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G. F. Handel: The Messiah

Saturday, October 25th, 2008 by Martin Hester

George Frideric Handel: The Messiah  – A Sacred Oratorio
Harper/Watts/Wakefield/Shirley-Quirk – London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: Sir Colin Davis.

As Christmas draws near, hundreds of choirs throughout Britain, the United States and the rest of the world, will take up rehearsals of Handel’s Messiah, a Sacred Oratorio written in 1741. In its original form, the work is long, taking the story of Christ from early prophecies and his birth, through His Passion and Resurrection, to the Revelation. But it is usually adapted to the occasion and tastes of the audience, as it was by Handel himself. Here in Rio, the SCM will sing it as a Sing-Along, this year on the 15th December in Christ Church.

The composer
Handel was born in 1685 in the German city of Halle. After some initial opposition from his family, he was allowed to study music; in 1706 he travelled to Italy, and stayed there until 1710, absorbing the Italian musical style as if to the manner born. The very fine Dixit Dominus (GL Sept 2005) dates from this period. In 1710 he returned to Germany to take up the post of musical director at the court of Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover. During a visit to England, he obtained great success with his opera Rinaldo, and in 1712 he returned to England, where he stayed the rest of his life. He was supported by the nobility, had great fame and prestige, and wrote the music for the nation’s most important festive occasions. His former employer in Germany became George I of England in 1714, but Handel returned to favour through the success of the “Water Music”, which was played in a boat near to that of His Majesty’s at a festive occasion on the River Thames. For the next 25 years, Handel wrote and staged more than 30 operas in the Italian style, but when interest in this waned in favour of something more English (typified by the success of The Beggar’s Opera), he took to writing Oratorio – pieces with a religious story, told by soloists and chorus, and presented in the theatre, but without sets, costumes, or staging.

Handel quickly enjoyed considerable success with oratorios such as Esther, Deborah, Saul, and Israel in Egypt. But by the early 1740s, he was in some financial difficulty and suffering from poor health after a stroke. It was then he received a text from his librettist, Charles Jennens, which told the story of Christ through passages from the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, and the Revelation. In August 1741 Handel began on the score, and completed it in the very short time of just 24 days – about 2½ hours of music! However, it was not immediately performed. At the end of that year, Handel went to Dublin, Ireland, where he gave two series of concerts of his music to great acclaim. It was there that The Messiah was premiered on April 13, 1742, in a concert for charitable purposes. The Dublin papers spoke of the “exquisite delight” of the “Musick” and praised warmly the generosity of Handel and the performers, who donated 400 pounds to charity – which subsequently allowed 142 prisoners to be released from debtor’s prison when their creditors were satisfied! The Messiah had two more performances in Dublin that year, then London heard it three times in 1743 and twice in 1745, restoring Handel’s fame in the capital.

Later, Handel began conducting an annual performance before Christmas, in aid of the Foundling Hospital, and the work established itself firmly in the traditions and in the hearts of the British people, where it stays until this day.

The music
Handel’s music is classified as being at the end of the Baroque era (as is the music of J. S. Bach, who had practically the same life span as Handel). Quite strict in its structure, with a limited range of instruments in the orchestra, it sounds rather formal and proper to present-day ears. The choral writing is made up of interlocking lines, often the same phrase being sung again by the different voices (soprano, alto, tenor bass) with a bit of a delay, or higher or lower than the previous voice. This means that there is drama and strength when all the voices come together, and Handel is a master of building up the effect throughout a chorus. Typically there are several buildups to bring together all four voices, then backing off down to one voice with another theme, before the voices come together and rise to a final climax ….. a silence …. and then long chords to bring it to a close. The phrases of the music are longer and more ornate than we are used to today – long runs, or phrases which go repeating a pattern of notes moving up or down. This demands quite a lot from the singers in terms of breath control, and maintaining clarity and evenness throughout the phrase. However, there are no dissonances, and in progressing from one harmony to another, Handel doesn’t adventure as much as does Bach. Nor, in the Messiah, does he write very high or very low. Does this sound like a recipe for singers to have fun? It is indeed! When you are singing, you are conscious of the need to be precise in your own part, and you can hear how it fits with the others, and how the orchestra underpins it, and puts in phrases of comment or embellishment. So there is a collective thrill when it all comes off.

Another endearing aspect of the Messiah is the way the words are “pictured” in the music. For instance, in the first tenor Air Every valley shall be exalted / and every mountain and hill made low / the crooked straight, and the rough places plain  – exalted has long ornate phrases, the crooked straight notes which jump around high and low, and plain long long sustained notes, hardly moving.

Then again, in the bass Aria, The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, the bit about darkness sounds just like someone groping around in a darkened room – short phrases, up and down, searching around…. and then on light, the music straightens up, with high, long and joyous sustained notes.

Later on, in the contralto Aria He shall feed his flock like a shepherd / and He shall gather the lambs with his arm / and carry them in his bosom, the music is gently rocking, full of rest and comfort.

The Messiah has three main sections – the first is concerned with the prophecy of the coming of a Messiah and then with Christ’s Nativity. Part II deals with Christ’s suffering and death, while the last section offers an affirmation of Christian faith and glimpses of Revelation.

The most famous chorus – Hallelujah! – comes in fact at the end of the second part, although it is usually sung at the very end of a performance. This was undoubtedly written for a heavenly chorus, and is justly famous for its expression of joy and faith. In the last part of this chorus, the ladies sing King of Kiiiiiiiings with a long sustained note, while the men and orchestra go for ever, and ever, Hallelujah! – then the trumpet wings in to reinforce the women’s voices, as the music goes higher and higher…. then the roles reverse, with the men doing King of Kiiiiiiiings, until all voices and orchestra come together: for ever, and ever, Hallelujah!

This CD
There are hundreds of recordings of The Messiah available, without even counting recordings by amateur groups. These days, conductors try to bring something to the performance to set it apart, such as using an original score, or period instruments, and there seems to be an unfortunate tendency to take it faster and lighter, which sometimes seems to lose the deeper meaning. The musical excerpts here are from a 1976 recording by Neville Marriner with the Academy and Chorus of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which uses a score based on the first London performance of 1743.

For a more traditional recording, the one by Colin Davis with the LSO Chorus and Orchestra cited above is for me perfectly satisfying. The tempos, precision of the choruses and beauty of the solos are all as they should be. It was originally recorded in 1966 but re-issued in the 1990s. 

But in any version, the wonder of Handel’s inspiration and skill, and the sentiment of the words are there to be appreciated, so……

Good Listening!