Messiah, HWV 56

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          In the world of the arts there are those works that have won a special place in history, and whose universal appeal have transcended time and place. In the midst of the wealth of creations of artistic genius throughout time, certain works of art, while not obviously superior to other exceptionally worthy creations of the highest order, nevertheless achieve iconic status among folks of all artistic tastes. This is as true in sculpture, painting, architecture, and literature, as in music. À chacun son goût! Diversity of time, place, and individual artists makes for a relatively small set of the universally acclaimed: Hamlet, Monticello, the “Mona Lisa,” “David,” and so on. And in the musical arts, the pantheon of compositions that have this almost universal appeal is perhaps smaller than one would imagine. On the one hand there are compositions of great artistic integrity and achievement that musicians and critics often revere, but which emphatically do not speak to the average amateur music lover. And there are those compositions equally admired by concertgoers, but which often garner contempt by those condemned to perform them. That’s life. But, when composer, audience, performers and critics in all times come into agreement—you’ve got a winner!

          Few compositions in Western art music hold the place in the culture as does Handel’s “Messiah.” It truly transcends time and place in the universal appeal of its music, text, drama, and message. And yet, it is important to consider that it in its genesis, it was only one of many similar works by Handel, that its origin stems from a very practical business decision of the part of the composer, and that its roots are found in a variety of musical sources and styles. All of which came together in a work that seems to gain ever-increasing popularity and enduring respect a quarter of a millennium after its birth.

          Handel, of course, was a German, born in Brandenburg-Prussia, who, after early musical training began an abortive effort to study law, but soon moved to Hamburg (1703) to begin playing in the orchestra in the local opera house. His first operas were given there—of course, they were in Italian style, as were most operas at that time. Shortly thereafter, at the invitation of one of the Medici family, he left for Italy and stayed for while in Florence, then moving to Rome. In Rome he composed Italian cantatas and oratorios, as well as operas for performance in Florence and Venice. Opera was considered not appropriate for the Holy City at that time. Nevertheless, he quickly garnered an enviable reputation as a composer of Italian opera, and left Italy with quite a different reputation than that of his arrival. Soon thereafter (1710), he received an appointment as music director for the very important person, George, Elector of Hanover. Not being content to settle down in a very nice job, he immediately left for a trip to London—obviously feeling his oats as an acclaimed composer, already. Success—monetary and as musical—led him to tarry in England, and in 1712 he decided to simply stay in England more or less permanently. He had become the darling of the English aristocracy; his operas, anthems, cantatas, and instrumental music were the toast of London. And he knew what to do with the income: he invested wisely, but pulled his money out of the market just before one of the biggest financial bubbles in history burst. There’s a lesson there!

          There was the small affair of his embarrassment when George, his erstwhile employer in Hanover, arrived in London to assume the English throne as George I. The truant Handel quickly smoothed things over and his career continued to flourish. Throughout the 1720s and 1730s Handel produced operatic hit after hit—Italian opera for the English nobility, whose command of Italian, was, well, let’s say modest at best. Audiences thronged to the Royal Academy of Music and Covent Garden to hear his latest operas, sung by the most renowned voices in Europe. But the good times eventually came to and end. In 1737 a stroke ended his ability to perform publicly, and the popularity of Italian operas was beginning to wane. Let’s face it, most audiences grow tired of pretending to understand words that they don’t.

          The short of it is, Handel turned from a long and successful career as a composer of Italian opera (more than 40), and began an equally long and successful career as a composer of oratorio, that is, oratorio in Italian style with English words. Oratorio, along with its dramatic partner, opera, was central to the birth of what most folks call “baroque” musical style, originating in Italy at the end of the Renaissance, in the decades surrounding 1600—more or less. In simplest terms, an oratorio is a sacred (Christian) opera—no tales of kings and pagan gods—without the scenery, without the acting, and without the costumes. Nothing more, nothing less. Conceived in Rome during the seventeenth century, oratorio was an important genre from its inception, used as a tool by the Catholic Church as a vital tool in conveying spiritual truths and dogma through the combination of dramatic music and biblical stories. A typical oratorio during the 1600s and 1700s consisted pretty much of the same musical elements of did opera: a series of recitatives, arias, and choruses that were woven together to tell a story. As a matter of fact, if you didn’t understand Italian, and you closed your eyes during an opera, it would sound just like an oratorio. So there. Handel’s genius was to see the possibilities for success in replacing the fading popularity of Italian opera with an oratorio in English. Nothing much else changed—especially the musical style. Although it’s rather difficult today to imagine otherwise, but during these centuries, with some notable exceptions (French dances, German sacred music, and Purcell’s English operas come to mind) the whole epoch was dominated by Italian operatic style. That’s why to this day, we use Italian musical terms—piano, forte, sonata, concerto, etc. So, Handel simply made some changes that would appeal immensely to the English public and reaped a great success. But, those changes were crucial. The use of English was basic, and so was capitalizing on the average Briton’s love and knowledge of Old Testament stories from the Bible. No more classical gods and kings. Finally, the true stroke of genius was recognizing the great English choral tradition of every village and hamlet in the culture. No one needed to be a virtuoso Italian opera star to sing ably in the local choir—and many could. Incorporate these changes into Italian oratorio, and you didn’t have to change the musical style at all. And that what Handel did. The English oratorio in Handel’s hands—sung thus, in English, about the beloved familiar Biblical characters, with plenty of opportunity to participate in the chorus—became the receipt for success. And there was, consequently no need at all to change the musical style; an aria in an English oratorio about Samson took the form and general sound of an aria in an opera about Croesus. It simply didn’t matter. Oh, yes, one other thing. Notwithstanding Handel’s native German, the music and words in his new genre faithfully reflect English speech rhythms and accents—it just sounds like real English speech in music. That is crucial.

          The change in Handel’s focus was not sudden, but gradually evolved during the 1730s; in 1732 he revised an earlier oratorio, Esther, which he had composed in 1718, and its success led him to shortly thereafter write two more works in the genre. Finally, in 1735 he met his future collaborator in the Messiah, a wealthy landowner named Charles Jennens, who furnished him with the libretto for a new oratorio on the story of Saul. Opera was still Handel’s livelihood, and Saul was not first performed until 1739, but enjoyed great success. Other oratorios followed, as did operas, but Handel finally gave up the latter with his last opera in 1741. In that year Jennens sent Handel the libretto for Messiah, and Handel swiftly set to work, completing the oratorio in twenty-four days, finishing in September.

          The work was given its première in Dublin in April of 1742; there is no special significance in the choice of venue. Handel had merely gone there in the Fall of 1741 at the invitation of the English viceroy to give a series of concerts during the winter season, and apparently decided to go ahead and perform Messiah, there, instead of waiting for a London performance. Jennens’ libretto was conceived as not just the story of Christ, chronologically arranged, but also—and perhaps centrally—as an exploration of the meaning of Christian faith through the Old Testament prophecies, the Passion of Christ, and his Ascension into heaven and the triumph over death and sin. The arrangement of the libretto according divides the work into three parts, corresponding with those fundamentals.
          Handel begins (as with his operas) with an overture—in this case one in the French style, redolent of the works of the great Lully in the court of Louis IV. That is, it opens with a slow, rather pompous section, following by a quick polyphonic middle section, before returning to the music of the opening. And then the story begins. Each of the three parts is divided into several “scenes” by Jennens that help us to keep track of the major events as we move along. A succession of solo arias and strategically placed choruses carries the narrative thread along. The arias, as pointed out above, are couched in the best of Italian operatic tradition of the times, that is, they are so-called da capo arias, in which the opening section is followed by a contrasting section, after which the first section is simply repeated. But, what could be a rather wooden and repetitious form in lesser hands is consistently saved by the composer’s deft and sensitive treatment of the text, and his strong sense of characterization. Not for nothing did he spend years as an acclaimed composer of opera. The choruses are equally effective, and as such, are based in his long experience in composing sacred music for the English church.

          Surprisingly, this now universally acclaimed work was not immediately successful at its London première in March of 1743. After some changes, it was given again in 1745, and then intermittently from then on, enjoying respect and a modicum of success, but in truth, its glory years clearly lay ahead, for better or worse. As time went on, it was subjected to all manner of alterations to suit the practices and tastes of changing music fashion through the years—in some ways its growing popularity was in fact an invitation to stylistic abuse. But, in recent times, a greater sensitivity to the composer’s original intent and style have led to more nuanced and clearer experience in performance of this beloved work. Handel lived long and large, and enjoyed musical success in a multitude of works in great variety, but it is somehow appropriate that the last music that he heard was Messiah—eight days before his death in 1759. His monument in Westminster Abbey depicts him holding the score to “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2015 William E. Runyan