George Frideric Handel — Messiah
Every year at Christmas time, and again at Easter, the entire globe resonates in reverent union. From village chapels to city cathedrals, from London to Los Angeles, one sound carries the hearts and minds of Christians closer to the divine spirit. It is the sound of voices, conspiring “to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear,” via George Frideric Handel’s eighteenth-century masterpiece, Messiah.
No other choral work in existence has enjoyed such enduring popularity, nor so many performances. In music simple enough to be performed in any small-town church, yet magnificent enough to inspire the souls of millions around the world, Handel created a work that celebrates all that is good in Christ and the world. It is the only work for which Handel is remembered by most people; yet the indelible stamp it has left on the collective spirit of Protestant religion guarantees immortality to its author.
Handel chose to tackle this immense challenge at a time in his life when his fortunes were down. He had fallen from vogue in London, and the reception to some of his most recent works had been cool. Handel chose the subject for his new oratorio on his own, and turned to the poet Charles Jennens for assistance in compiling the texts. That Handel worked with a poet to assemble the libretto for Messiah is scarcely evident in the texts themselves; for the words are made up of essentially unaltered verses from the English Bible.
“Posterity has agreed that Jennens’ masterly selection of texts constitutes a work of art in itself,” notes historian Robert Manson Myers. “Its rich imagery and concrete symbolism create a felicitous combination of the grand, the poetic, and the passionate upon a plane of almost prophetic elevation.”
With Jennens’ Biblical excerpts assembled, Handel began composing his new oratorio on Saturday, August 22, 1741. For more than three weeks, he remained in his study, writing. The Messiah was completed on September 14. “Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not,” Handel supposedly declared later. “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”
From the glorious notes that Handel assembled on paper in those twenty-four days, it is easy to assume that his inspiration was indeed divine. Jennens’ libretto speaks to every shade of Christian devotional sentiment: piety, resignation, repentance, faith, and exultation. Handel, in setting the texts to music, amplified and connected these sentiments into an epitome of Christian belief. An examination of the original score reveals that Handel wrote in fits, so quickly that his pen was sometimes unable to keep pace with his imagination. In those scrawled marks can be seen the methods of a man driven to the brink of his own powers, a scribe racing to document the profound revelations that struck him like a bolt from heaven.
Still, Handel himself must be credited wholly for this composition. After all, several numbers in Messiah were built on melodies borrowed from earlier, lesser works by the composer. And, in his often-curious accentuation of the English words, Handel reveals his origins as a non-native speaker.
Moreover, much of the oratorio’s appeal comes from its less-than-didactic elements. “Handel’s all-embracing sympathy for every manifestation of human energy elevates Messiah far above dogmatic creeds and makes it the common property of all mankind,” writes Robert Manson Myers.
Soon after Handel completed Messiah, he was invited to Dublin by the aristocratic patron William Cavendish. There, the composer was welcomed by an eager musical public, and soon arranged to present Messiah at a benefit concert for war prisoners and a local hospital. The premiere was a major public event, and the reaction of the assembled throngs was appropriately enthusiastic. “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it [Messiah] afforded to the admiring crowd,” wrote a critic in the Falkland Journal, several days after the premiere. “The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.”
The conspiracy revealed on that day became a world-wide phenomenon in a matter of years; and ever since, Messiah has occupied an exalted position in art and history.
Program notes provided by Joe Nickell