Handel was born in
Halle, Germany, on February 23, 1685, and died in London on April 14,
1759. He composed Messiah between August 22 and September 14 of 1741.
The oratorio was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, under the
direction of the composer. In addition to a quartet of vocal soloists
and choir, the work is scored for 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets,
timpani, harpsichord and strings.
Dr. Charles Burney, an 18th-century English music historian, wrote that
Handel's oratorio, Messiah, "has been heard in all parts of the kingdom
with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed
the naked, fostered the orphan and enriched succeeding managers of
Oratories more than any single musical production in this or any other
country." We believe that your musical experience will be enriched, and
that you will hear with special delight our unique interpretation of
one of the most famous of all musical compositions.
George Frideric Handel, renowned in his day as an organist and as a
highly prolific writer of Italian operas and English oratorios, was
born in Germany in 1685 about a month before J.S. Bach. He received his
musical training in Italy, and later became 18th-century England's
"national composer." Between February and November 1741, Handel,
suffering at the age of 56 from various ailments, both financial and
physical, withdrew increasingly from public life. At some point that
year, the composer received from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the
governors of Dublin's three major charitable institutions an invitation
to travel to that city to aid the charities through the performance of
his music. Handel was well-known in Dublin as a church-music composer,
and his works were often played there to benefit charities. It may thus
have been this invitation that provided the incentive for Handel to
compose "a new sacred Oratorio." In July of 1741, Charles Jennens, who
was responsible for the texts of Handel's oratorios, Israel in Egypt
and Saul, gave the struggling Handel the libretto of Messiah, a
compilation of biblical texts from both the Old and New Testaments.
On the 22nd of August, Handel began to set Jennens' text to music. He
finished the first part of his new oratorio (which deals with the
prophecy of Christ's coming and his nativity) in six days, the second
part (which describes Jesus' suffering, death, resurrection, and
ascension, the spread of his gospel, the resistance of the heathen, and
the vision of the ultimate triumph of the gospel in the establishment
of God's kingdom) in nine days, and the third part (which celebrates
the gift of resurrection and eternal life offered to all through
Christ's victory over death) in six more days, with two or three
additional days for completing the orchestration. Regarding Handel's
state of mind during Messiah's composition, biographer Jonathan Keates
observes in his 1992 book, Handel: The Man and Music, that
"etherealized visions of the elderly master refusing food, weeping into
the semiquavers and having angelic hallucinations are mostly
moonshine." Musician and writer Christopher Hogwood admits that "The
turbulent state of Handel's manuscript, the blots, erasures and
emendations that litter the page right to the final bars give enough
evidence of tempestuous creation to tempt any romantic biographer." But
there is little doubt, in any event, that this enduring masterpiece,
completed in 24 days on September 14, 1741, will remain among the
greatest compositional feats in the history of music.
In the autumn of 1741, Handel accepted the invitation to visit Dublin,
arriving there on November 18 with the completed score of Messiah in
his traveling bags, but it was not until April 13, 1742, that the
oratorio was premiered. Seven hundred people were able to squeeze into
Dublin's Musick Hall in Fishamble-street to hear the work performed by
the choirs of Dublin's two cathedrals (totaling fewer than forty men
and boys) and the string band (reinforced occasionally by trumpets and
timpani — oboe and bassoon parts were written later), all
directed from the keyboard by Mr. Handel himself. The work created a
sensation: "Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it
afforded to the admiring crouded Audience," exulted Faulkner's Journal.
"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." Handel divided his share of the proceeds
(about £400), as did the other performers, among Dublin's three
most important charities.
Messiah is unique among Handel's works, being his only biblical
oratorio using texts from the New Testament, and his only
"Christian-contemplative" oratorio. Although the text is not a dramatic
narrative but an epic-lyric poem celebrating Christian redemption,
Handel's musical approach in setting Jennens' libretto was decidedly
dramatic. The work's three parts recall the three acts of Italian
operas, and the oratorio is indeed a piece designed by a seasoned
operatic professional to "entertain," in the best sense of the word,
listeners in a concert room, not chiefly to instruct or edify a
congregation or to be used in any sort of worship setting. Handel
synthesizes the best elements of the three musical traditions in which
he was steeped: the Italian, the German, and the English. He makes use
of Italian forms of musical expression, borrowing, rearranging, and
transforming into "duet-choruses" (such as "And he shall purify") some
passages from his own Italian love duets. In the "Pastoral Symphony"
(entitled Pifa) that introduces the shepherds, Handel alludes to the
music of the pifferari, the country bagpipers who descend the Italian
mountains during the Christmas season to play in village streets.
Handel employs German musical ideas, particularly in the music
describing Jesus' suffering and death, where the jagged dotted rhythms
and forceful harmonies have a particularly German expressive quality.
In that great "coronation march," the "Hallelujah Chorus," melodic
fragments echoing the German chorale "Wachet auf" may be heard in "The
kingdom of this world" and in "And he shall reign for ever and ever."
Handel's melodic shapes, vocal treatment, grand anthem-like choruses,
and text-setting display the "English character" that has ensured
Messiah's unchallenged supremacy in the English choral repertoire: in
such arias as "He was despised" and "I know that my Redeemer liveth,"
the rhythms of the music grow out of the natural speech rhythms of the
words, so that the music expresses the text directly and powerfully,
and then illustrates it almost visually (e.g., "Every valley shall be
exalted," "The people that walked in darkness," and "All we like
The easy accessibility and glorious variety of the music that results
from the confluence of these elements (and which often conceals the
exalted art underlying it) has helped to guarantee Messiah's survival,
through a seeming infinitude of "arrangements," versions, and types of
presentation, as one of the most popular pieces ever composed. As
biographer R. A. Streatfeild observes, "Messiah, if not Handel's
greatest work, is undoubtedly the most universal in its appeal" because
it continues to sing to "high and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish
alike" a magnificent song of salvation, fresh, vital, and full of
aesthetic and spiritual grace.
"Program Notes" Lorelette Knowles. 1998.
Orchestra Seattle/Seattle Chamber Singers, Program Notes for Handel Messiah.