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“Will he or won’t he?” That was the question gripping London music-lovers in the spring of 1741. The “he” was Handel, and the issue at hand was whether or not he would leave England for good.
Handel initially found success in England. He had settled there nearly three decades earlier and taken British citizenship in 1727. His seasons of Italian opera, which were why he came to London in the first place, were wildly popular, and he enjoyed the favor of the royal family, including an appointment as Composer of Music for His Majesty’s Chapel Royal in 1723 and the invitation to compose the Coronation Anthems for George II’s accession in 1727. He was England’s unofficial official composer, and the thought that he might pick up and head for the continent worried many of his admirers.
In the 18th century, the measure of success for every composer was opera. Handel spent his journeyman years in Hamburg and Italy, and his success as a composer of Italian operas – the Italians hailed his Agrippina with cries of “Viva il caro Sassone” (Long live the beloved Saxon) – brought him to London, where his opera Rinaldo premiered in 1711. For the next three decades, he composed more than 30 operas for various theaters there, but by the mid-1730s, the audience for his operas was shrinking and London’s operatic scene was characterized by intrigue and competition. Handel’s operatic seasons were increasingly unprofitable and fraught with strife; at the same time, the public demonstrated a keen interest in his English-language oratorios. These works combined sacred subjects with the techniques of dramatic composition Handel had mastered during his long career as an operatic composer, and many of them included the kind of elaborate choral writing characteristic of the composer’s sacred and occasional output. Handel took a last stab at opera with Deidamia, which opened in January 1741 at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, where Handel was mounting his 1740/41 season. Deidamia held the stage for only three performances; the one on February 10 was the last performance of a Handel opera under his direction. The score was colorful and accomplished, the libretto among the better set by the composer, and the cast boasted the debut of a new prima donna, but none of this meant success for poor Deidamia. Handel, who had made his reputation as a composer of Italian opera, was now at a crossroads, and many in London feared he would leave for the continent, where the genre continued to flourish.
Aware of Deidamia’s disappointing reception, one of Handel’s old collaborators, Charles Jennens, tried to whet the composer’s appetite for a new project. Jennens had already written the libretto for the oratorio Saul and the text for the third part of L’allegro, il penseroso, ed il moderato; in a letter dated July 10, 1741, he wrote, “Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion Week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”
So we have Handel, in the summer of 1741, facing an uncertain future in London and contemplating taking a winter off, with Jennens’ scripture collection kicking around his house on Brook Street. An invitation from Ireland to participate in a charitable season of oratorio concerts “for the relief of prisoners in several gaols, and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the charitable infirmary on the Inns Quay” couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, and Handel decided to spend the 1741/42 season in Dublin. He composed Messiah in August and September, while still in London. His autograph manuscript includes exact composition dates: He began the work on August 22, finished Part One on August 28, finished Part Two on September 6, completed the work on September 12, and completed the orchestration September 14. The modest forces employed indicate that Handel intended the work to travel. (Handel’s oratorios for London, Saul for example, typically display more lavish orchestration.) Handel most likely did not work closely with Jennens during composition; in fact, the writer was surprised to learn the composer was planning a Dublin premiere. “I heard with great pleasure at my arrival in Town, that Handel had set the Oratorio of Messiah,” Jennens wrote in a letter dated December 2, “but it was some Mortification to hear that instead of performing it here he was gone into Ireland with it.”
Handel started his Dublin season on December 23 with a performance of L’allegro at the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, the site of all of his Dublin concerts. The premiere of Messiah on April 13, 1742, marked the culmination of his time there. It was a resounding success. The Dublin Journal reported that at the open rehearsal, the work “was performed so well, that it gave universal Satisfaction to all present; and was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard…” and heaped similar praise on the premiere: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick, and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.” The work has since established itself as the most popular of its kind, affirming the genius of Handel’s pursuit of English-language oratorio. He never wrote another opera after Deidamia, but Handel followed Messiah with fifteen further English-language oratorios. We have Messiah to thank for paving the way for such disparate works as Haydn’s Creation, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, and John Adams’ El Niño.
Handel’s Messiah is in three parts. Jennens sent a preface for the libretto to Handel in Dublin that draws on Virgil and the Bible to set the tone for the work:
Let us sing of greater things. (Virgil, Eclogue IV)
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. (I Timothy 3: 16)
In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2: 3)
Part One describes the advent and birth of Christ, with the chorus “For unto us” demarcating the transition from one to the other. Part Two details the life of Christ, his resurrection, his ascension to heaven, the preaching of the gospel by his apostles, and a vision of his ultimate victory. Part Three celebrates the redemption of humankind – its eventual resurrection and receipt of eternal life – brought about by Christ’s death.
The work opens with a “Sinfony,” Handel’s first use of the operatic French overture form (dotted grave introduction followed by a contrapuntal allegro moderato) in one of his oratorios. The work’s richest accompanied recitative follows, with a vocal line whose heightened expression and use of repetition takes the number into arioso territory. The vigor of the ensuing aria, “Ev’ry valley,” with its word-painting for “the crooked straight, and the rough places plain,” sets the tone for the first half of Part One, as Jennens lays out a series of prophetic texts anticipating the coming of Christ and Handel matches them with music of great variety, contrast, and inventiveness. Throughout Part I, the music seems to be moving toward D major, from the D-minor alto aria “But who may abide” through the D-major alto aria and chorus “O thou that tellest,” to the chorus “Glory to God,” where the trumpets enter for the first time to reinforce D major. (A good rule of thumb for spotting D major in Messiah is that if you hear trumpets, the music is in that key.)
In Part Two, Handel wanders away from D major in a sequence of numbers depicting the suffering of Christ on earth. For example, one of Messiah’s most moving numbers, the alto aria “He was despised,” is in E-flat major, as far away as Handel could get from D major. The key choice allows for a deeply humane portrayal of Christ – the warmth and nobility of the strings in the opening ritornello is certainly Handel at his most eloquent – while simultaneously underscoring the distance the “man of sorrows” depicted in the aria has to travel to reach the triumphant D major of the “Hallelujah” chorus’ celebration of Christ enthroned alongside God that closes Part Two. The custom of standing during the chorus dates from the first London performance of Messiah, which took place on March 23, 1743. The 18th-century Scottish essayist and poet James Beattie the origins of the tradition in a 1780 letter: “When Handel’s ‘Messiah’ was first performed, the audience was exceedingly struck and affected by the music in general; but when that chorus struck up, ‘For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth,’ they were so transported they all, together with the king (who happened to be present), started up, and remained standing till the chorus ended: and hence it became the fashion in England for the audience to stand while that part of the music is performing.”
Part Three opens with one of the most astoundingly conceived arias in Handel’s output. Throughout Messiah, Handel comes up with original musical solutions to the problems posed to an 18th-century composer by Biblical texts. Where 18th-century poetry typically presents one, constant affect or emotion, the Bible’s ancient Hebrew verses delight in contrast, and Handel had to rethink musical forms rooted in 18th-century poetry to set Messiah’s Biblical texts. In the case of “I know that my redeemer liveth,” Handel takes three contrasting ideas – “I know that my redeemer liveth,” “And tho’ worms destroy this body,” and “For now is Christ risen” – and crafts a sort of rondo form, with “I know that my redeemer liveth” functioning as the main theme, and the sections beginning with “And tho’ worms destroy this body” and “For now is Christ risen” acting as contrasting material. But the whole is constructed so artfully, with such expressive unity, that Handel’s formal innovation is (probably properly) overlooked, his art transcending his craft.
“I know that my redeemer liveth” again places us far afield from D major (the aria is in E major), but Handel soon brings back D major in “The trumpet shall sound,” an aria that could have come straight from the opera house. Its three-part, A-B-A structure (in this case, dal segno rather than da capo) and its obbligato trumpet are exactly what an opera audience would expect for a triumph aria.
Messiah closes with a resplendent chorus that brings together all of the musical and dramatic threads running through the work. (Interestingly, Handel sets the same text from Revelation chosen by J.S. Bach for the final movement of his cantata “Ich hatte viel bekummernis,” one of his more ambitious works in that genre.) It is the grandest chorus Handel ever wrote, with an opening combining solemnity and celebration followed by a fugal “Amen” of overwhelming power. It marks the culmination of a work that has become an icon of western culture – even if you know nothing else about classical music, you know the “Hallelujah” chorus. Edward Synge, the Bishop of Elphin and one of the leading Irish ideologues of the 18th century, captured this in his summation of the work: “As Mr. Handel in his oratorio’s greatly excells all other Composers I am acquainted with, So in the famous one, called The Messiah he seems to have excell’d himself. The whole is beyond any thing I had a notion of till I Read and heard it. It Seems to be a Species of Musick different from any other, and this is particularly remarkable of it. That tho’ the Composition is very Masterly & artificial, yet the Harmony is So great and open, as to please all who have Ears & will hear, learned & unlearn’d.”
John Mangum is Director of Artistic Planning for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.