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Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Handel’s Messiah

Two hundred and sixty nine years ago today, on April 13, 1742, the cultural event of the year took place in Mr. Neal’s new Music Hall in Fishamble Street in Dublin. The interest was so great that a newspaper announcement requested “as a Favour, that the Ladies … would be pleased to come without Hoops” and that “The Gentlemen are requested to come without their swords.” As a result, a hall which could normally seat 600 visitors was able to accommodate 700, and around 400 pounds sterling was raised to allow 142 inmates to be released from Dublin’s Debtor Prison. The event in question was described in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal in a review a few days later as “… the most finished piece of Musick … The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elegant, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravaged Heart and Ear.” It was, of course, the premiere performance of Messiah by George Frederic Handel.

Handel was born in Halle (Saale) in present day Saxony-Anhalt in 1685 and became one of the most admired and celebrated composers in his lifetime throughout the whole of Europe. As a young man he quickly made a name for himself as a talented opera composer in Hamburg and moved from there to Italy where he spent five years. Handel’s story is an excellent example of the cosmopolitan and tolerant nature of the European elite in the eighteenth century. Although he was a German protestant, the cardinals in Rome had no problem patronising and commissioning works from him, and he himself was apparently quite happy to compose sacred music for the clergy in Rome.

In 1710 he returned to Germany to take up the position of Kapellmeister to the German prince George, elector of Hanover. However, he quickly moved on to London to enjoy the patronage of Queen Anne and various members of the British aristocracy. There is an oft-repeated legend that Handel left his job in Hanover without leave of the Elector because the offers he had in London were better. He found himself, therefore, in a position of some embarrassment when the Elector George became King of England in 1714. Handel set down to write something of such beauty that it would win him the king’s forgiveness. At an evening entertainment on the Thames, the new regent was so enamoured by the music played that he asked for the composer and when Handel appeared the two were reconciled. The music in question was the Water Music. While it is a nice story, it doesn’t seem to have any basis in fact; when Handel went to England, it was clear that the Elector would succeed Queen Anne to the throne and the composer seems to have left with his blessing.

With a number of short interruptions, Handel spent the rest of his life in England, though he never learned the language perfectly and always spoke it with a thick German accent. Charles Burney, a young chorister who observed a number of rehearsals for Messiah in Chester in 1741 describes a scene where Handel lost his temper at a singer who claimed to be able to read music at sight but did not come up to the composer’s standards. “You shcauntrel! Tit not you dell me dat you could at soite?”

When they are inspired, great composers seem to be able to work at prodigious speed and Messiah, a full performance of which lasts nearly two and a half hours, was written in twenty four days. Although he composed great amounts of sacred music, Handel himself was not regarded as being personally particularly devout – he was, in that sense, very much an urbane, educated man of his time, part of a culture which regarded itself as civilized, enlightened and abhorring any kind of wild, naïve enthusiasm. Still, there is a story told that his assistant came into his room to find the master in tears. Asked if anything was wrong, the composer answered, “I thought I saw the face of God.” He had just finished composing the “Hallelujah” chorus.

The “Hallelujah” chorus. I knew I would have to come to it sooner or later. While it is undoubtedly majestic, it has become such an acoustic cliché (surpassed perhaps only by the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th) that it is often very difficult to take it seriously today. For those who only know the Messiah from Christmas sing-along events, where only the first part of the work is sung, the chorus is used as a conclusion, but in the full version of Messiah it occurs half way through the work. There is an old tradition, dating back to the first performance in London, that the audience rises to its feet for the “Hallelujah.” This is because King George II did so, though whether it was out of tribute to the composer, as an acknowledgement from an earthly king that he too must stand before the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” or simply because he wanted to stretch his legs is not known. Apparently nobody trusted themselves to ask him why.

One thing I think anyone who has ever been lucky enough to be part of a choral group singing Messiah will agree, the “Hallelujah” chorus is simply great fun to sing – you can really let it rip, all the stops pulled out, especially if you have an orchestra accompanying!

A Georgian street in Dublin, built around the time of the
Messiah premiere 
I have mentioned the prevailing cultural ethos of the 18th Century already here, that urbane world of sophisticated, (frequently self-satisfied and superior), civilized rationality. This is reflected in the form and composition of the Messiah. Although its subject is nothing less than Jesus Christ himself, the amount of the oratorio devoted to the central events surrounding the suffering and death of the Messiah is relatively small; following an extensive first part, involving the prophesies of Jesus’ birth and the nativity story, the passion story is told in only nine arias and choruses and accompagnatos, lasting less than half an hour, before going on to the resurrection, the last judgement and the grandeur and majesty of the Saviour. This fits perfectly with the cultured gentility so strived for in Handel’s time – the nasty, the bloody and the brutal are given as little attention as possible before leaving the unpleasantness behind and moving on to triumphalist beauty. In that sense, many of the cultural themes of the eighteenth century can be seen as a reaction to the horrors of fanaticism and religious warfare which had gutted Europe from the Reformation to the end of the Thirty Years War and beyond. With the societal and ideological explosions initiated by the American and French Revolutions and the subsequent birth of Romanticism, this world of conservative, civilized rationality would be swept away.

Messiah is a wonderful example of what such a culture could achieve; genius expressed in ordered beauty. The music of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi is usually described as “Baroque,” though in my view it has little to do with what is known in, for example, art or architecture by the term. It can be ornate, with many flourishes, as the architecture is, but for me its basic characteristic is that of an ordered stateliness; a clear recognition that both reality and beauty are the working out of natural law – a musical expression of the vision of Newton rather than Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy.

Messiah is full of sublimely beautiful arias and choruses. The best known of them occur in the first part of the oratorio which is the part, as I mentioned earlier, most commonly performed. But the later parts of the work also contain many gems, including the beautiful “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and the marvellous “The Trumpet shall sound,” which, appropriately, involves a repeating trumpet solo part, magnificent in its understated sweetness.

Usually a couple of times a year, but at least once during Advent (as tradition demands J), I treat myself to a quiet evening at home and listen to the whole of Messiah. The recording I have was made in 1966 by the London Symphony Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Sir Colin Davis, which Wikipedia describes “as revelatory at the time of its issue for its departure from the large-scale Victorian-style performances that had been customary before then.” As such, it more accurately reflects the performances Handel himself would have conducted. Though, to be honest, when I bought it I was not aware that I was purchasing something regarded as a recording classic.

It was February 1999, and I had just been released from hospital after quite a long stay there following a pretty comprehensive nervous breakdown. It was a very dark period of my life, but that day I had a sense of some sort of new beginning. On a cold, rainy evening, I found my way into a large record shop in the town in which I then lived, driven by an instinct that I should buy something to mark that feeling of starting life once more. I came out with my two CD box set of Messiah. Though in retrospect I can now see that it would take almost two years more to really get my life back on the rails (when I finally stopped drinking for good), every time I take those CDs in my hands to put them in the player I still get a hint of the sense of lightness I felt on the evening I bought them and am once more thankful. For life. And for Handel.

There are, of course, numerous versions of all sorts of different parts of Messiah available on YouTube. I have chosen the aria and chorus, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” one of my personal favourites. I have a childhood memory of my mother, who is a trained classical mezzo-soprano (and who, at an age I won’t embarrass her here by mentioning, still has singing students coming to learn with her!), singing this at the piano at home.
This is a lovely version from a very fine – if somewhat unconventional – performance at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna two years ago. The choir is the Arnold Schönberg Chor and the orchestra the Ensemble Mattheus. The director is Jean-Christophe Spinosi and the countertenor soloist is Bejun Mehta. Describing the unusual production, one comment of YouTube observes, “The staging profoundly communicates the reality of the human condition and redemption - what “Messiah” is all about: easy to miss, I should say, when we're caught up in the usual concert versions.”


A note on orthography: In his native German, the name is written Georg-Friedrich Händel and the pronunciation is Hend-el. But from the time he came to England, his name was commonly written without the “Umlaut” [the two dots over the “a”] and the pronunciation changed accordingly. In this piece I have followed the traditional English convention.

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