Messiah (HWV 56) Composed by George Frideric Handel
Handel's most famous and most often performed work is the oratorio Messiah, composed in 1741 and first performed in Dublin in 1742. Many individual numbers within the work have become independently familiar.
As it comes to us in the twenty-first century, Messiah is unusual in several respects. Its text suggest that it is a sacred work, but it has enjoyed a substantial life as concert fare. A north German in the service of the British crown, Handel's oratorios were symbols of the (protestant) Church of England and its stature in British society. Dublin, which we know today as the capital of Eire (Ireland), was heavily dominated in Handel's time by English gentlemen.
1 The First Messiah
Although Handel had imagined when he composed the work in the summer of 1741 that Messiah would be performed in London. An invited stay in Dublin began in November led to a series of subscription concerts that were wildly successful. In consequence a second series was launched on February 17, 1742. Starting with a performance of Alexander's Feast, the new series continued on Wednesdays through April 7, when the featured work was a revised version of Esther.
Messiah's first performance was an open rehearsal of Messiah that took place the day after the second series finished. Its official premiere the following Tuesday (April 13, at noon) was an anticlimax, and the open rehearsal caused Messiah to be declared "the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard." The premiere simply confirmed this lofty evaluation.
Messiah had come into being at the request of Dublin's Charitable Infirmary to compose a work to encourage contributions to the "Dublin sick." At the time hospitals were used more to separate the sick from the rest of society than to treat their maladies. When Messiah had its final Dublin performance, on June 3, there were some changes of cast and organ concertos were performed with it. Other concerts filled the intervening weeks. Among them were a benefit for the Dublin music publishers William and Bartholomew Mainwaring, and Handel's oratorio Saul. Its Dead March became an instant favorite.
1.1 Architecture of Messiah
It was structured in three parts: (1) music narrating highpoints from the prophecy of Isaiah to the early life of Jesus; (2) his death and resurrection; and (3) the sins and judgment of mankind. Each of these can be parsed into several scenes.
The best-known and most widely performed numbers come from particular passages: the first, fourth, and fifth scenes of Part One (the tenor aria "Every valley shall be exalted" from the first; the Pifa (pastoral symphony) introducing the angel and shepherds in the fourth; and the duet "He shall feed his flock" in the fifth, with its sequel and final chorus, "His yoke is easy."
Highlights of Part Two (seven scenes) include the alto aria "He was despised" (Sc. 1), the soprano aria "How beautiful are the feet" (Sc. 5), the bass aria "Why do the heathens so furiously rage together" (Sc. 6), the the "Hallelujah Chorus" (Sc. 7), which concludes the section.
Part Three (four scenes) opens with the soprano aria "I know that my Redeemer liveth." The bass aria "The trumpet shall sound," which prophecies Judgment Day, occurs in Sc. 2. Inevitably the work concludes with a chorus, "Worthy is the lamb."
1.2 Performance History
It had one persistent detractor: Charles Jennens, its librettist.
2 The Messiah Phenomenon
Because of the immediate popularity of individual choral and vocal numbers in Messiah, the work was rapidly circulated and adapted to varying circumstances. The rise of choral societies in the third quarter of the century had a symbiotic relationship with Handel's masterpiece. The more the work was performed, the greater the number of groups performing it. Inevitably, each new venue created its own opportunities and limitations. Soloists and sometimes keys of particular pieces could be altered. Orchestration accommodated the resources available. On the whole, the size both increased.
These trends continued in the nineteenth century such that by the time of the Crystal Palace Exposition (in London in xx) the proportions reached what seems to have been their maximum extent: xx.
Two of the most durable milestones of eighteenth-century dissemination were the Foundling Hospital parts (xx) and the Samuel Arnold edition (178xx).
2.1 The Foundling Hospital Parts
London's Foundling Hospital, established on Bloomsbury Fields in 1739, mirrored in its aims the well established institutions for orphans in Italy and France. The famous of these was the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where all the orphans were female and where a select group reached the stature of musical professionals under the tuition of such maestri as Antonio Vivaldi.
Such institutions fostered strong musical allegiances because the noble families who supported them believed that music bettered the soul. They 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 fell became the possession of the institution. Today the park known as "Coram's Fields" marks the spot where the original Hospital stood.
2.2 The Arnold Edition
3 Score and Parts
- Full Score, 280 pages.
- Continuo part (2003 version), with figured harmony based on the Samuel Arnold Edition of 1790, 101 pages.
- Expanded Continuo part (2003 version), with figured harmony based on the Samuel Arnold Edition of 1790, 197 pages. Included continuo part plus treble staff with melodies and primary voices.