Program Notes | Dec 20–22, 2019

Handel’s Messiah
By Laurie Shulman ©2019

HANDEL: Messiah


Born: February 23, 1685, in Halle, Germany
Died: April 14, 1759, in London, England
Composed: Handel composed his most famous oratorio in a period of 24 days from late August to mid-September 1741 in London.
World premiere: April 13, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland.
NJSO premiere: 1976–77 season with the Westminster Symphonic Choir; John Nelson conducted.
Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes, including intermission

Certain works of classical music belong to everyone, regardless of cultural background. Handel’s Messiah has universal appeal not only because of its association with the holiday season (although Charles Jennens’ text places it more accurately as an Easter work), but also because Handel’s lovely arias and bubbling choruses lift us up. They are, collectively, a cause for celebration. The joining together of large performing forces—a modern phenomenon that would have amazed Handel—with unfailingly enthusiastic audiences is among the most convivial traditions in our society.

Handel was born in Germany and educated in Germany and Italy; he spent his mature career in England, his adopted home. Born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel lived a far more cosmopolitan life, and he must be counted among the most international of composers. Recognizing early on that his future success lay in Italian opera, he went to Florence in 1706 at the invitation of Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici. During his Italian years, his path crossed that of Vivaldi, Albinoni, Caldara, Corelli and both Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti. He cultivated a variety of vocal music—including operas, oratorios and chamber cantatas—and he mastered important instrumental forms like the concerto and sonata.

When Handel left Italy in 1710 for Hanover and, eventually, England, he was a highly accomplished composer and a superb organist. Initially, he made his reputation in London through Italian opera, but by the late 1720s, English taste was changing. The highly successful run of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) led to a sea change in popular demand. English audiences now wanted their musical entertainment in English, and the future of Italian opera in London looked grim.

Ever the pragmatist, Handel turned his energies in the 1730s to a series of sacred oratorios. Messiah is the crown jewel among them. While its first London performance in 1743 received an indifferent reception, Handel had the satisfaction of witnessing Messiah’s improved fortunes. After 1750, when a performance was presented in London to benefit a Foundling Hospital, Messiah became an annual event. That tradition has taken firm hold in many countries besides England.

Handel’s librettist for Messiah was Charles Jennens, a wealthy Englishman with whom he had collaborated on the 1738 oratorio Saul. Jennens selected his texts primarily from the Book of Common Prayer, also drawing on the Book of Isaiah and the Gospels. Far from being exclusively Christmas-season texts, Jennens’ words also have relevance to Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. As English music administrator and writer Nicholas Kenyon has observed: “Messiah is an oratorio which celebrates the whole of Christ’s work, from its anticipation in the prophecy of the Old Testament, through his life, suffering, death and Resurrection, to his future second coming in glory.”

No small order for a composer, that. But Handel was equal to the task. Winton Dean has admirably summarized some elements of what makes Messiah so special:

The greatness of Messiah—Handel’s only sacred oratorio in the true sense and therefore untypical—derives on one level from its unique fusion of the traditions of Italian opera, English anthem and German passion, and on another from the coincidence of Handel’s personal faith and creative genius to express, more fully than in any other work of art, the deepest aspirations of the Anglican religious spirit.

To the chorister, whether in a formal performing ensemble or in an audience participating from a seat in the hall, Messiah is more than what Dean describes. Who can resist the excitement of the full chorus’ first entrances in “And the glory of the Lord”? What choral singer does not greatly anticipate the prospect of negotiating the formidable melismas in the fugue subjects of “And he shall purify” and “His yoke is easy, and His burden is light”? Is there any choral movement that encapsulates the spirit of the holiday season so perfectly as “For unto us a child is born”?

Here is music that speaks to the spirit in the most warm and communicative of ways; here is music that is fun—albeit very demanding!—to sing. And for those moments of participatory repose between choruses, Handel provides a wealth of glorious solo music for our enjoyment, including some recitatives as moving as any operatic example: “Then shall the eyes of the blind be open’d” (preceding “He shall feed His flock/Come unto Him”) immediately comes to mind.

To Messiah as well belongs the most famous and revered tradition in all choral music: the entire audience rising to stand at the conclusion of Part II, when the orchestra intones the familiar three introductory measures of “Hallelujah.” We invite our audiences to stand and enjoy this singular moment in the choral tradition.

Among the other favorites in this rich family of arias, recitatives, orchestral interludes and choruses are the tenor arias “Comfort Ye” and “Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted,” soprano arias “Rejoice Greatly” and “I Know that my Redeemer Liveth,” the bass aria “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and the incomparable contralto solo “He was despised.” With the latter is associated a wonderful story that epitomizes the spirit of Messiah.

On the occasion of the work’s world premiere in Dublin on April 13, 1742, the contralto soloist was the English singer and actress Susannah Maria Cibber, the sister of composer Thomas Arne. Several years previously, she had eloped with her lover, John Sloper. The scandal precipitated a lawsuit initiated by the cuckolded husband, Theophilus Cibber. Susannah Cibber was forced to retire from public appearances for several years, and she chose to reside quietly in the Berkshire countryside with Sloper.

In 1741, Cibber traveled to Dublin for a single season at the Aungier Street Theatre. Travel was slow in the mid-18th century, but gossip, as always, made its way rapidly. Cibber’s muddied reputation preceded her.

Handel had met Susannah Cibber in 1733, when she sang in the first performance of his oratorio Deborah. They liked and respected each other. When he arrived in Dublin to prepare for the premiere of Messiah, he contracted with her to perform as one of his soloists. His decision, though risky with respect to public opinion, was artistically sound. So sweet was her singing, and so transporting her interpretation, that a distinguished member of that first audience, the Reverend Dr. Delany, was moved to rise from his seat and exclaim: “Woman, for this, be all thy sins forgiven!”

No such drama is expected from modern audiences, but singers and instrumentalists alike take great pride in faithful execution of this immortal score. More than 270 years after that first performance, Handel’s music is still capable of transporting us to a higher plane.

Instrumentation: Messiah was originally scored for strings and continuo, plus solo trumpet for the obbligato aria “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” For the London performances in 1743, Handel added oboes and bassoons, doubling the strings during the choruses. Today, Messiah is generally performed with oboes, bassoon, trumpets, timpani, strings, harpsichord and organ continuo, a quartet of vocal soloists and mixed chorus.