In , Handel was heavily in debt following a string of musical failures. On April 8, , Handel gave what he believed to be his final concert. Handel would also receive his own commission for composing the work, which in turn helped him on his path to reversing his own misfortune. The composition of Messiah , the complete page oratorio, began on August 22, , and was composed in just 24 days, when Handel finished the final orchestration on September 14, Handel composed Messiah without getting much sleep or even eating much food. When his assistants brought him his meals, they were often left uneaten.
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It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April and received its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music. Handel's reputation in England , where he had lived since , had been established through his compositions of Italian opera.
He turned to English oratorio in the s in response to changes in public taste; Messiah was his sixth work in this genre. Although its structure resembles that of opera , it is not in dramatic form; there are no impersonations of characters and no direct speech. Instead, Jennens's text is an extended reflection on Jesus as the Messiah called Christ.
The text begins in Part I with prophecies by Isaiah and others, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds , the only "scene" taken from the Gospels. Handel wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual numbers. In the years after his death, the work was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. In other efforts to update it, its orchestration was revised and amplified by among others Mozart Der Messias.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the trend has been towards reproducing a greater fidelity to Handel's original intentions, although "big Messiah" productions continue to be mounted.
The composer George Frideric Handel , born in Halle , Germany in , took up permanent residence in London in , and became a naturalised British subject in He subsequently wrote and presented more than 40 such operas in London's theatres.
By the early s public taste for Italian opera was beginning to fade. The popular success of John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch 's The Beggar's Opera first performed in had heralded a spate of English-language ballad-operas that mocked the pretensions of Italian opera.
Such funding became harder to obtain after the launch in of the Opera of the Nobility , a rival company to his own. Handel overcame this challenge, but he spent large sums of his own money in doing so. Although prospects for Italian opera were declining, Handel remained committed to the genre, but as alternatives to his staged works he began to introduce English-language oratorios. Its success encouraged Handel to write two more oratorios Deborah and Athalia.
All three oratorios were performed to large and appreciative audiences at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in mid Undergraduates reportedly sold their furniture to raise the money for the five-shilling tickets. In Handel received the text for a new oratorio named Saul from its librettist Charles Jennens , a wealthy landowner with musical and literary interests. The work, after opening at the King's Theatre in January to a warm reception, was quickly followed by the less successful oratorio Israel in Egypt which may also have come from Jennens.
After three performances of his last Italian opera Deidamia in January and February , he abandoned the genre. The Subject is Messiah". In Christian theology , the Messiah is the saviour of humankind. The Messiah who is called Christ , is identified with the person of Jesus , known by his followers as the Christ or "Jesus Christ". Handel's Messiah has been described by the early-music scholar Richard Luckett as "a commentary on [Jesus Christ's] Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension", beginning with God's promises as spoken by the prophets and ending with Christ's glorification in heaven.
In his libretto, Jennens's intention was not to dramatise the life and teachings of Jesus, but to acclaim the "Mystery of Godliness",  using a compilation of extracts from the Authorized King James Version of the Bible, and from the Psalms included in the Book of Common Prayer. The three-part structure of the work approximates to that of Handel's three-act operas, with the "parts" subdivided by Jennens into " scenes ".
Each scene is a collection of individual numbers or "movements" which take the form of recitatives , arias and choruses. The annunciation to the shepherds of the birth of the Christ is represented in the words of Luke's gospel. Part II covers Christ's passion and his death , his resurrection and ascension , the first spreading of the gospel through the world, and a definitive statement of God's glory summarised in the "Hallelujah". Part III begins with the promise of redemption, followed by a prediction of the day of judgment and the " general resurrection ", ending with the final victory over sin and death and the acclamation of Christ.
Charles Jennens was born around , into a prosperous landowning family whose lands and properties in Warwickshire and Leicestershire he eventually inherited. His family's wealth enabled him to live a life of leisure while devoting himself to his literary and musical interests. He was certainly devoted to Handel's music, having helped to finance the publication of every Handel score since Rodelinda in Jennens's letter to Holdsworth of 10 July , in which he first mentions Messiah , suggests that the text was a recent work, probably assembled earlier that summer.
As a devout Anglican and believer in scriptural authority, Jennens intended to challenge advocates of Deism , who rejected the doctrine of divine intervention in human affairs. The music for Messiah was completed in 24 days of swift composition. Having received Jennens's text some time after 10 July , Handel began work on it on 22 August. This rapid pace was seen by Jennens not as a sign of ecstatic energy but rather as "careless neglicence", and the relations between the two men would remain strained, since Jennens "urged Handel to make improvements" while the composer stubbornly refused.
This inscription, taken with the speed of composition, has encouraged belief in the apocryphal story that Handel wrote the music in a fervour of divine inspiration in which, as he wrote the "Hallelujah" chorus, "he saw all heaven before him".
The effort of writing so much music in so short a time was not unusual for Handel and his contemporaries; Handel commenced his next oratorio, Samson , within a week of finishing Messiah , and completed his draft of this new work in a month.
Thus, Se tu non-lasci amore from became the basis of "O Death, where is thy sting? Before the first performance Handel made numerous revisions to his manuscript score, in part to match the forces available for the Dublin premiere; it is probable that his work was not performed as originally conceived in his lifetime. Handel's decision to give a season of concerts in Dublin in the winter of —42 arose from an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire , then serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
These concerts were so popular that a second series was quickly arranged; Messiah figured in neither series. In early March Handel began discussions with the appropriate committees for a charity concert, to be given in April, at which he intended to present Messiah. He sought and was given permission from St Patrick's and Christ Church cathedrals to use their choirs for this occasion. The women soloists were Christina Maria Avoglio , who had sung the main soprano roles in the two subscription series, and Susannah Cibber , an established stage actress and contralto who had sung in the second series.
Handel had his own organ shipped to Ireland for the performances; a harpsichord was probably also used. The three charities that were to benefit were prisoners' debt relief, the Mercer's Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary. Delaney, was so overcome by Susanna Cibber's rendering of "He was despised" that reportedly he leapt to his feet and cried: "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee! Handel remained in Dublin for four months after the premiere. He organised a second performance of Messiah on 3 June, which was announced as "the last Performance of Mr Handel's during his Stay in this Kingdom".
In this second Messiah , which was for Handel's private financial benefit, Cibber reprised her role from the first performance, though Avoglio may have been replaced by a Mrs Maclaine;  details of other performers are not recorded. The warm reception accorded to Messiah in Dublin was not repeated in London.
Indeed, even the announcement of the performance as a "new Sacred Oratorio" drew an anonymous commentator to ask if "the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it". Avoglio and Cibber were again the chief soloists; they were joined by the tenor John Beard , a veteran of Handel's operas, the bass Thomas Rheinhold and two other sopranos, Kitty Clive and Miss Edwards. In an attempt to deflect such sensibilities, in London Handel had avoided the name Messiah and presented the work as the "New Sacred Oratorio".
He wrote a new setting of "And lo, the angel of the Lord" for Clive, never used subsequently. He added a tenor song for Beard: "Their sound is gone out", which had appeared in Jennens's original libretto but had not been in the Dublin performances.
The custom of standing for the "Hallelujah" chorus originates from a belief that, at the London premiere, King George II did so, which would have obliged all to stand.
There is no convincing evidence that the king was present, or that he attended any subsequent performance of Messiah ; the first reference to the practice of standing appears in a letter dated , three years prior to Handel's death. London's initially cool reception of Messiah led Handel to reduce the season's planned six performances to three, and not to present the work at all in —to the considerable annoyance of Jennens, whose relations with the composer temporarily soured.
I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grosser faults in the composition The revival at Covent Garden, under the proper title of Messiah , saw the appearance of two female soloists who were henceforth closely associated with Handel's music: Giulia Frasi and Caterina Galli.
In the following year these were joined by the male alto Gaetano Guadagni , for whom Handel composed new versions of "But who may abide" and "Thou art gone up on high". The year also saw the institution of the annual charity performances of Messiah at London's Foundling Hospital , which continued until Handel's death and beyond.
The orchestra included fifteen violins, five violas, three cellos, two double-basses, four bassoons, four oboes, two trumpets, two horns and drums. In the chorus of nineteen were six trebles from the Chapel Royal; the remainder, all men, were altos, tenors and basses. Frasi, Galli and Beard led the five soloists, who were required to assist the chorus. During the s Messiah was performed increasingly at festivals and cathedrals throughout the country.
The orchestra employed was two hundred and fifty strong, including twelve horns, twelve trumpets, six trombones and three pairs of timpani some made especially large. In continental Europe, performances of Messiah were departing from Handel's practices in a different way: his score was being drastically reorchestrated to suit contemporary tastes. In the 19th century, approaches to Handel in German and English-speaking countries diverged further.
Messiah was presented in New York in with a chorus of and in Boston in with more than In the s and s ever larger forces were assembled. Bernard Shaw , in his role as a music critic, commented, "The stale wonderment which the great chorus never fails to elicit has already been exhausted";  he later wrote, "Why, instead of wasting huge sums on the multitudinous dullness of a Handel Festival does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah in St James's Hall with a chorus of twenty capable artists?
Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die. Many admirers of Handel believed that the composer would have made such additions, had the appropriate instruments been available in his day. One reason for the popularity of huge-scale performances was the ubiquity of amateur choral societies. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham wrote that for years the chorus was "the national medium of musical utterance" in Britain.
However, after the heyday of Victorian choral societies, he noted a "rapid and violent reaction against monumental performances Bourne pioneered revivals of Messiah in Handel's orchestration, and Bourne's work was the basis for further scholarly versions in the early 20th century. Although the huge-scale oratorio tradition was perpetuated by such large ensembles as the Royal Choral Society , the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society in the 20th century,  there were increasing calls for performances more faithful to Handel's conception.
At the turn of the century, The Musical Times wrote of the "additional accompaniments" of Mozart and others, "Is it not time that some of these 'hangers on' of Handel's score were sent about their business? With our large choral societies, additional accompaniments of some kind are a necessity for an effective performance; and the question is not so much whether, as how they are to be written.
Prout continued the practice of adding flutes, clarinets and trombones to Handel's orchestration, but he restored Handel's high trumpet parts, which Mozart had omitted evidently because playing them was a lost art by In Germany, Messiah was not so often performed as in Britain;  when it was given, medium-sized forces were the norm. At the Handel Festival held in in Handel's native town, Halle, his choral works were given by a choir of and an orchestra of For example, in , Beecham conducted a recording of Messiah with modestly sized forces and controversially brisk tempi, although the orchestration remained far from authentic.
Recordings on LP and CD were preponderantly of the latter type, and the large scale Messiah came to seem old-fashioned. The cause of authentic performance was advanced in by the publication of a new edition of the score, edited by Watkins Shaw. In the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians , David Scott writes, "the edition at first aroused suspicion on account of its attempts in several directions to break the crust of convention surrounding the work in the British Isles.
Messiah remains Handel's best-known work, with performances particularly popular during the Advent season;  writing in December , the music critic Alex Ross refers to that month's 21 performances in New York alone as "numbing repetition". Indeed if they are not prepared to grapple with the problems presented by the score they ought not to conduct it.
This applies not only to the choice of versions, but to every aspect of baroque practice, and of course there are often no final answers.
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