|ROCHESTER PHILHARMONIC PROGRAM NOTES
The Passion of Jesus Christ is such a compelling story that it has
drawn many of the great composers of history to attempt doing it
justice through music. If sheer number of performances is a reliable
guide to success, Handel’s oratorio Messiah may be the greatest
Passion setting of all.
He was 56 when he composed it, the necessary experience of life and
music well in hand. Handel had developed into a true cosmopolitan, a
widely skilled composer who wove together the various musical threads
of his day into a rich and varied personal style. He began absorbing
these influences early in his career. He spent that period first in his
homeland, then in Italy.
During the second decade of the eighteenth century, he settled in
England, there to win his greatest fame and influence. One of his
reasons for locating there was the current popularity of a type of
music with which he was already quite familiar, and through which he
had won great success: Italian-style opera. Over the next 30 years, he
devoted the major portion of his creative energies to supplying English
audiences with that type of piece. London’s music lovers received
his operas enthusiastically; Julius Caesar, Ariodante and Serse proved
especially popular. Listeners found Handel’s purely instrumental
music very much to their liking as well.
As time passed, fashions in music changed. The English public grew
tired of Italian opera’s absurd plots, posturing soloists and
ornate vocal style. Another reason for its decline stemmed from the
unending stream of satiric assaults launched against it by such widely
read wits as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. To add further fuel to
Italian opera’s funeral pyre, English music-lovers were looking
to cast off continental influences in favor of entertainment with a
uniquely local flavor.
They found what they were looking for on several fronts. One source was
comic stage pieces based on the popular melodies of the day, such as
The Beggar’s Opera (1728). The most important new entertainment
style, however, was oratorio. It represented not only a change from
opera, but also a chance for audiences to hear and to relish
presentations given in their own language – a powerful inducement
to enjoyment on several levels.
Handel, to his great financial distress, caught on to this trend only
slowly. He had actually contributed to the decline of Italian opera by
throwing together too many pieces too quickly, thus allowing the
quality of his output to decline. But once he finally did recognize the
direction the musical wind had shifted, he began producing a most
successful series of English language oratorios. They gradually helped
him regain his title as his adopted country’s favorite composer.
In structural terms, opera and oratorio have a great deal in common.
They both involve casts of solo singers, a chorus and an orchestra,
performing a sequence of recitatives, arias, ensembles and instrumental
interludes. But in oratorios there are no costumes, scenery or props,
and this type of piece is performed in concert halls and churches,
rather than in opera houses. Another important difference lies in
subject matter. Operas deal strictly with secular topics; oratorios
frequently treat sacred ones as well.
By 1741, the waning of interest in opera had reduced Handel’s
financial stature dramatically. It had also left him deeply depressed,
and in sore need of stimulation. Relief came during the summer of that
year in the form of an invitation from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
He offered Handel the opportunity to visit Dublin, there to stage a
series of concerts featuring Handel’s music.
Shortly after receiving this request, and in the period of just over
three weeks, the composer created a new oratorio, possibly with his
upcoming visit to Ireland in mind. Charles Jennens prepared the
libretto, drawing on sources from both the Old and New Testaments.
Handel took along Messiah, as he had named the piece, to Dublin when he
journeyed there in December 1741.
He staged a dozen successful concerts over the following months, then
announced with great fanfare that his new oratorio would receive its
premiere on April 13, 1742. He cannily arranged for a public rehearsal
to take place the day before. It caused a sensation. As a result,
hundreds of eager listeners had to be turned away from the official
Since then, performances of Messiah have been literally countless, its
impact incalculable. As English musicologist Charles Burney wrote, some
40 years after the premiere, “...this great work 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 the oratorios, more than any single production
in this or any other country.”
The first London performance of Messiah took place a year after the
premiere, but nearly a decade passed before it began to find favor with
that city’s audiences. Two significant performances were given in
Westminster Abbey in 1784, as part of a festival known as a
“Commemoration of Handel.” Huge performing forces –
possibly as many as 500 musicians – were gathered together for
this occasion, setting a standard for large-scale stagings that
endures, in many circles, to the present day.
Messiah cemented its popularity in Britain even further during the
nineteenth century, at a time when amateur choral societies, spurred on
by the new availability of inexpensively printed vocal scores, began to
spring up throughout the land. In 1836, Messiah was the first
full-length oratorio which London’s Sacred Harmonic Society took
into its repertoire. Other amateur choral groups followed suit, until
Messiah became the one piece which virtually all of them performed,
usually on an annual basis.
A combination of many elements has won Messiah its enduring popularity.
The qualities which have elevated it above those created by so many
other composers are the richness and variety of the music, the
insightful matching of word and sound, and the consistently inspired
evocations of such universal emotions as pathos, serenity and joy. It
is also a deeply satisfying work to perform, be the artists seasoned
professionals or enthusiastic amateurs.
Messiah consists of three sections. In the first, the way is paved for
the Redeemer’s coming. After His Advent is announced, there
follow descriptions of the events of the nativity. Part One ends with
the chorus singing “His yoke is easy, His burden is light.”
Part Two describes the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It
concludes with the familiar Hallelujah Chorus. One of Handel’s
servants is said to have come upon him directly after he had composed
this portion, and heard him exclaim, “I did think I did see all
Heaven before me, and the great God Himself!” It was at this
point in the oratorio, during one of the early London performances,
that King George II spontaneously rose to his feet in a spirit of
exaltation. Audiences have traditionally repeated this practice ever
In Part Three, the spiritual messages represented by Christ’s
teachings are set forth for the instruction and benefit of all. It
opens with the moving soprano aria I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, and
concludes with a final chorus of Amen.
"Program Notes: - Handel's
Messiah" Don Anderson. Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. 2006.