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Monday, December 19, 2011

The Messiah

“The feelings of joy you get from the Hallelujah choruses are second to none. And how can anybody resist the Amen chorus at the end? It will always lift your spirits if you are feeling down.” –Lawrence Cummings

Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with classical music will know of Handel, probably through his Messiah or possibly through the Water Music, and indeed, almost any Western person with ears will have heard strains of Messiah, in one place or another. Slowly, with my research into Hummel, Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart, my personal anecdotal knowledge of Messiah grew, but it was only last year that I actually heard Messiah. I had wanted to do a Singalong Messiah for about three years. Yet, for all this, two major questions still bugged me: why did people expect to hear Messiah at Easter? Wasn’t it about the birth of Christ? And were the lyrics always in English, or did someone translate them (I thought that since Handel was German, they might have originally been in German or Latin)? We’ll answer both those questions, along with many more, during the following.


Georg Fridrich Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany. He came from a wealthy, religious family, his father a successful surgeon who would have preferred his son to follow in more practical footsteps than that of a composer—in point of fact, that of a lawyer. In a somewhat similar turn of serendipity to the discovery of Haydn’s talent (though Haydn’s socio-economic background was much less sophisticated than Handel’s), some time between the ages of eight and eleven, he was heard playing the organ by the Duke of Weissenfels. Shortly afterwards, he was allowed to study music and, in contrast to his direct contemporary, Bach, he was a bit of a wanderer, employed as a musician, composer and conductor at courts and churches in Rome, Florence, Naples and Venice. Bach and Handel never met, and though in superficial senses they were similar, in many ways their works, methods, and personalities were very different. Bach was very much confined to the court patronage system (as would Haydn later be, one that Hummel inherited at the beginning of his career), whereas Handel would write music for the court if asked, but sought work with precocity. Like Bach, however, Handel was an extremely accomplished organist.

Having an inkling about the personalities of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Hummel, I was struck right away about the nebulous nature of anecdotes about Handel’s character. For one thing, all four composers listed above had interesting (if not always wholesome!) love-lives. Yet, because of a dearth of surviving correspondence, we have to rely on contemporary, often contradictory accounts of Handel’s personality. Handel never married and never had a long-lasting relationship, though he was pursued by young women. He had a bad temper and once fought a duel in the orchestra pit. Infuriated with the attitude of soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, he threatened to throw her out a window. “I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!” he screamed at her. Handel also loved food. “He paid more attention to [food] than is becoming to any man,” wrote his earliest biographer, John Mainwaring, in 1760, and became very obese at the end of his life. He was also loud, wore an ostentatious white wig, and his English had (as one might expect) various phrases from other languages sprinkled in.

If you can take some of the accounts seriously, Handel also had a sense of humor. When friends came to console him when the audience for one of his oratorios was so sparse, he said, “Never mind. The music will sound better due to the acoustics of the nearly empty hall.” And again, “When a friend unwittingly commented on the dreariness of some music he had heard at the Vauxhall gardens, Handel rejoined, ‘You are right, sir, it is pretty poor stuff. I thought so myself when I wrote it’” (Kavanaugh). Handel was a fervent Lutheran and yet was not, as we have discussed, involved in church composing as Bach was. We know from one of the few surviving letters of his piety and genuine faith. He once responded to an angry archbishop by saying, “I have read my Bible very well, and will choose for myself.”

He believed in charity toward humanity. For much of his career in London, his music and his shrewd investments in the stock market allowed him to be generous to his favorite causes. When Dickens talks about Scrooge being concerned about his fellow man at the end of A Christmas Carol, he could be talking about Handel; “even when the subject of his work is religious, Handel is writing about the human response to the divine,” says conductor Harry Birket (Kandel).


Handel was a violinist and composer for the Hamburg Opera Theatre and in Italy between 1702 and 1706, where he met, among others, Dominico Scarlatti. Handel moved to London permanently in 1710; the city was thriving during a commercial boom that allowed the moneyed merchant classes to seek out art and culture. Handel found himself on one side of a spirited musical debate: his style of Italian opera found favor with some, but others preferred the more traditional work of Giovanni Bononcini. There’s a wonderful rhyme by John Byrom from 1725 to describe the situation:

Some say compared to Bononcini,
That Mynheer Handel's but a Ninny;
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle.

(After his move to England, he removed the umlaut from his name so that is why there are various spellings of it.) The early 18th century seems like a lively time to have been a musician. The ever-ballooning opera production costs were due in part to importing Italian musicians, as they were considered to have the edge on everyone else. Certainly the era had its divas; at a 1727 performance, the leading sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni came to blows in front of the audience . Audience taste had moved on by the 1730s, and this factor, as well as the fact that the operas were costing so much to produce, what with the stars and the scenery, that fuelled Handel’s interest in the sacred oratorio.

What is an oratorio exactly? I asked myself. Well, it is like an opera in English without the staging, composed for concert performances in theatres. Most have Biblical subject matter but some reached back to classical mythology as their subjects. Most of Handel’s oratorios focus on the soloists, but "the chorus propels the work forward with great emotional impact and uplifting messages,” said Laurence Cummings, director of the London Handel Orchestra (Kandel). Jacobson suggests that one reason for Handel’s upswing in popularity since the 1950s is the development of the long-playing record and now, obviously, the era of the CD. (As far as it is possible for this non-music-reading singer to discover, one of my new favorite Christmas songs is “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” but only the version favored in the US which is set to the “Non vi piaque ingiusti dei” aria from Handel’s Siroe, Rè de Persia opera from 1728.)

Despite the fortune he amassed at the end of his life, Handel faced bankruptcy more than once. By 1741, for example, he was recovering from the humiliating failure of an oratorio and was near debtors’ prison. His health was failing, and in April he gave what he considered to be his farewell concert. Then he received a commission from a Dublin charity, and had a visit from Charles Jennens. William Cavenish, English lieutenant in Ireland, gave the commission for a benefit concert.


Charles Jennens was a literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare who was educated at Balliol College, Oxford. Despite his erudition, however, he did not gain a degree because he was a non-juror (he did not accept the Hanoverian dynasty as rulers over England). However, he was also a staunch Protestant so he could not be a Jacobite. He did not want for money, however, and was able to produce much scholarly work from his family home in Leicestershire. It is this man to whom we owe the text setting of Messiah. Jennens had been an admirer of Handel’s music since 1725; a groupie turned friend, he became personally acquainted with Handel, furnishing texts for the composer, among them L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il moderato (1740). (Jacobson suggests that Jennens may have pirated the Messiah text from his secretary and private chaplain, Pooley.)

The working relationship between the two men was not always amiable (Handel once called Jennens “a vain fool crazed by his wealth”), but Jennens remained a lifelong admirer of Handel’s work. In Jennens’ words, he “chose a new series of extracts from the Scriptures to create an Entertainment . . . I hope that Handel will use all of his invention and all of his science.”

When Handel sat down to work on Messiah in August, he used what some have described as his usual brisk pace. Others have highlighted the fact he wrote the entire score in 24 days, locking himself up in his house and writing from morning until night, refusing visitors and food (which seems all the more extraordinary for someone who liked food so much) . When he finished the “Hallelujah” chorus, a servant described him as having tears running down his face as he exclaimed, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” If listening to Messiah is an intense experience, Handel’s experience in writing it can hardly be less so. He quoted St. Paul, saying “whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not” (Kavanaugh).

In 1732, there had been outrage when Handel’s oratorio Esther had been performed in a secular location; thus he had gained a bit of reputation for being profane. With this in mind, it is not difficult to understand why he chose Dublin rather than London to premiere the opera. Dublin was also a fast-growing, up-and-coming city. However, he did meet with opposition; Dean Jonathan Swift, old and cranky, had tried to prevent the premiere from going ahead. It did go ahead, performed in the Musick Hall on April 13th, 1742, raising £400 for charity and saving 142 men from debtors’ prison. The crowd numbered over 700, as women had obeyed the plea not to wear gowns “with Hoops.” The contralto, Susannah Cibber, was embroiled in a scandalous divorce. However, “So moved was the Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!’” (Kandell) In another celebrated incident, this time at the London premiere a year later, during the strains of the “Hallelujah” chorus, King George II rose to his feet and the rest of the audience followed him, establishing a tradition that endures to this day.

The London premiere was titled “A Sacred Oratorio” to pre-empt scandal. Jennens was involved in this one and printed in 1743 a wordbook to explain his thought processes better. It is actually very helpful for our purposes, as it gives us the “plot” (so to speak) of Messiah, which, as we know, takes its text from Scriptures carefully chosen by Jennens.

“I (i) The prophecy of Salvation; (ii) the prophecy of the coming of Messiah and the question, despite (i), of what this may portend for the World; (iii) the prophecy of the Virgin Birth; (iv) the appearance of the Angels to the Shepherds; (v) Christ's redemptive miracles on earth.
II (i) The redemptive sacrifice, the scourging and the agony on the cross; (ii) His sacrificial death, His passage through Hell and Resurrection; (iii) His Ascension; (iv) God discloses his identity in Heaven; (v) Whitsun, the gift of tongues, the beginning of evangelism; (vi) the world and its rulers reject the Gospel; (vii) God's triumph.
III (i) The promise of bodily resurrection and redemption from Adam's fall; (ii) the Day of Judgement and general Resurrection; (iii) the victory over death and sin; (iv) the glorification of the Messianic victim” (Vickers).

This, then, answers my two questions at once. Messiah was in English because its writer was English, and it is performed at Easter because that is when it was originally meant to be performed. Although it contains episodes that span the life and resurrection of Christ, it is equally applicable (in my opinion) at Christmas or at Easter. “I shall show you,” wrote Jennens, “a collection I gave Handel, call’d Messiah, which I value highly and he has made a fine Entertainment of it, tho’ not near so good as he might and ought to have done.” “I should be sorry if I only entertained them,” said Handel to Lord Kinnoul at the London premiere. “I wish to make them better.”


There is no question of “an authentic Messiah.” The piece was subjected to so much revision over the years (see below); there is no one “vision” of Handel’s intentions.

Fond as Handel seems to have been of his composition—he supervised more than 30 stagings—many of them were for charitable causes. Biographers have said that there is no piece “Messiah as fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan . . . more than any other single musical production. In this or any country.” Another wrote, “Perhaps the works of no other composer have so largely contributed to the relief of human suffering” (Vickers). In 1759, blind and ill, Handel insisted on attending an early April rendition of the Messiah in Covent Garden. He died at home a few days later; having expressed a desire to die on Good Friday, he lived until the early hours of Good Saturday. His estate was assessed at 20,000 pounds, making him very wealthy indeed. He left most of his money to charity, friends, servants, and family in Germany. He left £600 for himself, however, to have a funeral monument built and placed in Westminster Abbey.

Messiah was popularized by the Handel Centenary Westminster Abbey, 1784 and Victorian festivals at Crystal Palace. Unfortunately, this 19th century tendency to “improve” (by adding more and more parts) bloated Handel’s score so it was almost unrecognizable and caused composers such as Berlioz to scorn the work (by reputation only). (Wagner, however, recognized that audiences listening to Messiah had a semi-religious experience.) By the early 19th century, Messiah recitals were more popular in the US than in Britain In 2009, the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, the BBC broadcast all of his operas, more than 40 in total,  and every one of the composer's keyboard suites and cantatas was performed during the annual London Handel Festival, which included concerts at St. George's Hanover Square church, where Handel worshiped, and at the Handel House Museum.

Kavanaugh says that Messiah “has probably done more to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all the theological works ever written.” It is obvious to me that Messiah is a real work of genius. Having committed myself to Scratch (Singalong) Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall this year, I had to listen to the score dozens of times, and I have to admit, I never tired of hearing it. It is beautiful, moving, fresh, and so richly textured. By the time you read this, I will have already performed. Though the idea of singing without rehearsal has its faults, the upsurge of energy in a crowd of over 3,000 singers during the “Hallelujah” chorus is quite near to a religious experience.

I think “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” has finally replaced “Hallelujah” as my favorite part of Messiah. “The ambience is joyous, very uplifted” (Pétinot). In researching this, I also realized that the more I knew about Handel, the more I admired him. “Handel refused to be deterred by setbacks, attacks, illnesses, or even severe financial woes. It is a tribute to the faith and optimism Handel possessed, relying on God as he worked to overcome significant obstacles and to create music that is universally cherished today” (Kavanaugh).


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