland he was delayed at Chester because the winds were wrong for crossing the Irish Sea, so he used the time by rehearsing Messiah with some singers from Chester Cathedral, but the results were not good. On one occasion, having asked the cathedral organist to recommend any choristers who could sing at sight, Handel auditioned a printer named Janson, who was supposed to have a good bass voice. Janson, however, was useless. Handel in fury said, 'You scoundrel, didn't you tell me that you could sing at sight?' to which the hapless printer replied, 'Yes, Sir, and so I can, but not at first sight!'

On arrival in Dublin, Handel initially ran into a storm of protest from the church authorities. His plan was to give his new oratorio its first performance at the New Musick Theatre in Fishamble Street. But the Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dr Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver's Travels), initially came out against him, writing as follows:

... whereas it hath been reported that I gave a licence to certain vicars to assist at a club of fiddlers in Fishamble Street, I do hereby annul and vacate the said licence, intreating my said Sub-Dean and chapter to punish such vicars as shall ever appear there, as songsters, fiddlers, pipers, trumpeters, drummers, drum-majors, or in any sonal quality, according to the flagitious aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy and ingratitude.

Swift must have relented, however, because the performance did take place, on 13 April, 1742, with 26 boys and five men from the cathedral choirs participating. It was a great success, and the fact that it raised money for several charities (a debtors' prison, a hospital, and so on) helped to bolster Handel's reputation in Ireland. He remained in Ireland for eight or nine months, and that sojourn was a great help to him in building up his bank balance, which had become severely depleted because of problems in London.

Messiah is in three parts, and Part II is brought to a rousing finale by the 'Hallelujah' Chorus, probably the best-known number from Messiah:

Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, Hallelujah!

After his successful Dublin trip, Handel returned to London, and the first London performance of Messiah took place at the Covent Garden Theatre (now the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) on 23 March, 1743, in the presence of the King, George II. When he heard the words, 'The kingdom of this world...' the King rose to his feet and remained standing until the end of the number. Various explanations have been put forward for this startling behaviour. It may have been in recognition that George's earthly kingdom was subservient to the Kingdom of Heaven. It may have been as a mark of awed tribute to the composer. Or it may have been that His Majesty had nodded off and jumped up startled by the loud music. As a matter of protocol, no-one could remain seated while the King was standing, so the whole audience stood throughout. The tradition remains to this day of the audience standing for the 'Hallelujah' chorus and is often observed even when there is no royalty present and even, it seems, among peoples who bear no allegiance to the British or indeed any monarch. On a later occasion, when the great composer Joseph Haydn heard the 'Hallelujah' Chorus in Westminster Abbey, he also stood with the rest of the audience, exclaiming with tears in his eyes 'He is the master of us all!'.

Many other 'Hallelujah' Choruses have been written, by Handel himself and by other composers such as Purcell, so the idea was not a new one, but of course the one in Messiah has eclipsed all the rest. Handel confided to a friend that while writing it he had a religious vision in which, he said, 'I did think I did see all Heaven before me - and the great God himself.'

Even during Handel's lifetime various parts of Messiah were revised and rearranged by him from time to time, often to suit the individual singers available for specific performances, so there is no single standard 'authentic' version. Handel died in 1759 (aged 74), and the first major revision by another musician began in 1788. That musician was Mozart himself, who revised and re-orchestrated it to suit the resources available for a series of performances in Vienna. Among other changes he made some cuts, and added some woodwind parts.

After Handel's death his cult, so to speak, gained strength and popularity, particularly in regard to Messiah. During the period 1784 - 1791, by which time another royal Handel fan, George III, was on the throne, several mammoth Handel commemorations were held in Westminster Abbey. These were huge occasions, employing up to 500 professional musicians.

By the 1820s the oratorio had become the musical experience, with Messiah well in the lead, and the regular festivals held in London and other major British cities such as Birmingham and Leeds were often a vehicle for the great oratorios. Many amateurs joined professional singers to form huge choruses, and Mozart's alterations to Messiah were usually incorporated. The USA premiere took place in 1818 (Boston), given by a volunteer singing society. By the time of the Royal Music Festival in Westminster Abbey in 1834 the number of performers had swelled to 644.

It didn't stop there. The Crystal Palace Handel Festivals began in 1857 and continued, usually every three years, till 1926. These would have over 3000 performers, and audiences would flock to them in their tens of thousands. But attitudes to monster events such as these were changing, and there was a growing movement towards more 'historically informed' performance practices, in a desire to get back to the 'authentic' scale and instrumentation of Handel's day. By the second half of the 20th Century professional performances of Messiah were tending to use much smaller forces. This is far more in keeping perhaps with the composer's original vision, but is still a subject of debate.

A notoriously flamboyant orchestration by Eugene Goossens (commissioned by and often attributed to Sir Thomas Beecham) was produced in the 1950s - embracing the full opulent might of the late Romantic symphony orchestra, it borders on the Wagnerian and is in many ways about as far from an "authentic" performance as it is possible to get. However, the shameless addition of everything but the kitchen sink does make for a uniquely dramatic experience, and this version was very popular in its day.

Nevertheless, even this version is conservative compared to the radical reimagining for the Millennium commissioned from Frank McNamara by the National Millennium Committee in Ireland. McNamara stated that his main aim in revising Messiah was to "update" the work for the modern generation's allegedly brief attention span, and to expand the musical language by adapting various numbers to include other ensembles that Handel would not have had at his disposal (for example, he adds a gospel choir to several movements). Although McNamara justifiably protested that his version of the work was never meant to replace the original (any more than Bernstein's West Side Story replaced Romeo and Juliet, or My Fair Lady replaced Pygmalion), and cited his Oxbridge musical education in defence of his musical craftsmanship, most critics nevertheless reacted extremely negatively. Many of them evidently rejected it instinctively, and some described it as an act of "musical sacrilege", whatever that might mean; the work was not a major success. It's interesting to compare works such as the Hot Mikado (a jazz version of Gilbert & Sullivan's evergreen operetta) and the recent jazz version of Bach's Christmas Oratorio by the WDR Big Band and the King's Singers for other, generally better-received, attempts to give old favourites a new twist. 

What is not in contention, however, is that Messiah has made an enormous contribution over the last 250 years to expanding and popularising the appreciation and performance of classical music, which during this period has broadened from the sole province of the elite into the recreation of all sorts of people.

Messiah was dedicated from its first performance to charitable purposes, and was bequeathed by Handel in his will to an institution for the relief of poverty. All over the world it has given enjoyment, and been responsible for raising enormous sums of money for worthwhile causes, ever since.

Handel was born in north Germany, but spent most of his adult life and wrote his greatest works in London, England. He was naturalised as a British subject by an act of Parliament, and when he died he was buried with the highest honours in Westminster Abbey, among the Kings and Queens of England and the tombs and memorials of the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. He should rightly be regarded as British.

The Handel family spelled its name in at least 15 different ways, including Händel, Haendel, Hendel, Handl and so on. Possibly originally Georg Friedrich, the composer's name appears in the Act of Naturalisation as 'George Frideric Handel', which is the version he continued to use subsequently, and is the version usually preferred in the English-speaking world.