Messiah (HWV 56)
Composed by George Frideric Handel
Handel's famous oratorio Messiah comes down to us as the best known and most widely performed of his compositions. Its fame rests on many factors including its gestation under favorable social circumstances then and its versatility and easy availability now. Overriding these extraneous factors is the virtue of the music itself: majestic and contrite by turns, carefully balanced throughout, and within the capabilities of diligent amateurs. This website provides copious performing materials for Messiah together with substantial background and editorial information.
Handel's Messiah has always been suspended between the sacred and secular spheres. The title Messiah, used for its first performances in Dublin, suggests a sacred work, although it was initially performed as a concert piece. It was simply called a Sacred Oratorio in the libretto for its London premiere (1743), but objections were consequently raised to its performance in the theater. Not until performances began in the chapel of London's Foundling Hospital (1750) was the ambiguous nature of the work matched by a similar ambiguity of performing space. Eighteenth-century classicism appropriated for the secular world much material from Biblical studies. Messiah's chameleon ability to transcend social and cultural boundaries, which continues to expand up to the present day, was an important instance of this phenomenon.
All of Handel's oratorios reflected to one degree or another his cultural immersion in an Anglo-Protestant society. When Messiah was first performed Dublin, the city had a substantial Anglo-Irish nobility and maintained strong cultural ties to London. Messiah can be differentiated from most earlier oratorios by Handel in the degree to which the ideas of Charles Jennens, Handel's collaborator, drove the work. In fact it was initially regarded as "Jennens's' Messiah," because it is Jennens's theological views that it projects. (Jennens had recently provided texts for his oratorio Saul and the serenata L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato.)
2.1 The Choruses of Messiah
1.4 And the glory of the Lord
1.7 And He shall purify
1.10 O Thou that tellest
1.13 For unto us a child is born
1.19 Glory to God in the highest
1.23 His yoke is easy
2.3 Surely, surely; And with his stripes
2.4 All we like sheep
2.6 He trusted in God
2.11 Lift up your heads
2.13 Let all the angels of God worship Him
2.16* Their sound is gone out
2.18 Let us break their bonds
The movement we term 2.16* in our edition is known to have existed in five versions, and the chorus indicated here first occurs as a separate one in 1745. The segmentation of the text and the portions assigned to soloist and chorus vary from case to case, both before and after 1745. (Details are given in the downloadable list of versions from Handel's lifetime.) Oboes are also called for in this later accretion. The "Halleluia" chorus includes parts for trumpets and timpani.
3.2 Since by man came death (with soloists)
3.7 But thanks be to God
3.9 Worthy is the Lamb
Trumpets and timpani are required in the final chorus and concluding "Amen."
2.2 The "Halleluia" Chorus
Messiah is especially noted for its choruses. The most famous one is the "Halleluia" chorus that ends Part Two. The choruses are noted for their imitative vocal entries, which contribute to cascades of contrapuntal complexity as various groups of instruments highlight particular passages or counter vocal entries with musically complementary passages.
2.3 Notable Arias
Unlike most oratorios, Messiah does not contain assigned roles. Yet Handel personifies beings that are influential in propelling his text forward in his use of arias. While working through a long parade of momentarily important characters, he takes great care to rotate from one voice to another. In Part One, the tenor leads off with "Ev'ry valley shall be exalted." Bass recitatives and arias are used for narration ("Thus saith the Lord"..."But who may abide" in Part One). The Annunciation (announcement of Jesus' forthcoming birth) falls to an alto ("Behold a virgin shall conceive"..."O Thou that tellest"). The soprano is reserved in Part One to recount the appearance of the angel to the shepherds ("There were shepherds in the fields"..."And lo the angel of the Lord").
The large number of choruses in Part Two reduces the role of arias. Handel seems to have great difficulty deciding on voice assignments in this section. Only the tenor contributions to the Crucifixion narrative and the closing portions of the section are unvarying across all early versions. Part Three is much briefer than the other two and contains only two arias—"The trumpet shall sound" (bass) and "If God is for us" (soprano). Duets also occur in Parts One and Three.
2.4 Tonal Features and Instrumental Constraints
Harmonic structures of the kind used in the nineteenth century did not predominate in Handel's lifetime. In a work as richly orchestrated as Messiah, a central reason for this was the tonal limitation of some brass and woodwind instruments. Brasses usually played in only one key, and in Messiah every piece involving trumpets is in the key of D Major. Oboes had fewer keys then than they do now. Scoring for them favored minor keys involving one or more flats.
For Handel's time, notions of key symbolism are somewhat anachronistic. Yet a few key associations seem to indicate Handel's efforts to color the most important elements—God's overarching power (D Major), the gentleness of Jesus, the "Lamb of God" (Bb Major), and the sorrows of his earthly existence and of His mourners (F, G, and C Minor)—of the story in uniform ways.
3 Performance and Reception History
Our knowledge of the performance history of Messiah between the completion of the composition in September 1741 and Handel’s death in April 1759 is rich and constantly changing. When he composed Messiah, Handel expected it to be performed in London, but in November 1741 he was invited to Dublin for the purpose of offering a subscription series of concerts. This first series was such a success that a second series was launched on February 17, 1742. An open rehearsal of the oratorio took place On April 8. It was a bonus to reward subscribers' loyalty. Messiah was immediately declared "the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard."
The first official public performance (starting at noon on April 13, 1742) and the final Dublin performance (June 3, 1742) both took place in Neal's [the New] Music Hall on Fishamble St. To its first audience in Dublin Messiah was a resounding success in part because it achieved a great charitable goal: poor debtors were released from prison in proportion to its financial success. (The composer and two singers of the original cohort donated their share of the proceeds to this cause.) The June 3 concert involved some cast changes, and organ concertos were performed with it.
Nine performances in Dublin can be dated between the premiere on April 13, 1742, and an Advent performance on December 16, 1756. All of them seem to have met with the “universal applause” merited by the subject, the setting, and the qualities of the performances. All were benefits, but not all targeted the same beneficiaries. Among the latter were the Dublin music publishers William and Bartholomew Mainwaring and the Charitable Infirmary.
One Dublin performance took place on February 1, 1744. After that Messiah became an Advent work in Dublin, even though in London it became firmly attached to the spring. G. B. Marella was the Dublin conductor in the 1750s. Attendees traveled tens of miles to witness a performance, year in and year out.
3.1 London Performances: Covent Garden
Messiah's most persistent detractor was Charles Jennens, its librettist. Handel’s original setting was weak and unsatisfactory, according to Jennens. He pressed the composer many times to remedy what Jennens perceived as its perceived defects. In January 1743 Jennens wrote to his friend Edward Holdsworth,
Six weeks later he wrote further on the subject,
Covent Garden was, of course, an opera house. Protestant England was more lax about opera performances during Lent than were Catholic countries, but oratorios offered a convenient compromise by way of the genre’s ambiguity. Musically, both consisted primarily of an opening sinfonia, arias, and recitatives. In Handel’s case, the differences between opera and oratorio were spelled out by their texts and the portions of it that were strongly emphasized musically. Handel also provided many choruses, which would have been fewer in opera. Jennens had had a strong desire to promote his singular idea of “kingship” in the musical realization of Messiah, and in this regard Handel did not fail him: the “king of kings” theme is put in high relief in the "Halleluia" Chorus, which has always been Messiah’s most highly prized element.
3.2 London Performances: The Foundling Hospital
Such institutions fostered strong musical allegiances because the noble families who supported them believed that music bettered the soul. They particularly cherished music made well by children. The Foundling Hospital's benefactors include such noted painters as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and Handel himself. The composer provided an organ and gave benefit performances at the Hospital. At his death, a valuable set of performance parts became the possession of the institution. Today the park known as "Coram's Fields" marks the spot where the original Hospital stood.
Excerpts from Messiah were performed at the Foundling Hospital in May 1749, but the first full performance in its chapel took place a year later. Messiah's annual performance became the main fundraising vehicle for the institution, and the Foundling Hospital concerts were the most celebrated of all Messiah performances given during Handel’s lifetime. The nine documented complete concerts given up to 1759 all enjoyed his direct participation at the organ, for Handel continued to provide an organ concerto even after he was beset by blindness in 1752. The concerts were usually associated with the feast of Ascension (forty days after Easter). John Christopher Smith conducted from 1754 onward.
3.3 Oxford and Cambridge Performances
3.4 Performances after Handel's Death
Performances of Messiah remained popular in England throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At Covent Garden, Smith and John Stanley continued the oratorio series through the mid 1770s, when the concerts moved to Drury Lane Theater. In 1784 a commemorative performance of gigantic proportions was intended to mark the centenary of Handel's birth (erroneously believed to have taken place one year earlier than it had). More than 500 performers were involved in the Westminster Abbey performance. The audience numbered roughly 4,000. We note from the report in London's Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser on May 27 that the work's meaning had acquired a new patriotic overlay. It was reported that
|His is the muse for the English character. He writes to the masculine genius of a free people, and it was only by such an execution that the true majesty of his composition could be demonstrated. It has been attributed to music that enervates the mind....If any thing can arouse the faculties and coagitate the masculine passions of the soul, it is the music of Handel, performed by such a band as are now engaged in his commemoration.|
Messiah eventually attracted a great following in Germany and Austria. Christoph Daniel Ebeling translated Jennens's text into German in c 1782. W. A. Mozart arranged the work for performance at one of Gottfried Baron von Swieten's concerts in Vienna, in 1788. Carl Maria von Weber included Part Three of Messiah in a concert he conducted in Dresden in 1824. Felix Mendelssohn was greatly devoted to Handel's oratorios and conducted the full oratorio at least once in Düsseldorf between 1833 and 1835.
4 Messiah in Monumental Editions
4.1 The Arnold Edition of Handel's Works
His edition of Messiah appeared in 1790. It contains much richer figuration of the basso continuo than earlier manuscript versions. This is likely to reflect the reduced training that accompanists were receiving in the “realization” of the sketch of an accompaniment that a continuo player was expected to provide. A more detailed prescription was required. The skills that he brought to the task from long experience as a harpsichordist at Covent Garden suggest that his figuration represented the highest standards of the time.
4.2 The Händel-Gesellschaft (HG) Edition
In 1858 work was begun on the more extensively “complete” works that were produced by the Händel-Gesellschaft (Georg Friedrich Händels Werke) under the direction of Friedrich Chrysander. By its completion in 1902 it contained 94 volumes (several in two tomes) and five supplements. [Chrysander also edited all the published works of Arcangelo Corelli (now available in PDFs with associated MIDI files at http://corelli.ccarh.org), Bach’s keyboard works, and Palestrina’s motets.]
4.3 The Hallische Händel Ausgabe (HHA)
The current effort to publish all known music by Handel resides with the edition managed in Halle, Germany. It was initiated in 1952 with the intention of supplementing HG, but discoveries continue to be made, and in 1958 it was launched as a new edition. New editions are organized (mainly by musical genre) into series. Particulars can be found at the edition's website (http://www.haendelgesellschaft.haendelhaus.de/de/hall._haendelausgabe/). The edition is distinguished from others by the abbreviation HHA. For work citations in general HWV (Händel-Werke-Verzeichnis) indications are now preferred.
5 The MuseData Edition of Messiah
5.1 Identifiable Versions (1741-1761)
Over time the differences from one version to another can be said most often to reflect changes in voicing or orchestration. A few pieces became shorter with revision. There was a slight increase in the use of choral material, although the choruses were by far the most stable elements of the work. There is no formula by which these tendencies can be broadly applied. Messiah's continuous state of evolution leaves many open questions for today's performers.
1 Handel's autograph manuscript (1741)
2 Libretto for first public version (Dublin 1742)
3 Covent Garden libretto for first English version (1743)
4 Covent Garden libretto (1745)
5 Covent Garden libretto (1749)
6 Covent Garden libretto (1750)
7 Foundling Hospital performances (1754-59), parts (1759)
8 Handel's conducting score (c. 1758)
9 Manuscript of John Mathews (chorister) (1761)
5.2 Principal Manuscript Sources
|Place: Library||Shelfmark||Date(s)||Copyist(s); Notes|
|1: London: British Library (GB-Lbl)||R.M.20.f.2||1741||Autograph Score by G. F. Handel|
|2: Oxford: Bodleian Library (GB-Ob)||Tenbury MSS 346-7||1742, 1743, 1745, 1750||Single score, multiple versions|
|3: London: Foundling Hospital (GB-Lfm)||Gerald Coke Collection||1759||Parts|
|4: Hamburg: University Library (D-Hu)||MA/1030||1758-1760||Conducting score|
|5: Dublin: March Library (IRL-Dm)||Z.i.2.26||1761||MS of James Matthews (chorister)|
5.3 Performance Issues
Overall usage clearly varied from place to place. Oboes, horns, and kettledrums (timpani) were all used at the Foundling Hospital performance of the 1750s. Two oboes and one bassoon, with horns, trumpets, and drums in unspecified numbers, played with a string orchestra of 24 at Salisbury Cathedral in 1752. A Foundling Hospital performance in 1754 involved four oboes, four bassoons, two trumpets, two horns, a pair of kettledrums, and a string section of 24. The Matthews manuscript also provides clear evidence of the use of oboes.
Variations in content are largely confined to a few numbers in each section of the oratorio. Some were changed over and over. Full details correlating MuseData content with specific versions can be downloaded in Table A (above).
5.4 Listening Materials
The earliest collective use of the the variant material included in the MuseData score and parts was by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (directed by Nicholas McGegan) with the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus (led by Bruce Lamott). Harmonia Mundi recorded a "main version" and most variants in 1991 (HMU 907050.52). The CD-user could, by following a trail through the bands of the CD set, program any of the versions that have survived from Handel’s lifetime (or shortly thereafter). More recently, these materials have been made available online through multiple vendors, e.g. amazon and iTunes. Many other recordings of the work exist, but these are the only cases we know of that make MuseData alternative versions available for comparison.
6 Downloadable Scores and Parts
- Full Score (2003 version), 280 pages.
- Choral score (1990 version). Movements with vocal parts, plus first violin and basso continuo parts.
- Full Score (1990 version), 404 pages.
- Peter Gay's phrase "pagan Christianity" (1966: Vol. 1).
- The trumpet was a transposing instrument..
- In those days the infirmary focused on separating the sick from the well, rather than on treating the sick.
- The error was based on a failure to reconcile Julian dates falling between January 1 and March 25 with with the Gregorian calendar, which was adopted in England 1752. Handel was born on February 23, 1685, and arrived in England in 1711.
- Handel Reference Database, p. 1261.
Baselt, Bernd. Dokumente zu Leben und Schaffen, v. 4 of the Händel-Handbuch Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1985 being a revised and expanded version of Deutsch's Documentary Biography, cited below].
Beeks, Graydon. "Messiah Anniversary," Newsletter of the American Handel Society, (August 1991), pp. 1-5.
British Library: Autograph Manuscript (R.M.20.f.2) of Handel’s Messiah (as a “virtual book”).
Burrows, Donald. "Handel and the Foundling Hospital," Music & Letters 58/3 (July 1985), 201-219.
Burrows, Donald. “'Mr. Harris's score': A new look at the 'Mathews' manuscript of Handel's Messiah,” Music & Letters 86/4 (Nov. 2005), 560-572.
Burrows, Donald. “The autographs and early copies of Messiah: Some further thoughts, Music & Letters, 66/3, (1985), 201-19.
Burrows, Donald (ed). The Cambridge companion to Handel. New York, 1997.
Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A documentary Biography." New York, 1995.
Larsen, Jens Peter. Handel’s Messiah. New York, 1972.
McGegan, Nicholas. "Which Messiah?," Musical Times, 133 (1797), 577-579.
Marx, Hans Joachim. “Die 'Hamburger' Direktionspartitur von Händels Messiah“ (“The Hamburg Conducting Score of Handel’s Messiah“), Festschrift Klaus Hortschansky zum 60. Geburtstag [Festschrift for Klaus Hortschansky on his 60th birthday]. Tutzing: Hans Schneider, 1995, pp. 131-138. ISBN: 3-7952-0822-X.
Myers, Robert Manson, "Fifth sermons on Handel's Messiah," Harvard Theological Review 39 (1946), 217-241.
Shaw, Watkins. “Handel's Messiah: Supplementary notes on sources,” Music & Letters 76/3 (August 1995), 356-368.
Smith, Ruth. Handel's Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought. Cambridge, 1995.
Smith, Ruth. "The Achievements of Charles Jennens (1700-1773)," Music & Letters 79/1 (Feb. 1998), 50-71.
Weber, William. "The 1784 Handel Commemoration as Political Ritual," Journal of British Studies 28/1 (Jan. 1989), 43-69.
The complete Händel-Gesellschaft edition is available in PDF format from the Munich Digitization Center’s website: Messiah, 1902.
Published on December 21, 2011 by the Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities at Stanford University. Comments may be sent to esfield ||at|| stanford.edu.