By far, one of the most enduring and beloved pieces of music written in the last 300 years is George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah”. Once again we are coming upon the season when many will listen to the Messiah and celebrate Christmas with this wonderful tradition.
Who is the man behind the music and what can we learn about his life?
Though he was born in Germany (1685), he spent most of his life in England. His father had intended to send him to study law, but a friend of the family, after hearing Handel practicing his music at the age of eleven, persuaded his father to allow the young man to study music. He became a violinist for the Hamburg Opera at the age of 18, and gave private lessons to support himself.
From Hamburg he traveled to Italy, Italy to Hanover, Hanover to London. Handel lead a rich and varied life. His great talent opened the door for him to be acquainted with the rich and the royal. However, he did not attach himself permanently to any one patron, but rather became an entrepreneur who enjoyed the successes of his music and his portion of the ticket proceeds.
The Messiah was written using the text provided by the librettist Charles Jennens. Jennens was a Shakespeare scholar who never gained his full position in society because he would not vow allegiance to the House of Hanover. His work was his statement of faith in Christ’s deity and an opposition to atheism. Jennens arranged the words to be a complete statement of Christian doctrine. His source material was the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer. He wanted to showcase Old Testament prophecies right through to Jesus the Messiah’s birth, death, and resurrection.
The libretto was written and sent to his friend G. F. Handel in hopes that he would write an Easter oratorio. Jennens’ intent was that this would be a performance piece for theater goers, knowing that a church setting would preclude many in his target audience.
“I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject,” Jennens wrote in a letter to a friend.
Handel, for his part, composed the music in approximately 24 days. At first, this seems like an incredibly short time, but taken in context, Handel was very prolific, and composed many of his works in similar time-frames. He persevered through-out his life to produce some of the richest and best loved music of all time. This was his life’s work, and he was diligent in dedicating himself to his talents. This was one of Handel’s works written in English, and as a religious piece, written without the stage props or drama of an opera. These biblical oratorios were constructed to be propelled by the chorus, rather than principal actors.
Handel was invited to Ireland to stage some of his works in a new venue — the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street. Having recently finished the Messiah composition, he took it with him. After initial success in Dublin with his known works, and with that concert series just finished, he proposed to stage the Messiah’s first performance just six days later.
After an open dress rehearsal on April 12th, the eagerness to hear the new piece was extreme. The advertisements requested that ladies attending the opening performance (April 13th) to please not wear skirts with hoops, and the gentlemen to come without their swords so that the maximum number of attendees could fit within the hall. With a capacity of 600, another 100 were squeezed into the hall to hear the premier performance, which was enthusiastically received!
The Dublin Journal printed: “the best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded [sic] Audience. 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 open rehearsal that caused all the buzz had been a benefit concert, and the proceeds were donated to debtor’s prison and a hospital in Dublin. Throughout his life, he continued to donate generously to orphans’ homes, hospitals and retired musicians.
At the dedication of an organ at Foundling Hospital, London, in May of 1750, Handel staged the Messiah and continued to do so every year thereafter. Indeed, he became governor of the hospital and showed a continued interest in the children and their welfare. He personally presented a full score of the Messiah to the hospital. The musical services (at first only sung by the blind children) became very popular as a result of his beneficence.
A definitive original score of Messiah does not exist because Handel re-arranged and re-wrote according to his soloists and instrumentation available at each venue. Even though blind by the end of his life, he would perform concertos and voluntaries on the organ between the parts of his oratorios, relying on his memory and solid ability to improvise. He continued, though blind, to take an active role in the arrangements for the performances of all his works until his death in 1759.
After his death, the Messiah was re-worked and re-staged; the instrumentation becoming more complex and the choirs boasting more and more voices. Mozart is one of the famous composers to have re-orchestrated Messiah in 1789. However, it is reported that Mozart felt humbled by Handel’s genius, and admitted that his rewriting could not improve the music.
“Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect. –When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”
In our time, there is a return to performing the music as Handel heard it with an emphasis on period instruments and/or smaller choirs and orchestras. The oldest existing advertisement of one of his performances at Foundling Hospital in 1754 lists the instruments in the orchestra (fifteen violins, five violas, three cellos, two double-basses, four bassoons, four oboes, two trumpets, two horns and drums), the number in the chorus (nineteen: six trebles, the remainder all men altos, tenors, basses), and five soloists who were required to assist the chorus.
He was held in high esteem by his contemporaries. Ludwig van Beethoven said of him:
“He is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.”
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Baroquemusic.org. (n.d.). George Frideric Handel. Retrieved from Baroque Composers and Musicians: http://www.baroquemusic.org/bqxhandel.html
History.com. (n.d.). Handel’s Messiah premiers in Dublin. Retrieved from This Day in History: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/handels-messiah-premieres-in-dublin
Kandell, J. (2009, December). The glorious history of Handel’s Messiah. Retrieved from Smithsonian.com: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-glorious-history-of-handels-messiah-148168540/?all
Vickers, D. (2015, April 10). The story behind the triumphant premiere of Handel’s Messiah. Retrieved from Gramophone: http://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/the-story-behind-the-triumphant-premiere-of-handels-messiah
Wikipedia.org. (n.d.). Foundling Hospital. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundling_Hospital
Wikipedia.org. (n.d.). Messiah (Handel). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messiah_%28Handel%29