Herewith the program notes I wrote on the subject for my chorale's performances last year:
“For the relief of 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 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick Hall on 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 Concertos on the Organ by Mr Handel.”
Announcement of First Performance
Dublin Journal, 27 March 1742
Messiah was controversial from the very beginning. After the announcement of the premier, the choristers of St. Patrick’s (the Church of England cathedral) were forbidden to participate. (The prohibition was later rescinded, and 26 of them did perform.) Letters to the editor, both in Dublin before the premier and in London when the work was first performed there, condemned it in no uncertain terms. Early performances in London were not identified by the title ‘Messiah’, but merely as “a new sacred Oratorio”. No score appeared during Handel’s lifetime, although the engraved plates had been ready in 1749. And Handel, whose other oratorios were enormously successful, never wrote another contemplative, Messiah-like one. Why should a work which has come to be revered as a sacred masterpiece have been an object of such criticism in its own time?
The twenty-first-century listener must remember that religion in the mid-eighteenth was a very different thing than it is today. Religion and politics were deeply intertwined: Non-conformists – Catholics, Presbyterians, and other non-Church of England Protestants – could not hold public office, attend university, or become lawyers, doctors, or other professionals. Non-Church of England services could be held only if permission were obtained from the local government. The pulpit was the main source of news, and clergymen did not hesitate to express their opinions on all issues of the day, including that of the succession to the British throne. It is no accident that the Catholic claimant was passed over in 1714, and the crown offered to the Lutheran Elector of Hanover, Handel’s earlier patron, who became George I: the king was the Supreme Gouvernor of the Church of England (and Queen Elizabeth still is, which is why royal marriages, divorces, and relationships with divorcées and adherents of other denominations and religions have been such issues even recently). Loyalty to the established church had been absolutely equated with patriotism and loyalty to the king or queen since the time of Henry VII – and the British Civil War, pitting Puritans against both Establishmentarians and the Crown and leading to the execution of King Charles II, was less than 100 years in the past.
At the same time, however, Biblical scholarship was beginning to take a new direction, viewing both the New and Old Testaments in an historical perspective, and the Bible as merely one among many sacred texts. Deism sought to develop rational explanations of Biblical events, and denied that God would (or could) interfere with the laws of nature and science. No member of the reading public could have been unaware of the debate between those who saw Christianity as but one religion out of many and those who argued for the truth of the Redemption as proved by New Testament fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Voluminous, minutely detailed discussions, accompanied by tables showing parallels and correspondence between the Old and New Testaments, were published by the score.
Charles Jennens, the eccentric millionaire who wrote the libretto for Messiah, was squarely in the Christian camp, as were others of Handel’s closest friends. His selections of texts do not constitute a dramatic story – there is no plot as such – and cannot be staged, as others of Handel’s oratorios can be. Christ does not speak directly: portions of the text which in the Bible are Jesus’s first-person statements are transformed to the third – “he” rather than “I”. Much of the story is told only by allusion. Only once, near the very end in the rarely-performed chorus ‘Thanks be to God’, is the name of Jesus mentioned.
Instead, Jennens and Handel followed a more subtle plan. The oratorio is divided into three sections, encompassing the life of Christ, yet not providing a narration. Part I is a prologue, the opening dozen numbers setting Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah’s imminent arrival. The second half of this section tells the story of Christ’s birth and the promise of his miraculous power. Part I is the longest section, and the most direct in its telling of the Biblical story, which accounts for the modern association of Messiah with Christmas, although it was originally intended for the Easter season; the premier was during Holy Week.
Part II alludes indirectly the Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The expressive content of this section follows a clear development, beginning with an opening lamentation on Christ’s suffering, and moving gradually towards joyous acclamation of his resurrection in the “Hallelujah”. Part III, setting texts drawn from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and from Revelations, is an epilogue, a meditation on Christ’s second coming and his role in humanity’s salvation. “In … theatrical terms, God is the chief actor in the drama of events, the protagonist of the salvation history of the race and of the individual self.” (Hamis Swanston, Handel. London: Cassell, 1990.)
The text is primarily from the Book of Common Prayer, and not directly from the Bible. The passages from Isaiah and the Gospels are partly from the Christmas services, much of Part II is taken from the Holy Week, Easter, Ascensiontide, and Witsunday services, and Part III comes largely from the Burial Service. The material, and the underlying structure, would have been familiar indeed to Handel’s audience, and, as realized in his music, was profoundly spiritual and emotional to many. In Dublin, response was so great that the promoters requested ladies to leave their hoops (and gentlemen their swords) at home so that more people could fit in the hall. “… 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 crowded audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adopted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear.” (Dublin Journal, April, 1742, in a review of the premier.)
Others, particularly in London, found it a direct affront. “A correspondent who cloaked himself under the name of ‘Philalethes,’ [‘lover of truth’ –Emc2] and who declared himself ‘a profess’d Lover of Musick, and in particular all Mr. Handel’s Performances’ thundered thus in the Universal Spectator of 19 March 1743: ‘An Oratorio is either an Act of Religion or it is not; if it is, I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word. … But it seems the Old Testament is not to be prophan’d alone … but the New must be join’d with it, and God by the most sacred the most merciful Name of Messiah; for I’m inform’d that an Oratorio call’d by that Name has already been perform’d in Ireland, and is soon to be perform’d here. … [A]re the most sacred Things, Religion and the Holy Bible, which is the Word of God, to be prostituted to the perverse Humour of a Set of obstinate People …?’” (Watkins Shaw, The Story of Handel’s Messiah, 1741-1784. London: Novello and Co. 1963.)
The earliest London performances of Messiah were at the Covent Garden and King’s (Haymarket) Theatres, not in churches. The soloists were frequently drawn from the stage. Conservative thinkers at the time were distrustful of music in general, feeling that it was dangerous, even subversive, in its power to move the emotions. Worse, several sections of Messiah were adaptations of Handel’s previously-composed secular music. To have sacred texts allied to music, in that supremely decadent and immoral venue, the theater, “a principal purveyor of vice and encourager of vicious habits” (Ruth Smith, Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995), was seen by many as nothing short of blasphemous. It was only in 1750, when Handel began to give annual charity concerts at the chapel of the London Foundling Hospital, that Messiah came to attract real applause. Handel conducted a performance there shortly before his death, and left the autograph score to the Foundling Hospital in his will. But as late as the 1860s, the Bishop of London would not permit Messiah to be performed in Westminster Abbey.
By the end of the eighteenth century, however, Messiah had become the perennial favorite it is today. Its first performance in the New World was at Boston in 1770, followed in short order by Charleston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In England, Handel Commemorative Festival concerts began in 1784, under the sponsorship of George III, the first of which featured a massive performance of Messiah by over 500 singers and instrumentalists.
The Victorian Age saw the peak of the English tradition of large-scale performances. The 1859 Handel Centennial performance of Messiah, in the opulent Crystal Palace, featured a chorus of 2,700 singers and more than 400 instrumentalists, and a London performance at the turn of the twentieth century had a choir of more than 4,000. What these elephantine forces did to the sixteenth-note runs and the counterpoint, originally sung in Dublin by a chorus of 32 and eight soloists, is best left to the imagination. In addition, Romantic-era performance standards crept into the tradition approach to the work, further distorting Handel’s original material.
Maestro Duffer’s approach in this concert owes a good deal to modern scholarship into Baroque musical practices and Messiah’s early performances, although the Master Chorale’s may in no case be considered period-style performance. (Indeed, it is impossible to identify a ‘definitive’ version, since, in his own performances, Handel often changed the number and voicing of soloists, reassigned pieces to different voices, and used his soloists as a chorus or pulled small ensembles from the main chorus to provide contrast and interest.) The Chorale will, in accordance, use harpsichord (electronic) for the continuo, and include certain changes in emphasis and accent, and restore some note and tone values distorted by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century editors.
PART I: Prophecy and Advent of the Redeemer
Jennans prefaced Messiah with a Latin motto from Virgil’s Eclogue IV, and quotations from I Timothy and Colossians suggesting the purpose and structure of the libretto. Handel added the instrumental overture.
Majora canamus. (Let us sing of great things.)
And without controversy, great is the mystery of Godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified by the spirit, seen of angels, preached among the gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16) In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:3)
The chorus “And He shall purify” and three others were adapted from music Handel originally wrote for two sopranos, in Italian with ‘love duet’ lyrics (eg: “Life too is a flower; it comes with the morning and dies with the spring of a single day.” The music for ‘purify’ was originally sung to ‘primavera’.) The chorus “For onto us a Child is born” is another of these love duets, originally with the text “No, I will not trust you, unkind love!”, and the music later appeared as an instrumental work.
Jennens was not above selectively adapting his material, however sacred the source. The original verse from Malachi of “And He shall purify” (Malachi 3:3) is much longer, and speaks of refining the Levites like gold and silver, so that, as in former times, their offerings will be acceptable to the Lord.
Handel’s original title for the instrumental Pastoral Symphony (‘Pifa’) has been interpreted to indicate that the music represents Italian shepherds’ pipes (the piffaro, a double reed instrument like the shawm, and/or the piva, a Northern Italian bagpipe), playing an instrumental movement popular in his time called a siciliano. The later air (for alto) “He shall feed His flock” is in the same meter as the Pastoral Symphony, and also in the style of a siciliano, perhaps a reference to the shepherd of the text.
The first soprano soloist does not appear until the recitative “There were shepherds abiding in the field”. Handel often used several sopranos in a performance; one of them, especially on this recitative and the three which follow it, might be a boy.
PART II: The Suffering and Triumph of the Redeemer
Mrs. Susannah Cibber (or Cibbert, pronounced ‘KIHbuhr’) was a actress, specializing in dramatic roles, with limited vocal range, breath capacity, and musical training, but she was one of Handel’s favorite soloists for her expressive, dramatic approach. Handel accommodated her limitations and took full advantage of her strengths, and her interpretation of the aria “He was despised” moved the Reverend Dr. Delany, who was present at the Dublin premier, to say of her, “Woman, for this alone thy sins be forgiven thee.”
PART III: Thanksgiving And Praise To God
The fifth and sixth measures of the soprano air “I know that my Redeemer liveth” are traditionally thought to have been used in the composition of the Westminster Quarters, the familiar clock chimes associated with Big Ben. The statue of Handel on the monument above his grave in Westminster Abbey holds the musical score for this air.
One interpretation of Hebrew texts of 2 Corinthians 1:20, Revelation 3:14, and Isaiah 65:16 is that the word ‘Amen’ is a form of the name of God (“the very name of Messiah”, according to the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary,1871), and the final two choruses (“Worthy is the Lamb” and the lengthy “Amen”) can be approached from this perspective. Literally, however, ‘Amen’ means ‘I confirm it,’ and these texts, and the choruses, can also be seen in this sense: Christ is praised as the confirmation of God’s covenant, bringing Messiah full circle to the prophesies with which it began.