The year’s cycle is completed once more, and Christmas is here once again. Today we are going to visit a musical rite of the holiday season: Handel’s Messiah.
Episode 8: Handel’s Messiah
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An immediate success, this oratorio is one of few works with the bragging rights of being performed uninterruptedly every year since that momentous evening in April 1742.
- How did a German composer ended up creating an icon of English music?
- Who was Handel? Ludwig van Beethoven himself, citing Messiah, said Handel was the “greatest composer that ever lived.”
He was born in Halle, Germany in 1685. [Same year as J.S. Bach] A child prodigy, by 18 Handel had composed his first opera, Almira. Few years later he wrote The Water Music (1717) for George I, to be performed for the monarch as His Majesty’s barge navigated through a London canal on a summer evening. Handel soon realized there was a greater chance of making a living in a free-spirited musical entrepreneurial environment such as London, and soon decided to move there.
We need to remember Handel was as much a producer as he was a composer. Two things contributed to his interest in sacred oratorios: 1) Opera productions were forbidden during lent, for England’s devout society would not allow entertainment in an otherwise solemn season; 2) large stage productions became impractical due to sharp increase in costs and the ever changing audience taste. With oratorios, Handel was able to address seemingly divergent paths.
Oratorio: Large scale work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Originated in the 1500’s Rome, Oratorium was a building. To attract more people to their prayer meetings, a priest started making more elaborate musical representations of the texts. (Oratio=prayer). In an Oratorio, unlike the Opera, and a definitive feature of Messiah, the chorus has a protagonic role.
A sense of humanity imbues Handel’s music, as he was consistently concerned with the feelings of mortals. Even when the subject of his work is religious, he writes about the human response to the divine, and this is particularly noticeable in Messiah. The piece does not contain an encompassing narrative, instead offering contemplation on different aspects of the Christ.
A lasting masterpiece that took less than a month to complete
Even today, close to 300 years after its premiere, virtually every audience is mesmerized from the moment the tenor follows the mournful string overture with his opening line: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” From this point on, each gesture shows us a composer using all the tricks learned in a lifetime as an opera composer, poured this time in a concert setting and creating the English Oratorio in the process.
Handel’s masterpiece was composed in an astounding 24 days between August and September, 1741. Working over a text compiled from Scripture by the prominent librettist Charles Jennens, Handel would literally write from morning to night, with the intention of premiering over Easter the following spring.
In the United States, of course, Messiah is a fixture of the Christmas season. The origin of such practice takes us back to the creation of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, the ensemble that premiered Messiah in America in December 1818, and consistently every two years ever since. With time, the piece and the Holiday season knitted themselves in the Holiday’s culture, much like that other Yuletide tradition of Germanic origin: the Christmas Tree.
Originally intended for Easter, Messiah offers enough logical ground to justify its Christmas dwelling: the first part prophecies the birth of Jesus Christ; the second exalts his sacrifice for humankind; and the final section heralds his Resurrection. It’s evident why it adds to the mood of anticipation during Advent.
Here is one big question: To stand or not to stand?
The tradition of having the audience stand during the Hallelujah Chorus has an obscure origin and constitutes an outlier behavior in the concert hall — imagine and audience rising to their feet before the last movement of any symphony!
So, how did this become tradition? Nobody knows for sure. The most commonly accepted theory is that King George II stood up during the chorus at Messiah’s 1743 London premiere, either because he thought it was the end of the piece, or he was honestly moved by the glorious music, or simply because a bad case of Gout made sitting for long quite painful.
Unfortunately, there is no record at all in contemporary sources that indicate the presence of the King at the concert, nor at any subsequent performance. Hence, the reason for standing during the famous chorus remains a mystery, and the controversy of whether we should/could/must stand will resurface many times, for come next December I’m sure Messiah will rejoin with replenished energy the Christmas celebrations.
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