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Program Notes: Handel’s Messiah

November 29, 2017

One of the special challenges in performing Messiah year after year is to keep the work sounding fresh, as if one had just discovered it. When Boston Baroque gave the first Boston period-instrument performances of the complete oratorio in 1981, the work was still normally heard in this country in the relatively heavy, reverential style of the nineteenth century. It was thus a surprise to many listeners to hear a more detailed, articulate style and quicker tempos based on Baroque dance rhythms and speech patterns. This kind of performance was perhaps less in the spirit of church music—Handel never performed Messiah in a church—and more in the spirit of the theater, or of a “fine Entertainment,” as Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens called it.

Today, such an interpretation is much more common among both period and modern orchestras, and it is no longer surprising. Instead, a listener can focus on the drama of the work and how a particular performance presents it. I personally have found it satisfying to return to the work each year not so much to perform different versions of it or to consciously try to do something “different,” but rather to discover more details and greater depth in the music. For me, that is what makes it perpetually “new.” A work such as Messiah is inexhaustible.

“Speaking” and “singing” music

The chorus has the greatest role of any actor in Messiah. Its music constantly shifts between a kind of “speaking” music, which declaims speech patterns in the text, and a more lyrical “singing” music. Much as dance rhythms can influence the tempo and character of a piece, the speech patterns of the text can often suggest a natural tempo. But “speaking” music is not only rhythmic; it also has very flexible, detailed dynamics, as in actual speech, where the sound of even a single syllable may sometimes die away. A more powerful type of spoken declamation often comes at climactic moments, such as at the words “Wonderful, counselor” in the chorus “For unto us a child is born.” The playing of the orchestra too reflects the rhythmic quality and detailed dynamics of the speech patterns in the text, an effect more easily achieved on Baroque than on modern instruments.

The libretto and the drama

In creating his libretto, Charles Jennens interspersed texts from both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament, frequently using metaphor—rarely narrative—to depict in a general way the story of the Messiah. Although the oratorio is primarily contemplative, with no speaking characters and hardly any action, it does fall into several dramatic scenes, which demand a degree of continuity between movements in performance. The first scene, running from the overture through the chorus “For unto us a child is born,” prefigures the arrival of the Messiah. The second opens with an instrumental interlude depicting the shepherds’ pipes (Pifa) and the angel announcing the birth of Jesus; it is the only true narrative moment in the oratorio and ends with the angels slowly disappearing as the music fades away. Part I concludes with rejoicing.

Part II falls into two large scenes, the first reflecting on the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the second depicting the spread of the Gospel. Part III is a section of contemplation and thanksgiving, based on the Anglican burial service.

In places, these scenes are unified by recurring figuration in the music: the sharp, dotted rhythms representing the scourging of Jesus in Part II first appear in the middle section of the aria “He was despised”, then again in the following chorus (“Surely, he hath borne our griefs”), and yet again in the recitative (“All they that see him laugh him to scorn”). Sometimes scenes are unified by pieces in related tempos or in similar affects. An example of the latter occurs at the end of Part II, where a string of violent images (“Why do the nations so furiously rage together”, “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron”) is crowned with the chorus “Hallelujah.” In this context, “Hallelujah” becomes not only a shout of joy but also something of a war cry.

Historical background

When Charles Jennens presented Handel with his text for Messiah in 1741, Handel’s fortunes were so low that he was considering leaving England. Several years earlier, his opera company had collapsed and he had suffered a stroke. In the years following his recovery, he had had great success with two English oratorios (Saul and L’Allegro), but his two Italian operas had been complete failures. With the fashion for Italian opera apparently over, Jennens hoped to persuade Handel to return to writing English oratorios.

In the summer of 1741 came a fortuitous invitation to give a series of concerts in Dublin. With these concerts in mind, Handel set to work on the music for Messiah on August 22, completing the enormous work on September 14, a mere three weeks later. Jennens, never one to be overly modest, expressed disappointment that Handel had not spent a year setting his libretto. “[Handel] has made a fine Entertainment of it, tho’ not near so good as he might & ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition, but he retain’d his Overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah.”

Messiah was premiered on April 13, 1742 in Dublin for the benefit of charity and drew so many people that ladies were requested not to wear hoops, in order to accommodate a larger audience. The series of concerts was a triumph. According to Faulkner’s Journal, “The best judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience.”

But Handel was wary about presenting his new oratorio in London. Several years earlier, Israel in Egypt had failed, partly due to a controversy over using a biblical text in the theater. When he did finally introduce Messiah there in 1743, it was not well received, partly indeed because of its biblical text, but also partly because there were too many choruses and no characters playing out a story. The work did not become widely accepted until Handel began presenting it in his annual charity performances for the Foundling Hospital in 1750. Between that time and Handel’s death in 1759, Messiah attained the exalted stature it has held to the present day, a musical tradition unparalleled in the English-speaking world.

Performing version

In Messiah, as in many of his other works, Handel made numerous changes for later performances. Many of these changes were made simply to accommodate a new singer, such as changing an aria from one voice range to another, and do not necessarily reflect his final preference for how a movement ought to go. Other changes, however, appear to be attempts to improve the work and must be taken into account in a modern performance. There is no definitive version. A modern performer must look at the various versions presented in the different manuscripts (sometimes there is more than one version in the same manuscript), try to understand the reasons for the changes, and make decisions about the best version to use.

Handel’s autograph score survives, and, while it contains the original version of the work, he seems to have changed his mind about certain pieces even before the first performance. At least as important as the autograph is a score which Handel apparently used in Dublin and in certain later performances. It is in the hand of Handel’s copyist, but Handel himself has made many changes and marginal notes, including writing in names of singers. A third important version is a manuscript, again by a copyist, bequeathed by Handel in his will to the Foundling Hospital, for which he had given benefit concerts. This Foundling Hospital score appears never to have been used, but with it there is a valuable set of orchestral and vocal parts which formed the basis for many of his later performances. There are other sources, but these three—the autograph, Dublin and Foundling Hospital—have the greatest authority from Handel’s own performances. Our performance this evening is based on the Dublin score, the one used for the first performances, and it incorporates Handel’s later corrections in that score.

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