This work »surpasses everything ever performed before in this or any other kingdom,« the press exulted when George Frideric Handel performed his new oratorio »Messiah« in Dublin on 13 April 1742. Today, Handel’s »Messiah« is a standard ingredient of the Christmas-time concert repertoire. And London’s award-winning Tenebrae Choir under the baton of Nigel Short is making its Elbphilharmonie debut with what must be the composer’s best-loved oratorio. They are accompanied by top soloists and the famous Academy of Ancient Music, which makes this Christmas classic shine on original instruments.
Academy of Ancient Music
Grace Davidson soprano
Martha McLorinan alto
James Gilchrist tenor
Matthew Brook baritone
conductor Nigel Short
Georg Friedrich Händel
Messiah / Oratorio in three parts HWV 56
Masterpiece with theological pitfalls :About the programme
An opera disguised as church music
Is that really allowed? Can a piece of sacred music be performed in a totally secular concert hall, a building whose altar is a stage where demigods are worshipped for their virtuoso conducting or playing? Shouldn’t a work praising the glory of God and His Son be heard in a church, or better still in a cathedral?
Paradoxically, Handel’s contemporaries asked themselves the opposite question. In their opinion, »Messiah« did not belong in a place of worship at all: they saw it as a work that only pretends to be church music, and is actually clearly conceived along the lines of an opera. And then from the pen of a composer who had enjoyed great success in show business, a fellow the subject of all manner of wild rumours in London: Handel was said to regularly polish off a restaurant menu for four all on his own, and to be seducing opera divas one after the other. He was even supposed to have bent one lady to his will by hanging her out of an open window right above the waters of the River Thames…
Revolution in England: Handel’s oratorios
But let’s stick to the facts. Handel arrived in London in 1712 and rapidly rose to be a favourite with the public and England’s inofficial national composer, not least thanks to the »Water Music« that he composed for King George I. As an opera impresario, however, he experienced regular difficulties, and went bankrupt more than once. The struggle with rival opera houses to secure the favour of top singers and attract audiences placed Handel under such strain that he even suffered a stroke in 1737. All things considered, he thought it advisable to try his luck in a field easier on the nerves: the oratorio. Here he didn’t need to wrestle with the rigid mainstream aesthetic conventions of opera: in the realm of oratorio, he could concentrate on depicting the characters via music rather than through opulent costumes and special effects.
This sounds like a simple solution in retrospect, but things were not actually as easy for Handel as one might think. First of all, he had to establish the oratorio genre on English soil: the oratorio tradition was rooted in the Catholic Church, and since Henry VIII had renounced papal authority 200 years earlier and set up the Church of England, the oratorio was unknown there. In the process, Handel got rid of a couple of the stereotypes of the Italian opera seria genre. He banished the popular castrato voices completely, and placed the tenor in the limelight, who was generally allotted the role of villain in opera. First and foremost, however, the chorus was assigned entirely new tasks: in addition to depicting scenes with groups of people as was usual in opera, choral movements were now also employed to reflect and comment on the story itself.
Thus Handel’s oratorios can definitely be seen as revolutionary contributions to the development of music drama. As musicologist Walther Siegmund-Schultze put it: »Handel’s struggle with this form parallel to semi-involuntary rearguard actions of the immensely popular opera genre is one of the most exciting events in music history.« To put things in numbers: Handel wrote 42 operas and 32 oratorios, most of them dealing with myths of antiquity or stories from the Old Testament.
A lucrative offer
Handel was prompted to compose »Messiah« by his regular patron Charles Jennens. The prosperous English landowner had already compiled several oratorio libretti for the composer, »Saul« among them. When he learnt in the summer of 1741 that Handel didn’t yet have any concrete projects planned for the coming concert season, he promptly presented the composer with his next idea: an oratorio about Jesus Christ.
At the same time, Handel received an invitation to put on his own concert series in Dublin. What a stroke of good fortune! He got working without delay, and completed the score in the space of just three weeks (which works out at two numbers a day). This extreme speed is partly explained by the fact that Handel made use of texts he had written in the past, such as individual opera arias, adding a new text and incorporating them into the new work. This practice was customary at the time and was also perfected by Johann Sebastian Bach; musicologists refer to it misleadingly as a »parody«.
»My Lord, I would regret it greatly if I had only entertained my audience. I want to make better men of them!«
George Frideric Handel about his oratorios
But what was it about the new oratorio genre that so appealed to Handel? On the one hand, he sensed that this might be a lucrative new source of income. But the composer was already a wealthy man, and was not just interested in making money, as we can see from the following quick-witted reponse to a compliment made by an admirer: »My Lord,« Handel replied, »I would regret it greatly if I had only entertained my audience. I want to make better men of them!« The underlying idea was to use Biblical texts as a template for general ethical and moral statements. This model can already be observed in early oratorios that take exemplary Old Testament figures as their subject.
The story, or: How to charmingly steer around the main character
In the case of »Messiah«, however, this concept was particularly tricky. An oratorio about Jesus Christ with a libretto based on the Gospels and Jesus Himself personified by a singer on stage – that might have been permissible for German Protestants like Bach, but it was absolutely taboo for the Church of England. (This ban was only watered down 250 years later by a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber.)
So whether they liked it or not, Jennens and Handel could not have somebody playing Jesus on stage. They found an elegant solution to the dilemma by using Old Testament texts in the main. Only the first part, covering the announcement of the Coming of the Messiah and the Nativity, uses the Christmas story from St. Luke’s Gospel in addition to the books of the prophets. Part Two pulls off the feat of telling the tale of the Passion almost exclusively in the words of the prophets Isaiah and in Psalm texts, unlike Bach, who set St. Matthew’s Gospel to music. The third and final part, which has the redemption of humanity as its theme, is based on the Epistles of Paul. In this way, the composer and his librettist managed to look at Christ from different angles, as if through a kaleidoscope, without having Him speak in person.
Focus on the music
One side-effect of this style of narrative, reflective rather than dramatic, is that the focus is on the music. Something that must have met with Handel’s approval, as it gave him the opportunity to exploit the vivid style he had previously evolved in his operas.
The first accompagnato, »Comfort ye my people«, already reflects the certainty of redemption, while the alto aria »But who may abide the day of His coming?« lapses repeatedly into a panic-stricken prestissimo. In the bass aria »The people that walked in darkness«, the minor mode only brightens into major when the people see light on the horizon. Such lovingly crafted connections between the text and the music can be found in nearly every number: the most vivid example is the accompagnato »Thy rebuke hath broken His heart«, where the pain and grief of the Passion is reflected in adventurous modulations through all (!) of the keys.
Out of the theological noose: the title
The choice of title was likewise an issue that Handel and Jennens approached with caution. »Jesus Christ« was obviously out of the question. »Messiah«, on the other hand, is a Hebrew word from the Old Testament, which was not translated into Greek/Latin as »Christus« and identified with Jesus of Nazareth until the early days of Christianity. (To this day, the Jews are still awaiting the arrival of their Messiah.)
But Handel must have realised that it wouldn’t be so easy for him to pull his head out of the theological noose. At the Dublin premiere in 1742, he cautiously announced the work as a »Grand Musical Entertainment«, and the year after in London posters described it as a »Sacred Oratorio«. Moreover, Handel wanted to nip any accusations of blasphemy in the bud, so he had resort to a clever PR strategy and declared the premiere a charity event, with all the proceeds being donated to Dublin’s prisons, poorhouses and hospitals.
An unprecedented success story
It was only logical that this first performance was a triumph for Handel. »The best judges of art admitted,« thus The Dublin Journal, »that this is the most consummate work of music.« And even though Handel derived no financial benefit from the concert at first, »Messiah« was to augment his fame as no other work had – something evident from the picturesque statues of Handel that were soon being put up all over the country.
It wasn’t long before the tradition was established of performing »Messiah« every year at London’s Covent Garden to mark the end of Lent. The work was played as early as 1770 in New York, in Hamburg in 1772, and in Calcutta in 1786. There was a performance before the Royal Family in Westminster Abbey in 1784 with more than 500 singers and musicians, and in 1859 the Great Handel Commemoration Festival brought no fewer than 2,750 singers and nearly 500 instrumentalists together to perform Handel’s superb oratorio.
»Handel is the unequalled master of all!«
Ludiwg van Beethoven
The list of prominent »Messiah« fans is a long one too. The English music historian Charles Burney (1726–1814) described the »Messiah« as a work »that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked and brings up the orphans.« Beethoven went into raptures: »Handel is the unequalled master of all! Go thither and learn how to create something so great with such simple resources!« While we learn from a friend that Franz Schubert »admired Handel’s immense spirit, and couldn’t wait for a free hour to play from the scores of his oratorios and operas. Sometimes while playing he would cry out as if under electric shock: ›Ah! What bold modulations are these! You couldn’t dream them up if you tried!‹«
To this day the »Messiah« – especially the distinctive Hallelujah – remains one of the best-known and best-loved works in the repertoire. Is it church music for the concert hall or a concert opera for performance in church? – The »Messiah«’s glittering history has proved the question to be simply irrelevant.
Text: Clemens Matuschek, last updated: 8 Dec 2021
English translation: Clive Williams
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