Within the decade that followed Handel’s composition of Messiah in 1741, nearly a dozen different casts and configurations of vocal soloists were employed by the composer during those first 10 years of what would become a never-ending history of performances worldwide. In each case, and for the remaining years of Handel’s life, he made revisions to his score that made the best use of the particular talents of his solo singers.

While it is certainly true that Handel’s arrangements and transcriptions of arias that were employed for the work’s premiere in Dublin (1742) were due to the inadequacy of some of the singers at his disposal there, all subsequent revisions sought to show both the artists and the work in their best light. Customizing a musical work for the sake of the performers was not uncommon. In fact, it was not unheard of for an operatic vocalist (of necessarily considerable reputation) to carry along his or her favorite arias from city to city, insisting that they be incorporated into otherwise intact and singularly composed musical works for the stage.

This indulgence was not as unreasonable as one might first assume.  The operatic style during Handel’s day has since become known as opera seria, a term that literally means “serious” opera and that was devised to mark the differences between those works and opera buffa, comic operas that were the outgrowth of commedia dell’arte. There were strict conventions within opera seria, including the utilization of the da capo, or A-B-A, format for arias. Secco recitatives, accompanied only by continuo (harpsichord and violon-cello), were used to reveal plot details and to introduce the arias (or, rarely, duets) that would illuminate the emotions of whichever character would sing them. But there were also non-musical conventions of equally practical importance. In most cases the singer would exit at the end of an aria; hence the term “exit aria.” Even Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon character Snagglepuss often utilized this strategy: “Exit, stage left!” Of course, the primary reason for this theatrical device was to solicit applause from the audience for the singer (although some of the approval might just as well have been intended for the composer). And each principal singer would fully expect to sing a number of arias in a variety of moods; lamentation, revenge, defiance, melancholy, anger, or heroic virtue were common sentiments. The texts of the arias were rarely longer than four or eight lines, and rather generic, so it was more or less reasonable that a singer could substitute a favorite aria from another work so long as the general emotion was appropriate.

Other traditions further supported this kind of expected artistic license. In most cases, final arias within any opera of the period were always awarded to the most important singer, not the most important character. This sort of deference to the talent made a great deal of sense as, during Handel’s day, the singers themselves were as much of an attraction to the audience, if not more so, as might have been the composers and their works. So, in Handel’s implementations of various casts of Messiah soloists, he made redistributions of the workload to be fair or, in some cases, to be flattering to the members of any particular roster.  When surveying all of the versions of Messiah, it is very interesting to look first at the assignment of the final aria, “If God be for us.” Although originally composed for soprano, even for the premiere he altered the key so that it could be sung by the contralto, Susanna Cibber, a singing actress that Handel found to be tremendously compelling.

Over the next few years he continued to assign that “status” aria to her until 1749, the year before the first performance of Messiah in London’s Foundling Hospital. In this case it was awarded to a treble, or boy soprano, perhaps as a prescient indication of discussions that were underway to bring the oratorio into that venue. And the following year, in 1750, it was again transposed down a few keys so that it could be sung by the most recently arrived operatic star, the great Italian castrato Gaetano Guadagni (1728-1792). Only for the last performance of Messiah conducted by Handel in 1754 was the final aria heard as it was first composed, for soprano.  London’s Foundling Hospital, a home “for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children,” was established in 1739 in the Bloomsbury area. Its founder, Thomas Coram (1668-1751), was a sea captain and had spent a number of his early years in the American colonies. Following a career as a successful London merchant, he turned his attention to philanthropy and, in particular, rescuing homeless, abandoned children. At that time, charity and philanthropy had become not only critically essential to the survival of Londoners as a whole, but had also gained an oddly self-serving functionality as part of the fantastic expansion of London and the greater English empire.  

The rate of growth of London during the 18th century was exponential. About three-fourths of Londoners had been born elsewhere. Its culture was as diverse as the most modern 21st-century city. London offered opportunities and wealth to the industrious and ambitious, as well as a thriving underworld, anonymity, and meager subsistence to criminals and the unskilled. Its hierarchical systems of social status were engrained, accepted, and treasured, despite the fact that the 18th century offered all Londoners the chance to upgrade their places and stations within that cosmopolis. Ironically, though, even those who were able to buy into higher levels of society through their successes as merchants were as eager as the blue-blooded aristocracy to maintain whatever distinctions of social status could be maintained. The wealthy typically lived in five-story townhouses while the lower classes (those not housed as servants in the top floors of the elite’s homes) lived in terribly unhealthy and cramped hovels. During most of the 1700s, Londoners were subjected to dreadful pollution, reprehensibly unsanitary conditions, and mostly unbridled crime.  Many of those poor conditions were the result of the preponderance of manufacturing industries within London’s commercial organism.

About a third of London’s population was employed by manufacturing ventures, and the resulting pollution had turned the Thames River into, literally, a sewer. Still, this flourishing business culture helped increase overseas trade at least threefold during the century, and the spoils were global political power and domestic wealth. But the victims of all this were the children.  Many lived only a few short years, and still others were abandoned to live on their own in the filth, smoke, and mire of London’s poor quarters.  In the face of such undeniable misery, the wealthy could hardly turn a blind eye. During an era of destitution, depravity, and victimization, the beliefs of the Latitudinarian branch of the Church of England were timely assertions that benevolent and charitable deeds, rather than (or at least in addition to) the formalities of church worship, were essential to the quality of the moral state of the individual. Only by engaging in acts of compassion and by the establishment of a supporting relationship with the less fortunate could their plights, their suffering, and the terrible waste of human life be acceptably mitigated and tolerated.

Thus, charity became fashionable. Merchants supported charities that in turn supported the working class. They needed healthy workers in great numbers to keep their machines well-oiled and their industries thriving. Consumers were needed on the other side of the coin, so the maintenance of the lower classes was in the best interest of those entrepreneurs. The kingdom itself needed to be defended at sea and abroad, so healthy battalions had to be provided.

By supporting the less fortunate and encouraging their strength and independence—to a degree—those who had newly acquired wealth could gain prestige and propriety while nurturing their economic self-interests. To have a “bleeding heart” was especially in vogue among London’s upper-class women. Their ever-increasing opportunities to fashion socially relevant activities led quite naturally to their involvement in charities, which in turn substantiated
their refinement, respectability, and moral rank. William Hogarth (1697-1764), the great English painter, satirist, and cartoonist, called this transformative time “a golden age of English philanthropy” and one of the greatest results of it was the Foundling Hospital.

In 18th-century London, the term “hospital” was applied to institutions for the physically ill as well as the mentally ill, and to organizations that, through hospitality, supported particular factions of London’s population including sailors, refugees, penitent prostitutes, and destitute children. To a great degree, the efforts of Coram, assisted by Hogarth and Handel, firmly established the Foundling Hospital as one of England’s most long-lived and admirable benevolent institutions. Even before the buildings were completed—a process that took 10 years from 1742 to 1752—children were first admitted to temporary housing in 1741. No questions were asked, but overcrowding quickly led to the establishment of rules for acceptance. The requirement that children be aged no more than two months was relaxed by the House of Commons in 1756 so that children up to 12 months would be accepted. During the next few years, more than 15,000 infants were left at its doors.

Even within the Hospital, though, more than two-thirds of them would not survive long enough to be apprenticed during their teenage years.

In the same year that the Foundling Hospital accepted its first charges, Handel composed Messiah. Charles Jennens, the librettist for Messiah, had probably made the suggestion to Handel that the premiere of the work might take place in Dublin as a charity event.  In fact, on March 27, 1742, Faulkner’s Dublin Journal published an
announcement that:

“For Relief of the 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 in Fishamble
Street, Mr. Handel’s new Grand Oratorio, call’d the Messiah…”

The previous decade or so had been quite unpleasant for Handel.  He had begun to suffer financial difficulties, and by the early 1730s, his professional life was simply unraveling. He was nearly bankrupt and had fallen very much out of the critical favor of the aristocratic public for which he had composed his Italian operas. They were expensive to produce and not accessible enough for his audience. But, in fact, Handel himself was the object of what must have felt like brutal betrayal by his patrons, his audience, and even his musicians. For the first half of his life, Handel had led a charmed existence. He seems to have waltzed into one happy situation after another, in which he enjoyed the patronage of royalty, the aristocracy, and the culture-seeking population at large.

He was unexaggeratedly a national hero, despite his non-domestic origins. He had lived in extravagant estates, kept the most celebrated artists, writers, and musicians in his closest circles, and profited—although, not necessarily financially—from the tremen- dous favor that was bestowed upon him by an entire empire. His unprecedented success was so irreproachable that he was, without a doubt, completely unprepared for what amounted to a staggering fall from grace. But what emerged in 1741-42 was a work that would transcend the boundaries of musical forms, subject matter, social and cultural expectations, and, eventually, the bitterness of his rivals. And it would restore “the great Mr. Handel” to the revered status that he had enjoyed decades before.

The first performance of Messiah took place on April 13, 1742, in Dublin’s new music hall on Fishamble Street, and was a tre- mendous success. The review that appeared in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal proclaimed: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded 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.”  Performances in subsequent years took place in London, but those were met with less enthusiastic receptions. Messiah had blurred the distinctions between opera, oratorio, passion, and cantata, and
perhaps some Londoners found this to be a fundamental fault. So it is fascinating to note that when the function of Messiah was returned to that of a work presented for the benefit of charities, and when the venue was restored to an ecclesiastical structure rather than a theater, the oratorio took hold of its permanent place in the hearts of audiences, then in London and now throughout the world.  

For at least one year before the first Foundling Hospital performance of Messiah in 1750, Handel was involved with the charity, probably drawn to it through his associations with Hogarth and the music publisher John Walsh (1709-1766), who had been elected a governor in 1748. On May 4, 1749, Handel had made an offer, which was gratefully accepted, to present a benefit concert of vocal and instrumental music to help in the completion of the hospital’s chapel. The hospital reciprocated with an invitation to Handel, which he declined, to become one of its governors. On May 27, Handel directed a performance (in the unfinished chapel) of excerpts from his Fireworks Music, Solomon, and the newly composed Foundling Hospital Anthem, “Blessed are they that considereth the poor and needy” (Handel’s last work of English church music). The “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah was the final work, a premonition of what was in store for the following year. Royalty were in attendance.

Nearly one year later, on May 1, 1750, Handel performed Messiah in the (still not quite finished) chapel. That day can be seen as the most significant day in Handel’s career. The benefit concert’s success was extraordinary. More than 1,000 people crowded into the space, and more were turned away. Massive public attention to the event, coupled with unequivocal approbation for the oratorio, served Handel well and generated new commitment on the part of the London audience to uphold Handel and his oratorios as the great beacons of English music that they are. He became a governor of the hospital; since more than £1,000 had been raised by his performances, the fee required of governors was waived. In subsequent years, the Foundling Hospital continued to rely upon annual performances of Messiah for significant income.

The most significant musical aspect of the 1750 Foundling Hospital version of Messiah is the reworking of the aria, “But who may abide.” Gaetano Guadagni had arrived in London at the age of 20 in 1748, as part of an Italian opera company. The music historian Charles Burney (1726-1814) wrote about Guadagni:

“His voice was then a full and well toned counter-tenor; but
he was a wild and careless singer. However, the excellence of
his voice attracted the notice of Handel, who assigned him the
parts in his oratorios of the Messiah and Samson, which had
been originally composed for Mrs. Cibber…”

Handel composed a new middle section of the aria, taking advantage of Guadagni’s bravura vocal technique as well as his apparently considerable low notes. Two other arias were also reworked for Guadagni: “Thou art gone up on high” and “How beautiful are the feet.” Recent evidence seems to indicate that the alto arrangement of “How beautiful are the feet” was only an afterthought.

For the May 1, 1750, performance, Handel had six soloists (female soprano, boy treble, female contralto, male castrato counter-tenor, tenor, and bass). But two weeks later, on May 15, when the work was offered for a second time especially to those who were turned away a fortnight before, the soprano must have fallen ill.  Emergency reassignments were put in place, and the alto arrangement of “How beautiful are the feet” was one of them. In all fairness, however, it might have been that Handel was so pleased with Guadagni’s singing that he took that opportunity to give the singer another one of the oratorio’s “gem” arias.

Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus: To Stand or Not To Stand…

Perhaps the best-known and widely accepted concert “tradition” is standing for the Hallelujah chorus. Legend has it that King George II leapt to his feet when he heard it during one of the work’s first performances in London. Because no person could remain seated while the King stood, the entire audience rose with him. Some credit this anecdote as the origin of the “standing ovation.”  But a closer look at the facts reveals that there is no evidence that the King ever attended such a performance. The first written account of the story appeared in 1780, more than 35 years after the cited performance, and it was written by someone who admits to not having witnessed the King’s presence himself. However, the King was known to attend such events incognito. So he, in fact, at least might have been there.

If he was in attendance, there is much speculation as to why he stood at all. Theories range from the reverent to the simply unflattering: he might have been stretching his legs, relieving his gout, leaving for the bathroom, or suddenly awakened by the chorus’ forte entrance. But the general opinion is that his own sense of obeisance compelled him to stand upon hearing the majestic and undeniably enthralling music of the Hallelujah chorus.

The custom is common in English-speaking countries, but essentially unknown in all others. Many have objected, in more contemporary eras, to the distastefully imperialistic implications of following the King’s lead in this manner. After all, the general audience only stood because they had to do so. But others are quick and well justi-
fied to point out that Handel’s Messiah is certainly the most well-known and universally enjoyed major work in the Baroque oratorio genre—if not among all “classical” music works—and that standing as a group, in the name of tradition, unites the audience with the performers for a few minutes in a most energizing way.

No matter how convincingly some can argue that this “tradition” is rooted in untrustworthy hearsay, you have only to look at the performers when you stand at that wondrous, thrilling moment: you will see their smiles and their spirits lifted even higher, knowing that millions upon millions of people have stood at that very same moment in music, and in virtually every corner of the world. Even Haydn stood with the crowd at a performance in Westminster Abbey. It is said that he wept and proclaimed of George Frideric Handel, “He is the master of us all.”

A Simple Primer on Early Instruments…

Several decades ago, a movement began in the classical music industry to perform music on the instruments that were used during the composer’s lifetime. Unquestionably advanced by the advent of CD recordings in the early 1980s, this marriage of scholarship and style became known as “historically informed performance practice.” But it encompasses more than just the proper choice of instruments for the performance of music from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical eras. Fine points of expression, articulation, and even the way instruments are tuned play a large role in what you are hearing tonight.

Probably for most of us it is the use of these beautiful and, in most cases, truly antique and priceless instruments that brings the most unique quality to these performances. Rather than cataloguing all the well-founded and essential reasons to use period instruments for this music, it is even more compelling to consider why the use of modern instruments would cheat us of the experience a composer like Handel meant to give to us.  Instruments have evolved and grown over the centuries, mostly because composers would present new challenges to instrumentalists, and therefore to those who built their instruments. When a composer like Bach or Beethoven would write the most difficult passages that would tax the limits of an instrument’s responsiveness, within a decade or so instrument builders found a way to accommodate the challenges. In the Baroque period, musical phrases were made up of strong and weak notes, falling on strong and weak beats within a bar. When a violinist would move the bow in a downward stroke across a string, the sound was stronger than when the bow would be moved in an upward direction. But eventually the lengths of musical phrases grew, and more notes were meant to be played in a connected way, leading much further down the line to a phrase’s focal point. Accordingly, the bows for stringed instruments were then made to create the same amount of sound whether the bow was moving up or down. And of course concert halls grew in size, so instruments were made to play louder. In the 20th century, some composers required sounds that acoustic instruments simply could not produce; hence the genre of electronic music.

One of the most exciting sounds we hear from these “early instruments,” however, is the inherent tension during the most climactic moments in a musical work. If you haven’t already done so, find a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony played by an orchestra of period instruments, and listen to the most dissonant or loud moments. You’ll be glad to hear the instruments being pushed to their limits, and you just might find the ease and aplomb with which modern instruments and their players perform the same passages to be lack-luster by comparison.

Finally, a short note about antiques and reproductions…while it is not uncommon to find violins and ’cellos that are more than 300 years old being played in orchestras like ours, very few surviving antique wind instruments are still playable. Consequently, period wind instruments are almost always copies of originals.


"Mondavi Center Program Notes" Anonymous.  2008. Mondavi Center Program. 04 Dec. 2008. <>

The Compleat Messiah All Content Copyright © 2009 Bret D. Wheadon
All Rights Reserved.