Part 1 No 01: Symphony
Part 1 No 02. Recitative: Comfort ye, my people (tenor)
Part 1 No 03. Aria: Every valley shall be exalted (tenor)
Part 1 No 04. Chorus: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed
Part 1 No 05. Recitative: Thus saith the Lord of hosts (bass)
Part 1 No 06. Aria: But who may abide the day of his coming? (alto)
Part 1 No 07. Chorus: And he shall purify the sons of Levi
Part 1 No 08. Recitative: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son (alto)
Part 1 No 09. Aria with chorus: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (alto)
Part 1 No 10. Recitative: For behold, darkness shall cover the earth (bass)
Part 1 No 11. Aria: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light (bass)
Part 1 No 12. Chorus: For unto us a child is born
Part 1 No 13: Pifa 'Pastoral Symphony'
Part 1 No 14. Recitative: There were shepherds, abiding in the field (soprano)
Part 1 No 14a. Recitative: There were shepherds, abiding in the field (soprano)
Part 1 No 14b. Recitative: And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them (soprano)
Part 1 No 15. Recitative: And the angel said unto them, fear not (soprano)
Part 1 No 16. Recitative: And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude (soprano)
Part 1 No 17. Chorus: Glory to God in the highest
Part 1 No 18. Aria: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion (soprano)
Part 1 No 19. Recitative: Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened (alto)
Part 1 No 20. Aria: He shall feed his flock like a shepherd (alto/soprano)
Part 1 No 21. Chorus: His yoke is easy and his burthen is light
Part 2 No 01. Chorus: Behold the Lamb of God
Part 2 No 02. Aria: He was despised and rejected of men (alto)
Part 2 No 03. Chorus: Surely he hath borne our griefs
Part 2 No 04. Chorus: And with his stripes we are healed
Part 2 No 05. Chorus: All we like sheep have gone astray
Part 2 No 06. Recitative: All they that see him laugh him to scorn (tenor)
Part 2 No 07. Chorus: He trusted in God that he would deliver him
Part 2 No 08. Recitative: Thy rebuke hath broken his heart (tenor)
Part 2 No 09. Aria: Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow (tenor)
Part 2 No 10. Recitative: He was cut off out of the land of the living (tenor)
Part 2 No 11. Aria: But thou didst not leave his soul in hell (soprano/tenor)
Part 2 No 12. Chorus: Lift up your heads, O ye gates
Part 2 No 13. Recitative: Unto which of the angels said he at any time? (tenor)
Part 2 No 14. Chorus: Let all the angels of God worship him
Part 2 No 15. Aria: Thou art gone up on high (alto)
Part 2 No 16. Chorus: The Lord gave the word
Part 2 No 17. Aria: How beautiful are the feet of them that preach (soprano)
Part 2 No 18. Chorus: Their sound is gone out into all lands
Part 2 No 19. Aria: Why do the nations so furiously rage together? (bass)
Part 2 No 20. Chorus: Let us break their bonds asunder
Part 2 No 21. Recitative: He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn (tenor)
Part 2 No 22. Aria: Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron (tenor)
Part 2 No 23. Chorus: Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth
Part 3 No 01. Aria: I know that my Redeemer liveth (soprano)
Part 3 No 02. Chorus: Since by man came death
Part 3 No 03. Recitative: Behold, I tell you a mystery (bass)
Part 3 No 04. Aria: The trumpet shall sound (bass)
Part 3 No 05. Recitative: Then shall be brought to pass (alto)
Part 3 No 06. Aria: O Death, where is thy sting? (alto/tenor)
Part 3 No 07. Chorus: But thanks be to God who giveth us the victory
Part 3 No 08. Aria: If God be for us, who can be against us? (soprano)
Part 3 No 09. Chorus: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
Part 3 No 10. Chorus: Amen
It would be hard to claim that any of the operas and oratorios already mentioned is less of a masterpiece than Messiah, but none quite inspires equal affection. Among Handel’s oratorios, Messiah is unique in its combination of a text compiled from the Bible and a specifically Christian theme (though the stories of the Old Testament oratorios are of course embedded in Christian theology). His other Christian oratorios—the flamboyant and highly operatic La resurrezione, and the intense and tragic Theodora, products respectively of Handel’s youth and old age—could hardly be more different in their effect. Messiah gains its eminence from a dual ancestry in an old and deep-rooted form—the English anthem—and the newly invented concept of the English oratorio, first conceived as a ‘sacred drama’ set to music, but which in Handel’s hands proved to have much broader possibilities.
Handel’s first English oratorio, Esther, was written in 1718 while he was working at Cannons, the palatial mansion of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and later Duke of Chandos. It was something of an experiment, and remained little known until a series of performances in London in 1732 brought it to public attention. The challenge of an unauthorized performance led Handel to create a new and much expanded version of the work, which he produced without stage action at the King’s Theatre in May 1732, in the middle of one of his regular seasons of Italian opera. The work is a drama based on a biblical play by Racine, but already has elements of the anthem within it, since the choruses of the original 1718 version were based on Racine’s choral imitations of the Psalms, and in 1732 Handel added two of his Coronation anthems of 1727 into the mix. With the oratorios Deborah (1733), Athalia (produced in Oxford in 1733 and in London in 1735), and particularly Saul (1739) Handel placed greater stress on the dramatic element, but meanwhile tried other types of choral works including the Italian serenata Parnasso in festa (1734) and the English ode Alexander’s Feast (1736).
During this period a circle of friends and supporters associated with the fourth Earl of Shaftesbury and the philosopher James Harris were a significant influence. They were keen to encourage Handel in the setting of great English texts, sublime in themselves, but which his music could, in their view, raise to even greater magnificence. Among this circle was Charles Jennens (1700–1773), wealthy heir to estates in Leicestershire and elsewhere, well versed in classical and religious literature, and a keen amateur musician. In 1738 he provided the libretto for Saul, and in the same year probably helped to compile the libretto of Part 2 of Israel in Egypt, Handel’s first oratorio on Biblical texts. The use of Scripture for this oratorio was prompted by Handel’s desire to find a new context for his anthem The ways of Zion do mourn, written for the funeral of Queen Caroline in 1737, but which he obviously felt should have greater exposure beyond its single performance on that occasion. The text of the anthem was, as usual, a compilation from Scripture, and so Handel’s decision to make the anthem the first part of a new oratorio about the release of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt effectively determined the choice of Scriptural texts for the rest of the oratorio. In the event the dominance of the choruses in Israel in Egypt seems initially to have made it unpopular with the public, but it inspired Jennens to think of a new way of using Biblical texts as the basis of an oratorio. The result was Messiah.
Letters in the archives of the Earls of Malmesbury (the descendants of James Harris) reveal that Jennens had complied the libretto of Messiah by the end of 1739, but had put it aside because Handel was ‘desirous to please the town with something of a gayer turn’. The ‘gayer’ work was L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, on a libretto extracted by Harris from Milton’s poems, revised and expanded by Jennens on Handel’s instructions; it was first performed in February 1740. Consideration of Messiah was further delayed by Handel’s attempt at another season of Italian opera in 1740–41, but this proved unsuccessful and Handel never returned to opera again. An invitation to perform a series of concerts in Dublin the following winter finally gave Handel the impetus to set Jennens’s new libretto. Working at his usual breakneck speed, he composed the oratorio between 22 August and 14 September 1741, and immediately went on to draft Samson before leaving for Ireland early in November. It is clear that Handel already recognized the unusual nature of the oratorio, because he did not include it in the two series of subscription concerts series that he presented in Dublin’s new Music Hall in Fishamble Street between 23 December 1741 and 7 April 1742. Instead he reserved its first performance for the benefit of three charities on 13 April 1742, the ladies being asked to attend ‘without Hoops’, thereby ‘making Room for more Company’. It was ecstatically received, to judge from the press reports, and among the singers it was the contralto Susannah Cibber who made the most impression, especially in the aria ‘He was despised’.
Handel had to proceed with more caution when he gave the first London performance, at Covent Garden Theatre on 23 March 1743, as there was controversy over its use of Biblical texts and the supposed unsuitability of theatrical singers for ‘a religious Performance in a Playhouse’. However, as Handel established the practice of giving an annual season of oratorio performances at Covent Garden in Lent, objections to Messiah died down. He revived it in 1745 and 1749, reserving it for the end of each season, nearest to Easter, the place Jennens had originally envisaged for it. In 1750 Handel followed further revivals at Covent Garden with performances in the newly built chapel of the Foundling Hospital, the charity established by Captain Thomas Coram to save abandoned infants. The performances benefited the charity, of which Handel became a governor. (Now called Coram Family, it continues its work by providing support for deprived children.) These events proved to be highly popular, and the subsequent annual revivals at Covent Garden and at the hospital began the tradition of regular performance of Messiah as both a musical and a social ritual.
The effectiveness of Messiah owes much to Jennens’s libretto, which is subtle in its use of Scriptural texts. Jennens had a specific instructive purpose, to justify, as his title implies, the identification of the ‘Anointed One’ promised in Old Testament prophecy (‘Messiah’ in Hebrew, ‘Christos’ in Greek) with Jesus of Nazareth as portrayed in the gospels, Son of God and Redeemer of mankind. Thus Jesus’s mission on earth, his resurrection and his ascension to heaven are mapped out in Parts 1 and 2 of the oratorio not by direct narration (except for the nativity section), but largely through the Old Testament prophecies cited by New Testament writers as foretelling the events of the story. Part 3, inspired by the Anglican burial service and incorporating famous passages from the letters of St Paul, makes explicit the promise of a second coming of Messiah and the resurrection of the dead to eternal life.
In the music Handel maintains a sense of narrative progression, especially in Parts 1 and 2, by controlled use of key sequences and varied vocal and instrumental textures, while allowing climactic moments to emerge with dramatic clarity. The extensive choral writing (a feature that has made Messiah especially endearing to both listeners and singers) exhibits in itself a great range of style, from formal fugue (as in ‘And with his stripes’) to the full-blown mix of counterpoint and block harmony that we think of as particularly Handelian. In the sequence ‘Since by man came death’ Handel even manages to make the style of each section (‘antique’ unaccompanied voices answered by vigorous instrumentally reinforced declamation) expressive of the theology of the old Adam yielding to the new Christ. Four of the choruses (‘And he shall purify’, ‘For unto us a child is born’, ‘His yoke is easy’ and ‘All we like sheep have gone astray’) gain internal variety of texture from their origins in two chamber duets (‘Quel fior ch’al alba ride’ and ‘No, di voi non vuò fidarmi’) that Handel had composed shortly before Messiah. He extends the two-part vocal writing by passing it around different pairings of the choral voices and adding—most thrillingly in ‘For unto us a child is born’—new music for the full chorus. (The sequence ‘O Death, where is thy sting? … But thanks be to God’ is more soberly based on another chamber duet written in the 1720s, ‘Se tu non lasci amore’.)
The orchestral colour of Messiah is comparatively restrained, in that, uniquely among Handel’s major works, the original score has no indication of woodwind participation. The reason may be only that he was uncertain what instrumental forces would be available to him in Dublin, as he certainly used oboes and bassoons in his London performances, and he wrote oboe parts for the choral setting of ‘Their sound is gone out’, added in 1745. However, the woodwind throughout simply double the strings or the choral voices, so that the new colour added when the trumpets and drums appear is especially vivid. Handel is however careful to reserve their full impact for the final choruses of Parts 2 and 3. When the trumpets make their first entry in ‘Glory to God’, without drums, they are asked to play ‘da lontano e un poco piano’ (‘in the distance and rather quietly’), giving just a little extra radiance to the depiction of the heavenly chorus proclaiming Christ’s birth. And for ‘The trumpet shall sound’, the bass solo foretelling the day of judgment, Handel writes a wonderfully effective (and quite demanding) solo for the instrument.
The participation of the brass instruments also predicates the use of the key of D major, which becomes the tonality to which the whole oratorio tends, emerging with greatest power in the dual triumphs of the Hallelujah and Amen choruses. These moments are anticipated by earlier, less assertive uses of the key: indeed it first appears as quietly as possible with the simple chord that begins the recitative ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive’. For the bleakest part of the story, reflecting on Christ’s sufferings, Handel moves to E flat major and F minor, the keys furthest away from D major, but then returns to D as despair turns to hope and victory. Within the overall scheme are several momentary transitions from darkness to light, beginning with the hopeful E major (after E minor) of the tenor’s opening ‘Comfort ye’, and including the exuberance of ‘For unto us a child is born’ after the gloomy chromatic wanderings of the bass aria ‘The people that walked in darkness’. Most subtle of all is the graceful, flowing line of ‘But thou didst not leave his soul in hell’ after the desolation of ‘Behold and see’, marking the moment of Christ’s resurrection, yet holding back the full expression of rejoicing until the spread of Christ’s message is magnificently celebrated in the Hallelujah chorus.
Though Handel set the whole of Jennens’s libretto in 1741, he never in fact performed all the music of that first setting. Revisions were made before the first performances in Dublin, and new music was added for the London revivals of 1743 and 1745. The last important changes were made in 1750, when Handel composed the now well-known settings of ‘But who may abide?’ and ‘Thou art gone up on high’ for the alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni. In addition Handel transposed arias at various times to suit different singers, so that the precise content of his own performances of the work varied from season to season. In recent years the variant versions have been made easily available in practical editions, and have often been taken up in performance, but a slightly modified form of the version of 1750 has generally proved most satisfying and is the form of the work with which performers and their audiences have become comfortingly familiar.
from notes by Anthony Hicks © 2009