Showcase December 2014 - page 28

“Handel is the
greatest and ablest
of all composers;
from him I can
still learn.”
— Ludwig van Beethoven
in 1827, at the end of his life
yet for two and a half centuries it has been a perennial
event in Christmas celebrations.
Jennens structured his work around the three central
events of Christianity: Part I is about the birth of Christ,
Part II is about the crucifixion, and the final part is about
the resurrection and the spreading of the gospel. Thus
focuses essentially on Christianity’s three primary
holy days: Christmas, Good Friday and Easter.
His arrangement of texts for
was brilliant.
Basic to his plan was his decision not to cast
as drama—there is no narrative line here, no rising
action, no climax. He began with the assumption that his
audience already knew the story and required no telling;
he then chose texts about specific incidents in the life of
Christ, and these become a sequence of moments-along-
the-way in one of the most famous and familiar of all
stories, rather than an attempt to tell that story.
magnificent music
But Jennens’ text would have been long forgotten were
it not for the magnificence of Handel’s music. Handel
from many different kinds of music.
From opera he retained the recitative and dramatic aria,
though he shrewdly avoids making the arias too brilliant.
In place of florid lines that might seem operatic and out of
context for this subject, he blesses the soloists with some
of the most appealing, straightforward melodies ever
written—though these also can be brilliant.
The famous
Pastoral Symphony
, or
, is derived from
, the music of the Italian shepherds who
would make an annual Christmas pilgrimage to Rome to
play wind instruments in imitation of the shepherds who
watched over the Nativity. Handel is quite willing to paint
pictures with his orchestra, as in the resounding brass of
“The trumpet shall sound,” and in the stunning progress
from the ominous B-minor murmurings of “For behold,
darkness shall cover the earth” to the radiant G-major
sunlight of “For unto us a Child is born.”
Program Notes
12, 13
Yet the real glory of
lies in its choruses, and
Handel demands great versatility from his singers: their
music ranges from the lyric to the brilliant (“And he shall
purify”) to the dramatic (“Glory to God in the highest”)
and—most impressively—to the great fugues (“And with
his stripes,” “He trusted in God” and the concluding
Even its creator could be overpowered by this music.
As he completed the “Hallelujah Chorus,” Handel, tears
streaming down his face, is reported to have told his
manservant: “I did think I did see all Heaven before me
and the great God himself.”
vocal soloists and mixed chorus with orchestra
comprising 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani,
harpsichord, organ, theorbo and strings
Program note by
Eric Bromberger
Handel’s memorial in Westminster Abbey, London.
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