Handel's Messiah

An Oratorio
Written by George Frideric Handel

Stricken in 1737 by acute muscular rheumatism and grave financial disasters, Handel repaired to the steam baths of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) and sat in them for three times as long as he ought, thereby provoking perspirations which effected a lightning, and lightening cure. Religious friends thought it a miracle. Refreshed, he returned to London and wrote in fairly rapid succession Xerxes, Israel in Egypt, and Saul, and in the late summer of 1741 began to compose an oratorio, Messiah, the words of which had been sent by a wealthy litterateur, Charles Jennens of Gopsal in Leicestershire.

In his London house at 25 Brook Street, now a Handel Museum, Handel worked almost ceaselessly for just over three weeks, producing the first version of a work that was to enjoy an unbelievably varied, continuous and astonishing career.

Handel was seeking a new way in music after the troubles and trials of an operatic world, and London was slow to adopt unfamiliar fashions. Wary of the reception Messiah might receive, he welcomed the chance for a Dublin debut at the Musical Hall (contemporary sketch left). The local choir and orchestra were good, the soloists could be imported.

In the issue of Faulkner's Journal (Dublin) for March 23 to 27, 1742, appeared the following "important notice":

“For relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the support of Mercer's Hospital in Stepehn's-street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn's Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musical Hall in Fishamble-street, Mr. Handel's new Grand Oratorio, called the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some concertos on the Organ by Mr. Handel.”

This performance was well attended and enthusiastically applauded. To fit in the 700-strong audience clamouring to hear Handel’s latest work, ladies were requested to come ‘without hoops’ in their skirts, and men ‘without swords’. Handel wrote to Charles Jennens, his friend and librettist, “The music sounds delightful in this charming room, which puts me in such spirits, and my health being so good, that I exert myself on the organ with more than usual success.”

Covent Garden Theatre witnessed the London premiere on 23 March 1743, and the oratorio was twice repeated within a week. If the public remained somewhat aloof, a contribution to the Daily Advertiser soon drew their attention to what was essential:

"To harmony like his, celestial power is given
To exalt the soul from earth, and make of hell a heaven".

Every new performance brought about fresh changes. Arias were re-written for different voices, and questions of rhythm and meter needed attention. Was something lacking after all? To the young Gluck, who had arrived just in time to witness the failure of an opera, Handel confided: “What the English really enjoy is something that hits them on the eardrum.”

With the arrival of the Italian singers Frasi and Guadagni, Messiah was ready for re-launching after a silence of six years, and this time its four performances had a resounding success. When a nobleman complimented Handel on providing London with such a fine entertainment the composer replied: “My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.”

Handel, although on the verge of ruin, had composed his masterpiece in 1741, the very year in which the cornerstone of the Foundling Hospital was laid. This charitable institution, organized on similar lines to the Pieta in Venice, where Vivaldi worked, was not slow to develop musical connections. Indeed Handel, as a Governor of the hospital, decided to give a concert in 1749 to help complete the chapel, and in the following year provided an organ for the building, offering to inaugurate it with a performance of Messiah.

The public responded with unprecedented enthusiasm. On the day of the performance, 1st May 1750, subscribers, ticket-holders and gatecrashers arrived on foot, in sedan chairs, and in some five hundred coaches. Once inside and seated they witnessed an impressive sight: singers from the Chapel Royal, a splendid orchestra, three Italian divas, Frasi, Galli, and Passerini, with Reinhold as bass and Beard as tenor. Handel himself played an organ concerto and directed the entire performance.

The hospital, which cared especially for orphans, benefitted greatly. Its archives still show the performers' names, and many of them gave generously of their services The orchestra consisted of 8 first violins, 6 seconds, 6 violas, 3 cellos and 3 double-basses, and for doubling the treble and bass choral parts Handel engaged 4 oboes and 4 bassoons, throwing in a pair each of trumpets, horns and timpani for good measure.

The composer himself directed performances using large forces whose main purpose was to provide a volume of sound ranging from delicate effects to the most massive and sonorous climaxes. They helped stamp Handel's musical image upon a public which, if it had been slow to respond at the beginning, soon mustered tremendous power and loyalty. Handel would surely not have been displeased.

The Continuo of Handel's time

A French visitor to London in 1750, the poetess Anne Marie Fiquet du Bocage, tells us that what she saw and heard at the Oratorio or Pious Concert pleased her highly.

“English words are sung by Italian performers, and accompanied by a variety of instruments. Handel is the soul of it: when he makes his appearance, two wax lights are carried before him. Amidst a loud clapping of hands he seats himself and the whole band of music strikes up at exactly the same moment. At the interludes he plays concertos of his own composition, either alone or accompanied by the orchestra. These are equally admirable for the harmony and the execution.”

In the opera, Handel played the harpsichord, an instrument which he always used for rehearsals. During his many years in London he played several different ones, among them a Ruckers whose keys he had worn out like the bowl of a spoon. He was also very friendly with the Swiss harpsichord maker Burkat Tschudi, who often invited the master to his table, “ever well covered with German dishes and German wines.” Occasionally Handel would issue an invitation, not for a meal but rather for a rehearsal, and he had no lack of admirers especially among the ladies. Mrs. Pendarves, writing of a rehearsal of Alcina, whither she had taken her sister and a friend in 1735, made the observation that “whilst Mr. Handel was playing his part, I could not help thinking him a necromancer in the midst of his own enchantments.” Acknowledged far and worldwide as a soloist both on the organ and harpsichord, it was as a continuo player that he was most prized.

In those days there was no conductor to distract from the limelight in which a truly great composer dwelt. The audience heard his music, and heard him accompany (or play continuo which amounts to the same thing) on one instrument or the other. He did not play a little chamber organ such as one (barely) hears in some modern performances. He played a large organ, with two keyboards and pedals if such were available, and he took pleasure in making a splendid and impressive sound. Daniel Pate's poem, “An Ode to Mr. Handel On his Playing on the Organ” begins without a shadow of doubt as to the sheer volume of tone:

We hear, inspiring sacred dread,
The deep majestic Organ blow,
Symbol of Sounds that rouse the dead!

To match this level of decibels he equipped himself with a large orchestra, guessed by Alexander Pope in “The Dunciad” (Book IV) to be at least one hundred:

Strong in new arms, lo Giant Handel stands,
Like bold Briarcus, with a hundred hands;
To stir, to rowze, to shake the soul he comes,
And Jove's own Thunders follow Mars's Drums.

A footnote by Pope tells us that the composer “introduced a greater number of Hands and more variety of instruments into the Orchestra, and employed even Drums and Cannon [kettledrums] to make a fuller Chorus [Band]. This proved so much too manly for the fine gentlemen of his age, that he was obliged to remove his Musick into Ireland.”

It was of course in Ireland that Messiah was first heard, and on that occasion Handel played the organ at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street. In later performances in London he made use of a composite instrument which was an organ and a harpsichord set up as separate instruments but playable from one keyboard. This was not a true “claviorganum” which consisted of the two in one case. It was specially constructed on the lines of a remarkable instrument Handel may have seen in Oxford in 1733, “made by Mr. Munday an Organist, that has been blind ever since he was five years of age. He plays upon the Harpsichord and two Organs, either single or together, with one set of keys, wherein he makes 30 varieties, without taking his hands off.”

Five years later Charles Jennens, who wrote the words for Messiah, informed his cousin Lord Guernsey about an organ costing £500 [an enormous sum in those days] which Handel had commissioned from a maker in Barnet – in fact the man who built the first organ installed in the Foundling Hospital. This organ “is so constructed that as he sits at it he has a better command of his performers than he used to have and he is highly delighted to think with what exactness his Oratorio will be performed by the help of this organ; so that for the future instead of beating time at his oratorios, he is to sit at the organ all the time with his back to the Audience”.

Although no trace or specification remains of this instrument it was obviously one of the few that served both purposes so that Handel could accompany on either harpsichord or organ without changing places.

The carrying on of a tradition can also be experienced in the narrative of Sir George Macfarren (1813-1887) the composer and administrator, who quoted the recollections of Sir George Smart who as a young man had turned pages for Joah Bates, Handel's associate. “In choruses [Bates] played on the organ; in most of the songs [arias] and in all the recitatives he played on the harpsichord. In some few instances... he used the organ in the songs. The organ part was not merely the duplication of the voices, but when the music was not in florid counterpoint it would be the amplification of the harmony. The harpsichord part of the songs was contrapuntal. It was not merely the filling up of the harmony, but improvisation in the case of Handel, and the carefully considered production [realization] in the case of Bates, of an interesting florid contrapuntal part.”

Winton Dean, in his magisterial study Handel's Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (Oxford University Press, 1959) further points out that Handel used the organ as a single-line tone-colour – indeed as an instrument of the orchestra – by simply marking the part “tasto solo” (keyboard alone, which means don't realize the bass). In this way it could serve to intensify an emotional need, as in arias dealing with anger, vengeance or solemnity, and those evoking a rich or unusual tone colour.

In the matter of string support, it was long thought that all recitatives had to be accompanied not only by harpsichord but also by a cello and double-bass in octaves. This however belongs to a later tradition which grew up at the time of the Handel Commemorations from 1784 onwards, and in the next century through the famous partnership of Lindley and Dragonetti, the cello-bass pair who were hardly ever seen apart. Yet there is no doubt that especially the gentler arias for soprano or alto would have been spared a forcible beginning played in octaves by both instruments. Usually a cello is sufficient for the opening of an aria, the double-bass being reserved for points of special depth in tone and expression.

Performance is an evolving art, in which Handel himself lent a hand as may be seen by comparing his early manuscripts with the later additions he made for particular singers, or for special circumstances such as the performances at the Foundling Hospital to which in his later years he was so devoted. He would surely have laughed at the modern concept of “authenticity”, which in a few years time will be as outmoded as some of the traditions now ridiculed by the authenticists.

Charles Jennens the Librettist

Books of words, whether for oratorio or opera, often make painful reading if they are read at all. Comparatively few rise above the usual level, and there are not many really good librettists. But in Charles Jennens, a literary and musical man of leisure, Handel found a staunch ally and a fearless critic. Over the course of a long life Jennens caused copies to be made of most of Handel's important scores. This large and important collection later passed to the Earl of Aylesford and was dispersed in 1918. Much of it found its way to the Royal Library (British Library) or the Manchester Central Library. Jennens enjoyed arranging domestic performances of Handel, amassing not only scores but sets of parts suitable for a medium-size ensemble. Handel put sufficient trust in Jennens' musical knowledge to let him make emendations to the score of Saul, and he esteemed him highly enough as a friend to leave him a sizeable bequest in his will.

The universal appeal of Messiah reflects essential facets of religious thought common to both men. They were seculars with a considerable private regard for the sacred; they were men of the world with a certain vision of heaven which they knew how to communicate to the masses. Just as Handel's harmonies were basically simple but potentially sublime, so Jennens' ability to select and refine brought great power to his literary thrust, and it was this thrust that made Messiah what it is.

Consider for a moment the aria “But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire.” This verse from Malachi, twelfth and last of the books by the Minor Prophets, continues with the words: “and like fullers' soap”. We have all heard of soap operas but if Jennens had not stopped when he did we might even have had a soap oratorio, for the effect both then and now would run the risk of bathos. Malachi emphasized thoroughness: not just ordinary fire, but the burning intensity of that used to purify metal; and not just ordinary toilet soap, but the rough soap used at the laundry. St. Matthew reechoes the same prophecy: “He will thoroughly purge his floor... and will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” The selection made by Jennens is more pointed and powerful.

When Handel and Jennens were working on Belshazzar, not long after the Londoners had welcomed Messiah with some coolness, Jennens told a friend that if Handel “has made a very fine entertainment of it, though not so good as he might and ought to have done, I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition.” Does this imply that a well-meaning amateur would have pointed out faults in the music? Not at all. But Jennens the prose-poet had developed a sensitivity to declamation that would prompt him to revolt at a phrase such as one hears in “Why do the nations” where the first sentence ends: “imagine ER..vain thing”. (Handel never quite grasped the frailty of the English indefinite article "a", not paralleled in the stronger German “ein”). That is easily put right, but many other slight infelicities in word-setting seem to resist fearfully the surgeon's knife. In the Dublin performance, it was reputedly Mrs. Cibber's deeply emotional and theatrical performance of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” that brought Dr. Patrick Delaney to his feet with “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven!” If she had redistributed the words, lessening the stress on “my” and strengthening the key-word “Redeemer” Dr. Delaney might have said nothing at all. English may not have been Handel's native language, but he knew how to set it with an assurance only bettered by Purcell.

There are also signs that he took Jennens' criticism seriously even if he did not change everything that the Leicestershire squire found weak, for in a letter dated 19 July 1744 he says: “Be pleased to point out those passages in the Messiah which you think require altering.”

It is not a correspondence that can be followed in depth such as that of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, but enough survives to give an impression of intense collaboration between two men who had an instinctive grasp of the range of their subject. Their treatment of it combines respect with devotion, and the fact that Handel set the complete libretto in the unbelievably short space of 23 days, subsequently putting it on one side, shows that for once he was not thinking consciously of a commercial possibility but unknowingly of a spiritual certainty. As Julian Livingstone Herbage has written: “It was not, like the usual Passion music, a theatrical narrative of the martyrdom and ascension of Christ... The text generally avoids narrative detail, and even its most dramatic moments are never theatrical. The loftiness of its outlook has something of the classical architecture and noble beauty of Greek art, but its simple and direct expression provides a softening element of humanity which conveys a divine revelation in both universal and personal terms.” It is, and will remain, a musical miracle.

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