|MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS
George Frideric Handel's oratorio Messiah is one of the most widely
played pieces of music during the Christmas season every year. Since
its first performance, in 1742, many myths and misconceptions about
this popular masterpiece have accumulated. Here are some of them,
along with clarifications.
The title is Messiah, not The Messiah.
The work did not originate by divine inspiration or for a specific
occasion. The German-born Handel (1685-1759), after working for some
years in Germany and Italy, settled in London, England, in 1712 and,
though he composed a wide variety of vocal and instrumental music,
focused his attention at first mainly on Italian opera. When Italian
opera went out of favor, he turned to oratorios as a way to make money.
To ensure the popularity of his oratorios, he included many numbers for
chorus, being well aware of England's rich choral tradition. When one
of Handel's librettists, Charles Jennens, sent him the libretto for
Messiah, based on various books of the Bible, the composer set it to
music because he thought it had commercial possibilities.
Theater, Not Church
Despite its religious text, Messiah, like other oratorios of the time,
was intended for performance in a theater or concert hall, not a
church. An oratorio had arias, recitatives, choruses, acts, scenes, and
so on, just like an opera. In essence, an oratorio was a theatrical
work that could be performed inexpensively because it required no
staging (such as scenery and costumes). Some oratorios had religious
texts, but others were secular.
Unlike almost all other baroque oratorios, including Handel's own works
in the same genre, Messiah does not tell a story. Instead, it presents
a series of contemplations on the Christian idea of redemption, from
Old Testament prophecies through the life of Christ to his final
triumph over death.
Focus on Old Testament
Despite its Christian message, Messiah has more text from the Old Testament than the New Testament.
Dublin, Not London
Handel, though cosmopolitan in musical style, lived most of his life in
England and wrote Messiah in London in 1741. However, the work's
premiere occurred not in London but in Dublin, Ireland, where he had
been invited to perform during the 1741-42 winter season. Jennens, the
librettist, was upset because he wanted the first performance to take
place in London.
Premiere Almost Prevented
Jonathan Swift, the famed author of Gulliver's Travels, was now the
cranky old dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. He nearly
prevented the premiere of Messiah by threatening to forbid his church's
singers from participating in the performance, which was to take place
at a music hall. Swift, like many ecclesiastics of that time, believed
that theaters and theater music, including Handel's, subverted
religion. Ultimately he relented, and his singers took part in the
Hoops and Swords
Despite clerical reservations about the music, the Dublin premiere, on
April 13, 1742, was a great success, with seven hundred people showing
up at a theater that normally seated only six hundred. To squeeze in as
many audience members as possible, concert officials published a notice
before the performance, requesting women to wear skirts without hoops
and men to come without their swords.
Cool Reception in London
Handel's Messiah met with a cool reception in London. Both clerics and
middle-class theatergoers damned the work as blasphemous for presenting
a Christian theme in a secular theater environment. Earlier religious
oratorios, such as Handel's Israel in Egypt (1739), consisted of Old
Testament stories, and people regarded them as history lessons with a
moral. Christ and Christianity, however, were more sensitive subjects.
To avoid giving offense, Handel advertised the work without any title
at all, calling it simply a "Sacred Oratorio." Nevertheless, the London
debut, on March 23, 1743, fell flat.
Handel's Messiah finally became a popular success in London late in his
life, not through regular commercial or religious performances but
through its use in annual benefit concerts for underprivileged children
at the Foundling Hospital, beginning in 1750.
Handel's Own Favorite
Most of the world knows Handel mainly by Messiah, but the composer himself thought his best oratorio was the operalike Theodora.
Easter, Not Christmas
Handel himself associated Messiah with Lent and Easter. The
text--organized into three principal parts and subdivided into scenes
with arias, recitatives, and choruses (much like the acts and scenes of
an opera)--summarizes Christian doctrine and faith. Only the first part
relates to the birth of Christ, but as the decades went by, the work
came to be performed mostly at Christmas.
The second part of Messiah ends with a chorus, whose text begins
"Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth" (Revelation 19:6);
after some other biblical text, the number ends by repeating
"Hallelujah." Hallelujah choruses were common at that time, and while
Handel was alive, the chorus was referred to as "For the Lord God
omnipotent reigneth." Eventually, however, this particular chorus
became so famous that it came to be known as the "Hallelujah" chorus.
Standing during "Hallelujah"
Audience members traditionally stand during a performance of the
Messiah "Hallelujah" chorus. The origin of the tradition is uncertain,
but the custom started early in the history of the piece. The first
documented case of standing occurred during the May 15, 1750,
performance of Messiah at the Foundling Hospital charity concert.
However, the first published explanation of the custom did not come
till 1780, when people began repeating an anecdote that King George II
had stood during the "Hallelujah" at the London debut of Messiah in
1743. But historians are not sure that the king even attended that
No Definitive Messiah
After the premiere of Messiah, Handel prepared many different versions
of the work for later occasions. He recomposed some numbers to improve
their musical quality, but he customized many pieces simply to
accommodate the singers available for particular performances. As a
result, there is no such thing as a truly "definitive" score for
Ironically, the tremendous popularity of Messiah almost destroyed it.
From the late 1700s to the early 1900s, musicians who loved the work
tried to "update" it to make it suitable to contemporary tastes. People
reorchestrated the work to add modern color, enlarged the size of the
vocal and instrumental ensembles to symbolize the importance of the
music, and performed the oratorio with romantic musical gestures.
Overblown nineteenth-century London peformances of Messiah with huge
ensembles, including choruses of five thousand singers, were common.
For generations, those "improvements" completely distorted Handel's
musical conceptions in Messiah.
Old Is New
Since the movement to revive authentic early-music styles began in the
1960s, Messiah performances have largely returned to Handel's original
conceptions in terms of orchestration, ensemble size, and performance
practices. The old way has become the new way to perform Messiah. Today
conductors often select numbers from different Handel versions to
create their own composite Messiah.
About Handel's Messiah" Darryl Lyman, Associated Content. 2007.
associatedcontent.com. 07 Nov. 2007