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Remembered above all as the composer of Messiah, Handel is surely misrepresented. Although certainly a religious man, he was never primarily a composer of sacred music. His numerous oratorios are essentially dramatic works, and his few liturgical settings, like the well-known ‘Utrecht’ Te Deum and Jubilate, are more ceremonial than devotional in spirit. Handel was above all a dramatist: his operas entertained London audiences for some thirty years before changing fashions prompted him to look for other outlets for his talents. But, as a man born of the theatre, he did not look very far. The oratorio provided the ideal alternative. Handel simply applied his operatic expertise to well-known biblical subjects and produced colourful, unstaged dramas which appealed to an increasingly moralistic middle-class audience attracted by works at once entertaining and uplifting.
Messiah was introduced to London audiences the following year, at the end of Handel’s Lenten oratorio season at Covent Garden Theatre. It met with a distinctly hostile reception. The composer must have foreseen certain objections, for he advertised the work obliquely as ‘a New Sacred Oratorio’, avoiding all mention of the proper title. However, such means failed to allay the fears of a vocal minority who worried that the scriptures should form the basis of a secular entertainment. Even before Messiah was heard, pious voices in the press demanded: ‘An Oratorio either is an Act of Religion, or it is not; if it is, I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word.’ Added to this, the public apparently preferred Handel’s other new oratorio, Samson; this was heard nine times that season compared with only three performances of Messiah. The Earl of Shaftesbury later recalled that while Samson ‘was received with uncommon Applause’, Messiah ‘was but indifferently relish’d’, a state of affairs which he partly attributed to ‘carrying on such a Performance in a Play House’, but also to the apathy of the audience ‘for not entering into the genius of the Composition’. Significantly, Handel’s publisher, John Walsh, issued the customary volume of highlights from Samson shortly after its premiere, but Messiah was not so honoured for another twenty years.
Eulogizing biographers, now thankfully out of print, never tired of relating how, possessed with an almost religious zeal, Handel managed to compose Messiah in a staggering twenty-four days and that while at work on the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus he imagined he ‘did see all Heaven’ before his eyes and ‘the great God Himself’ seated on his throne. But his librettist, Charles Jennens, was less easily impressed: ‘His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in so great hast[e], tho’ he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d … ’tis still in his power by retouching the weak parts to make it fit for a publick performance; & I have said a great deal to him on the Subject; but he is so lazy & obstinate, that I much doubt the Effect.’ The effects were in fact rather more serious than Jennens could have calculated. Early in May 1743 Handel’s health began to fail and he endured a return of the ‘paralytic Disorder’ which had first affected him in 1737. But Jennens seemed quite unconcerned, and in a letter to his friend Edward Holdsworth he noted triumphantly: ‘I don’t yet despair of making him retouch Messiah, at least he shall suffer for his negligence; nay I am inform’d that he has suffr’d for he told Ld. Guernsey that a letter I wrote about it contributed to the bringing of his last illness upon him … but I have not done with him yet.’ A sharp rebuke from Holdsworth brought Jennens back to his senses, and before long he and Handel were back at work on a new oratorio, Belshazzar.
Although Handel made a number of attempts to revive his ‘Sacred Oratorio’ in 1745 and 1749, it was not until 1750 that regular performances of the work became an established feature of his Lenten oratorio season at Covent Garden. It was in this year too that Handel judiciously renewed the connection between Messiah and charity, and began the tradition of performing it in April or May for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital, of which he was a governor. From this time on, ‘a change of sentiment in the public began to manifest’, noted Sir John Hawkins, and ‘Messiah was received with universal applause’. Mrs Dewes, writing to her brother in December 1750, enthused: ‘His wonderful Messiah will never be out of my head; and I may say my heart was raised almost to heaven by it. It is only those people who have not felt the leisure of devotion that can make any objection to that performance.’
The earliest provincial performance of Messiah was given at Oxford in 1749 by ‘about forty voices and fifty instruments’ under the direction of William Hayes, the Heather Professor of Music. By all accounts it was an overwhelming success, and the ‘crowded Audience’ received it with ‘great Applause’. The following year William Boyce introduced the work to the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford, and it was soon taken up by musical societies in Salisbury, Bath, Bristol, Gloucester and Worcester. The popularity of Messiah soon began to eclipse that of Handel’s other works. In 1756 Miss Catherine Talbot, one of Handel’s many admirers, wrote that the performances of Messiah in London that season ‘made amends for the solitude of his other oratorios’, though she wondered ‘how long even this may be fashionable’. She need not have worried. In later years Messiah almost approached the status of a national institution. During the nineteenth century it was increasingly performed with mammoth forces (choirs of 2,500 singers were by no means exceptional) as a potent form of imperial propaganda and as a convenient mouthpiece for the Victorian doctrines of progress and social amelioration.
Jennens’ libretto for Messiah contrasts strongly with the texts of Handel’s other oratorios. Instead of telling a dramatic story, as in Samson or Belshazzar, with soloists and chorus representing particular characters, the text of Messiah is concerned with prophecy and meditation, with virtually no narrative. The words are drawn entirely from the Authorized Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer—the use of which, in a secular context, had so offended ‘Squeamish People’ (as Jennens dubbed such puritans). Jennens’ biblical compilation was judicious, and his overall design strong. By skilfully combining Old and New Testament texts, he sought to illustrate the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah in the events related in the Gospels. He divided the oratorio into three parts. Part I embraces the prophecies of Christ’s coming, the Annunciation and the Nativity. Part II is concerned with Christ’s sacrifice: his suffering, resurrection and ascension, the evangelism of the apostles, and a final ecstatic view of the kingdom of God. Part III, by way of epilogue, celebrates Christ’s redemption and the immortality of the Christian soul.
Despite its subject and text, Messiah is not, in the accepted sense, a sacred work. Jennens himself referred to it bluntly as ‘a fine Entertainment’, and Handel only ever performed it in a consecrated building when he mounted his annual charity concerts in the Chapel of the Foundling Hospital. But this did not prevent its ultimate sanctification by an adoring public, convinced that by attending a performance of the work they were themselves participating in an act of worship. The rot set in at an early stage. The eighteenth-century music historian Charles Burney misleadingly suggested that ‘from this period  Handel may be said to have devoted his labours solely to the service of the church’, implying that, although after 1740 he wrote almost no church music, his oratorios were explicitly devotional in function. In the case of Messiah it was perhaps inevitable that many would make the literal mistake of reading into the music the associations implied by the text. The young John Wesley was present on one of the rare occasions when Messiah was given in a church (at Bristol in 1758), and commented ironically, ‘I doubt if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance’, though there is absolutely no evidence at all that Handel ever intended a didactic purpose. ‘He was a good old Pagan at heart’, observed Edward Fitzgerald, one of the nineteenth century’s more enlightened musical commentators; ‘I think Handel never gets out of his wig, that is, out of his age: his Hallelujah Chorus is a chorus, not of angels, but of well-fed earthly choristers, ranged tier above tier in a Gothic cathedral, with princes for audience, and their military trumpets flourishing over the full volume of the organ. Handel’s gods are like Homer’s, and his sublime never reached beyond the region of the clouds’.
As a composer of numerous operas Handel was by no means a novice in the art of large-scale construction. But although he employs the same basic ingredients in Messiah as in his other extended works, their ratio and balance differ markedly. With the exceptions only of Israel in Egypt and Samson, Messiah contains more choruses and accompanied recitatives and fewer airs than any of his other oratorios. Attempting a comprehensive analysis of Messiah would be almost as futile as trying the review the Bible—both works are simply too familiar to allow objective criticism—but a number of notable features do, however, merit particular mention.
The centrality of the chorus has always endeared Messiah to an essentially conservative British public brought up on a wholesome diet of Anglican anthems. However, it often goes unnoticed that Messiah contains a choral form seldom found elsewhere in Handel’s works. As ever, we observe his making a virtue out of necessity. Having recently completed several Italian love duets, and perhaps suffering from a temporary lapse of inspiration (or was it just laziness?), he craftily reworked these pieces into the following choruses: ‘And he shall purify’, ‘For unto us a child is born’, His yoke is easy’, ‘All we like sheep’, and ‘But thanks be to God’. The novelty of these so-called ‘duet-choruses’ lies not only in the opportunities thus afforded for varied pairing of voices, but also in the exploitation of the dramatic impact of a calculated return of the full chorus.
Similar contrasts in many of the accompanied recitatives and airs also contribute to a powerful sense of forward momentum and implicit drama. One may cite Handel’s frequent habit of beginning accompanied recitatives with a section of arioso ultimately giving way to urgent declamatory style (as in ‘Comfort ye’), or the way in which independent sections are juxtaposed for the sake of dramatic continuity or irony. The setting up and denial of expectation was one of Handel’s stock operatic techniques. In Messiah it is applied with restraint, to avoid melodrama, but sacrifices none of its power: witness the startling succession of the bass air ‘Why do the nations?’ by the chorus ‘Let us break their bonds asunder’ without break and without the expected da capo. Similarly inspired effects also appear within the airs themselves. In his operatic arias Handel had already explored the dramatic potential inherent in the da capo form by achieving a nice contrast between the middle and outer sections—a practice which began to break down the accepted Baroque norm of ‘one movement; one affect’. His oratorio airs are generally more flexible in form, and in Messiah particularly, encouraged by the antithetical nature of the Hebrew poetry, he was stimulated to considerable extremes of emotion. His setting of ‘But who may abide?’, for example, is cast in four continuous sections which fluctuate violently between a serene and an awe-full anticipation of Christ’s coming.
Despite the speed of composition, Messiah is by no means a hasty work. Although Handel re-used two of his recently completed love duets as choruses, the work actually contains very little borrowed material. The fugue subject which forms the basis of the chorus ‘And with his stripes’ had been the common property of composers for decades, and was even used by Handel’s great contemporary and compatriot J S Bach in his Well-Tempered Clavier, and later by Mozart in the Kyrie of his Requiem. Although very few compositional sketches for the work survive, they are sufficient to suggest that the birth of Messiah was not entirely painless. It appears, for example, that Handel expended considerable time and patience on the final ‘Amen’ chorus, of which no fewer than seven sketches remain. The original autograph score also bears witness to a number of re-thinks made while the composer was committing his ideas to paper. Among the most significant of these is the alteration he made to the ‘Pastoral Symphony’, extending it from eleven to twenty-two bars by the addition of a complementary second section.
In subsequent years Handel made many additional amendments to suit the singers available for, and the circumstances of, a particular performance: there are, for example, alto, soprano and bass versions of ‘Thou art gone up on high’. The present recording takes account of many of the most popular of these revisions, including the ‘duet’ setting of ‘He shall feed his flock’ and the choral version of ‘Their sound is gone out’. It seems possible that the latter, which started life as the middle section of the soprano aria ‘How beautiful are the feet’, was re-composed in direct response to Jennens’ criticisms of the work. In July 1744 Handel had written to him requesting that he ‘point out these passages in the Messiah which you think require altering’, and Jennens later related: ‘I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition, but he retain’s his Overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah.’
Jennens was not Handel’s only critic. The poet William Shenstone wrote of a performance of Messiah at Worcester in 1758: ‘It seems the best composer’s best composition. Yet I fancied I could observe some parts in it, wherein Handel’s judgment failed him; where the music was not equal, or was even opposite, to what the words required.’ He might well have been referring to the disappointingly tame setting of the lines ‘O Death, where is thy sting?’ which Handel had roughly excised from one of his Italian cantatas, or indeed to the often awkward accentuation of the text in cases such as: ‘For unto us a child is born’, and ‘the dead shall be raised incorruptible’. The anonymous author of An Examination of the Oratorios which have been performed this season at Covent-Garden Theatre (1736), subjected Messiah to an unprecedented barrage of abuse. His aesthetic position was conditioned by the writings of Dr John Brown who objected wholesale to the use of recitative, da capos, fugues, long ritornellos, and ornamented vocal lines which were, in his view, ‘below the Dignity of the sacred Drama’. Brown’s protégé thus gleefully railed against Handel’s design for the final chorus: ‘The fugue too, on Amen, is entirely absurd, and without reason: at most, Amen is only a devout fiat, and ought never, therefore, to have been frittered, as it is, by endless divisions on A— and afterwards men.’ Yet this critic shrewdly observed that ‘For unto us a child is born […] is too light, and too much allied to a gossiping song at a Christening, instead of that dignity of joy which ought to have hailed the coming of the prince of peace’—little knowing that the music had indeed originally expressed a distinctly secular kind of joy.
The quirky effusions of passive critics are one thing, but the practical application of these defective theories quite another. In a lecture on the subject of Messiah in 1821, William Crotch, the Oxford Professor of Music, noted that William Hayes, a predecessor of his and an ardent Handelian, had taken exception to the air ‘Thou art gone up on high’, on the grounds that its use of the minor mode was ‘very ill calculated to convey such triumphant words’. Accordingly, he ‘composed an air in the major key to the same words and upon a somewhat similar subject—But though the obvious defects of Handel’s song were thus remedied,’ continued Crotch, ‘the style of that intended to supply its place (& which in the Oxford performances actually did so for some years) was by no means worthy of being attached to this production’.
Tinkering with Messiah continued long of Handel’s death. Mozart’s celebrated re-orchestration opened the floodgates to many well-intentioned but disastrously misdirected attempts to enhance the calculated sobriety of Handel’s orchestration. Men such as Ebenezer Prout, Sir Hamilton Harty, Sir Malcolm Sargent and even Sir Thomas Beecham all sincerely believed that they were reinforcing Handel’s message, whereas their sentimental accretions surely did much to obscure it. In the last forty years or so there has been a vital reassessment of the performance of Baroque music, and Messiah, ever a flagship for worthy causes, has been at its very forefront. But ultimately, whether performance in an ‘authentic’ manner by professionals, or mounted for fun by the local choral society, Messiah is never likely to relinquish its position as the most popular and enduring work in the English choral repertoire.
Simon Heighes © 1997