Handel’s Messiah

Yulia Van Doren, soprano
Julie Miller, mezzo-soprano
Steven Soph, tenor*
Kevin Deas, bass-baritone
David Danzmayr, conductor

About the Music

The Jon Mac Anderson Program Notes underwritten by Porter, Wright, Morris and Arthur LLP

George Frederick Handel (1685-1759): Messiah, HWV 56
Instrumentation: Scored for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, chorus, strings, oboes, bassoon, trumpets and harpsichord.

On April 13, 1743, in Dublin’s Musick Hall, Handel’s Messiah was heard for the first time, as an Easter offering, before an audience of 700. In order to accommodate the most listeners possible, ladies were requested to leave their fashionable hoop skirts at home. Some Dubliners turned out on account of the contralto, Susannah Cibber, who was then in the throes of a scandalous divorce, but the majority were naturally on hand because of Handel himself, arguably the most famous composer alive. And because Handel’s music had not fared so well before London audiences the previous season, the composer decided that his latest oratorio would premiere elsewhere, before bringing it home to England. Dublin, a prosperous, fast-growing city, proved the perfect testing ground for Handel’s latest offering. Messiah was heard in London soon enough, although the score required far more time before becoming an established Christmas-time staple.

The son of a surgeon, George Frederick Handel was born and trained in Halle, Germany, where he demonstrated an unusual talent for music at an early age. Although his father initially intended for his son to pursue a career in law, it soon became apparent that his talents lie elsewhere. Eventually, Handel left for Italy, where he absorbed the popular Italian musical style en vogue throughout the continent. He then returned to Germany to serve the Elector of Hanover (later, King George I of England, for whom Handel would compose his soon-to-be-famous Water Music). At one point during Handel’s Hanover tenure, he took a break to travel to England and never returned. Embraced in London as one of their own, Handel eventually became a naturalized English citizen.

Handel not only gained great fame but wealth during his lifetime yet managed to keep his private life private. We know that he never married but because he left almost nothing in the way of letters, little that happened behind the scenes has come down to us. He was clearly generous, however, and in his will left money to various individuals and charities and his house in Brook Street to his manservant. (It is worth noting that Handel was not the only musician to own property in this building—centuries later, Jimi Hendrix occupied the building’s upper floors, and the entire structure has since been transformed into a museum honoring the geniuses who once lived here).

Though Handel composed in most every genre of the day, it was as a composer of Italian opera that he established an international reputation. Though these played to great success in London for years, in time, English audiences tired of the genre, both on account of not understanding Italian and a general squeamishness with the concept of castrato singers, despite their superstar status and longstanding tradition. With his finger on London’s musical pulse, Handel tried out another genre on his audiences: oratorio, music based on Biblical themes and composed in the vernacular, requiring neither sets nor stagecraft. His first two attempts, Esther and Deborah, proved so financially successful that he abandoned opera altogether, despite transferring some of opera’s magic, such as the da capo aria, into this less onerous musical type. Then, in the summer of 1741, Handel traveled to Dublin for a series of charity concerts, where he became convinced of the city’s musical merits. Not long thereafter, Charles Jennens, an English landowner and patron, crafted a libretto based on the Passion story and asked Handel to consider setting it to music. The composer threw himself entirely into the task, writing night and day. Incredibly enough, Handel dispatched the entire score within about four weeks, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Gallons upon gallons of ink have been spilled analyzing, deconstructing, and reflecting upon Handel’s efforts, so we will simply point out a few features in this towering composition. First, although the original score does not specify precisely which or how many instruments were intended—in subsequent performances Handel himself adjusted matters depending on the circumstances—Handel most certainly envisioned a handful of strings, oboes, a harpsichord and, for good measure, trumpets, whose sparse usage only magnifies their effect. The oratorio opens with a Sinfony, an orchestral overture in the French style. The crisp, short-long rhythm at its outset looks to the music of Jean Baptiste Lully, who consciously “invented” this stately gesture as a means of flattering his employer, Louis XIV.

Handel’s Messiah now unfolds over the course of three large sections—in contrast with Handel’s other oratorios, which are based on tight biblical themes and dramatic plots, Messiah is far more loosely put together—moving from the prophesied birth of Jesus Christ to his noble sacrifice and finally his resurrection and the redemption of mankind. This Passion is told through several voices—vocal soloists—which alternate with the sublime power of the chorus. Handel’s genius is reflected in any number of ways, including his imaginative and fitting musical imagery, which brilliantly captures the essence and poignancy of Jennens’ libretto. In the very first aria, “Comfort Ye, my people,” for example, listen for the gentle accompaniment and the soothing repetition of the word “Comfort.” The 11th aria, “The people walked in darkness,” features a bass line that plods along in unison with the bass soloist; the notes move unevenly here and there which, along with the irregular phrasing, suggests tripping or staggering. Also, note how deeply the word “darkness” is sung, in contrast to “light,” which is both held and sits atop the soloist’s range. Of course, little explanation is required to appreciate Handel’s spirited depictions of joy, whether in “Every valley” (note here how Handel sets the words “crooked” and “exalted”) or the virtuosic coloratura soprano writing in “Rejoice.” And finally, whether or not King George II actually stood in homage to the ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ doing so has become something of a tradition, and for good reason—one can hardly imagine a more glorious conclusion to such a breathtaking work. Little wonder, then, that this chorus became something of a hit already in the composer’s lifetime. More than two and a half centuries later, Handel’s majestic conclusion still has the power to make one’s hair stand on end.

(c) Marc Moskovitz