Messiah (1751 version)

'Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture collection I have made for him… I hope he will lay out his whole Genius and Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah…'  -- Charles Jennens (10 July 1741)

Handel wrote Messiah in anticipation of a visit to Dublin in 1741. At the invitation of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland he organized two series of concerts at the New Music Hall, Fishamble Street, during the winter season of 1741-42. He saved Messiah till last, performing it for the first time on 13 April 1742 to rapturous applause. Messiah fared less well, however, in London the following year. Audiences seem to have preferred his other new oratorio, Samson, and many people profoundly disapproved of biblical words being sung in a common theatre, which was where Handel performed most of his oratorios. Even Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens, was less than enthusiastic: 'His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great hast[e], tho' he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus'd'.

Although Handel made a number of attempts to revive Messiah in 1745 and 1749, it was not until 1750 that he began to perform it annually at the end of his Lenten oratorio season at Covent Garden, repeating it a month or so later in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital, an orphanage of which he was a governor. From this time on 'a change of sentiment in the public began to manifest', wrote Sir John Hawkins, and 'Messiah was received with universal applause'. The earliest provincial performance of Messiah was given at Oxford in April 1749 under the direction of William Hayes, the Professor of Music, and it was rapidly taken up by music societies in Salisbury, Bath, Bristol, Gloucester and Worcester. Soon, the popularity of Messiah began to eclipse that of Handel's other oratorios, and during the nineteenth century it became almost a national institution, increasingly performed by gargantuan forces – choirs of 4000 were not unheard of – providing a convenient mouthpiece for the Victorian doctrines of progress and social amelioration.

Although Handel famously completed the first draft of Messiah in a mere 24 days, he never really stopped working on it, constantly amending and updating the score to suit the singers available and the circumstances of each new performance he gave. This means that there is no one definitive version of the work for us to follow today. The present recording takes its lead from Handel's performances of 18 April and 16 May 1751, which he gave at Covent Garden Theatre and the chapel of the Foundling Hospital. Inspired by the abilities of his alto soloist, the Italian castrato Gaetano Guadagni, in 1750 Handel had written brand new settings of the arias 'But who may abide' and 'Thou art gone up on high', both of which he retained, along with Guadagni, in 1751. The other notable feature of Handel's Foundling Hospital performance followed here is the use of boy trebles for both the top line of the chorus and for the soprano arias, including the much-loved 'I know that my redeemer liveth' but excluding 'Rejoice, greatly', allocated by Handel to the tenor. Handel and his contemporaries – like William Hayes in Oxford – often substituted outstanding choristers for their soprano soloist at certain key moments in the work, like the Nativity sequence beginning 'There were shepherds abiding in the field'. The link with a choral foundation was consolidated in Handel's tenor and bass soloists, John Beard and Robert Wass, both of whom had close connections with the Chapel Royal, just as the tenor and bass soloists in this recording have close links with an Oxford foundation.

Charles Jennens's libretto for Messiah is very different from the texts of Handel's other oratorios. Instead of telling a dramatic story as in Samson, with soloists and chorus representing particular characters, the text of Messiah is almost exclusively concerned with prophecy and meditation. The words are drawn entirely from the Authorised Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Nevertheless, Jennens's biblical compilation was judicious and his overall design very strong. By skilfully combining Old and New Testament texts he was able to illustrate the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah in the events related in the Gospels. He divided the oratorio into three parts. Part I embraces the prophecies of Christ's coming, the Annunciation and the Nativity. Part II is concerned with Christ's Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, the dissemination of the Gospels, and a final ecstatic view of the kingdom of God. Part III (based on the Anglican Burial Service) celebrates Christ's Resurrection and the immortality of the Christian soul made possible through Christ's Redemption.

Notwithstanding its subject and text, Messiah is not, in the accepted sense, a sacred work. Jennens himself called it simply 'a fine Entertainment', and Handel only ever performed it in a consecrated building when he mounted his annual charity concerts in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital. This, however, did not prevent its ultimate sanctification by an adoring public convinced that by attending a performance of the work they were themselves participating in an act of worship. In Bristol in 1758 the young John Wesley heard Messiah on one of the rare occasions when it was performed in church and commented ironically that he doubted 'if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance'. Yet there is absolutely no evidence at all that Handel himself ever intended an evangelical purpose. If anything, he intended a charitable one, having performed Messiah regularly throughout this career for the benefit of the poor and needy. Ultimately, Handel's purpose was to delight and charm his listeners; as a writer in the Dublin Journal wrote after the first performance: '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.'


"Messiah: 1751 Version"  Simon Heighes.  2006.  Naxos Liner Notes for Handel Messiah. <

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