Program Notes: Handel's Messiah

Program Notes: Handel's Messiah

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Full program notes:

George Frideric Handel
Born: February 23, 1685, Halle, Germany
Died: April 14, 1759, London


By the spring of 1741 Handel’s 30-year effort to make a success of Italian opera in London had come to a shuddering conclusion. He finally had to admit failure, and rumors circulated in London that he was about to leave England and return to Germany.

Relief came from an unlikely source. The Duke of Devonshire, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, invited Handel to Dublin to put on a series of concerts in support of various local charities. For Handel, Ireland was literally new territory, and he was glad to accept the invitation, get away from London for a while and seek new audiences. In addition to gathering earlier works for performance there, that summer he began work on a new oratorio that would have its premiere in Dublin.

at breakneck speed
This oratorio represented a new direction for Handel, who by no means considered himself a composer of sacred music. It was on a text assembled from the Bible and the Prayer Book Psalter by his longtime friend Charles Jennens. Handel worked with unbelievable speed: from the time he sat down in front of a blank sheet of paper until the completion of the full orchestral score of Messiah, just 24 days had elapsed—from August 22 to September 14. He then pressed on with his oratorio Samson, completing it by late October, and left almost immediately, taking one of the packet boats that ran regularly from Chester to Ireland.

Handel’s arrival in Dublin—on November 18, 1741—was very much like Haydn’s would be in London precisely 50 years later. Both composers journeyed to a foreign land and discovered that they were famous. Both were feted, delighted by the quality of the performers and acclaimed by enthusiastic crowds in jammed halls. Just as Haydn would later do in London, Handel began his Dublin residency by performing earlier works, including L’Allegro, Acis and Galatea, Esther and Alexander’s Feast. Not until he had been in Dublin for five months did Handel present his new oratorio: he led an open rehearsal of Messiah on April 9, 1742, and the official premiere followed four days later, on April 13.

success in ireland
It was a stunning success, and Dubliners struggled to get tickets. Neal’s Musick Hall, where the premiere took place, had room for only 600, and so management came up with a shrewd solution. The day of the performance, Faulkner’s Dublin Journal carried this admonition: “The Stewards of the Charitable Musical Society request the Favour of the Ladies not to come with Hoops this Day to the Musick-Hall in Fishamble-Street: the Gentlemen are desired to come without their swords.” Thus slimmed down, 700 listeners were crammed into the hall, and the performance turned the handsome profit of 400 pounds for Mercer’s Hospital, the Charitable Infirmary and the Charitable Music Society (for the relief of those imprisoned for debt). A second performance of Messiah, on June 13, was equally successful, and Handel left Ireland in August, eager to repeat that success in London.

It must have come as the worst possible surprise to the composer when the oratorio failed at its London premiere on March 23, 1743. Perhaps he should have seen it coming. That performance was preceded by a furor in the newspapers about his decision to present an oratorio on Biblical texts in a public theater, and Handel’s performance was attacked as “blasphemous.” A few subsequent performances had scarcely more success, and it was not until May 1, 1750, when Handel led Messiah as a benefit for the opening of the Hospital Chapel of the Foundling Hospital, his favorite charity, that the oratorio finally won favor.

By the time Handel died nine years later, in April 1759, Messiah had been performed 56 times in London and was on its way to achieving the status it enjoys today, that of a beloved icon.

nativity, crucifixion, resurrection
Messiah was originally composed for the Easter season, 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 Messiah focuses essentially on Christianity’s three primary holy days: Christmas, Good Friday and Easter.

His arrangement of texts for Messiah was brilliant. Basic to his plan was his decision not to cast Messiah 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 composed Messiah 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 Pifa, is derived from the pifferari, 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.” Yet the real glory of Messiah 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 “Amen”).

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.”

Instrumentation: vocal soloists and mixed chorus with orchestra comprising 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, organ and strings

Eric Bromberger

About the Author

After earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA, Eric Bromberger was teaching at San Diego State University when, taking up another of his passions, the violin, he joined the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also writing its program notes, which drew enough attention from presenters and performers that he quit his day job to devote himself to music. Now, in addition to writing for the Minnesota Orchestra and giving pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is annotator for such organizations as the Kennedy Center’s Washington Performing Arts, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, University of Chicago Presents, San Francisco Performances and the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife Pat love chamber music, and this summer they’re playing in an orchestra that will tour Spain.