24 Nov, 2007

(Acknowledgements: I consulted a number of sources in preparing this talk, but for the bulk of my material I am indebted to two studies: Robert Manson Myers, Handel's Messiah: a touchstone of taste (New York: Octagon Books, 1971), and Christopher Hogwood, Handel (London: Thames & Hudson, 1984). Any mistakes are no doubt my own. D.G.)

Like many keen choral singers, I've sung Handel's 'sacred oratorio' Messiah more often than any other major choral work - upwards of 30 times in my own case - but it was only in doing a bit of research for this talk that I've come to realise what a very curious phenomenon in British musical history Messiah is. It is, as we all know, the only major work by Handel that a large part of the great British public would be able to name if asked, and, paradoxically, it is the work which has established this German composer's reputation as one of the greatest of English composers. And there's another curious fact - this piece which seems now so established as an English masterpiece first saw the light of day not in England but in Dublin. This fact is worth mentioning at the outset as the version of Messiah in this performance is based largely on Handel's first thoughts as performed on that first occasion in Dublin, rather than following the sometimes more familiar revisions which the composer made for subsequent performances. So it contains some familiar numbers in a less familiar version, as well as the occasional item which may itself be quite unfamiliar. Certainly I discovered in our rehearsals this autumn a section for choir to the words 'Break forth into joy' which follows on from a short but delightful duet version of 'How beautiful are the feet' and which I'd never sung before in my life. However, to return to Dublin, it was there that the title Messiah appeared in print for the very first time, when the first performance was announced as follows on 27 March 1742:

For relief of the prisoners in the several gaols, and for the support of the Mercer's Hospital in Stephen's street, and of the charitable infirmary on the Inn's Quay, on Monday the 12th of April will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble street, Mr Handel's new Grand Oratorio, called the Messiah, in which the Gentlemen of both cathedrals will assist, with some concertos on the Organ, by Mr Handell. Tickets to be had at the Musick hall, and at Mr Neal's in Christ Churchyard, at half a guinea each.

The two cathedrals referred to are of course Christ Church cathedral and St Patrick's cathedral, although permission for the choir of St Patrick's to participate in this performance was only obtained with difficulty from the Dean there, Jonathan Swift, whose mental condition was by now seriously deranged. Later advertisements for this first performance of Messiah requested as a favour that "the ladies who honour this performance with their presence would be pleased to come without hoops, as it will greatly increase the charity, by making room for more company". (The high fashion of the day required hooped skirts, sometimes extending to several yards wide.) To even the score, the gentlemen were requested to leave their swords at home.

But how had this work, and this performance in Dublin, come about? It emerged, in fact, from a very low point in Handel's career. For 30 years Handel had made his name as a composer of Italian opera, sung mostly by Italians in Italian and aimed chiefly at an aristocratic audience. But through the 1730s, despite the support given to Handel by members of the Royal family and other noble patrons, these upper-class audiences deserted Handel in favour of his rivals, and his opera house played to thin audiences. Moreover, the rising middle-class were flocking to more popular entertainments such as John Gay's Beggar's Opera, sung entirely in English by English singers, which they clearly preferred. Handel tried to meet this shifting public demand by reviving a masque in English which he had written earlier for private performance, based on a Racine play, and which he now expanded under the title Esther, to be staged at the Haymarket theatre in 1732. But the deeply 'conservative Bishop of London, Dr Edmund Gibson, promptly forbade the acting out of any drama on a sacred topic in such a profane environment as a theatre, and so Handel opted diplomatically for a non-staged performance. So we find that there was a double shift in what Handel was doing - a shift in language, from Italian to English for the text, and a shift in form, from opera to oratorio. In 1730s Britain, however, oratorio was a quite new form of musical event, although it had been well established elsewhere in Europe for quite some time. The word 'oratorio' first entered the English language in 1728, according to my OED, and it derives from the chapel or 'oratory' of St Philip Neri in Rome where it originated around 1600 as a kind of mystery play set to music designed to attract the pious laity into church. Subsequently, however, Italian oratorios were by no means limited to religious subjects. The specifically sacred oratorio had flourished thereafter in Germany - Heinrich Schutz, for instance, wrote a Christmas Oratorio in 1664, 70 years before Bach's, but this musical form was still virtually unknown in Britain before about 1730. It did catch on here, though: as Horace Walpole declared in 1743, somewhat backhandedly, I think: 'The oratorios thrive abundantly: for my part, they give me an idea of heaven, where everybody is to sing, whether they have voices or not.'

Between 1732 and 1741 Handel continued to try his luck with opera, but he also wrote four further oratorios: Deborah, Athaliah, Saul, and Israel in Egypt. They had declining success, however, even Israel in Egypt making little impact on the public, hard though that is to believe, given that it's such a powerful and vivid work. Consequently, Handel slid deeply into debt, and by 1737 he was both bankrupt and suffering significant ill-health. In 1740 malicious rumours even circulated that he had given up work and returned penniless to Germany. At this low point, two things happened. The first impetus came from Charles Jennens, a millionaire impresario and versifier who had for some years supplied Handel with libretti he (Jennens) had devised himself (not all of top quality). This time Jennens urged upon the composer the task of setting to music an assemblage which he had made of texts culled from Scripture, which would become the libretto for Messiah . Thankfully for Handel and for his masterpiece, Jennens' textual collage contained no text whatsoever of Jennens' own invention, but was all lifted direct from Scripture or liturgy. What clinched matters for Handel, however, was that Jennens' proposal for a libretto happened to coincide with a second and quite different opportunity: an invitation reached him from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to organise a series of concerts in Dublin in aid of local charities. This offered the composer the possibility of immediate performance and sponsorship of his work, and a chance to cultivate a new audience outside London. So Handel planned a series of 'entertainments', to include his most recent secular successes such as Acis and Galatea and the Ode for St Cecilia's day, and to add a new sacred work which Jennens' libretto gave him the opportunity to compose. He began work on Messiah on 22 August 1741, completed Part I by the 28th, Part 2 by 6 Sept and part 3 by the following Saturday 12 Sept. Two more days were spent in filling in the inner parts - 24 days in all, from start to finish.

As Christopher Hogwood has pointed out, it is difficult for us to realise what an offbeat venture Messiah was. It's the only Handel oratorio performed during his lifetime in a sacred building, and indeed in a sense the only truly 'sacred' oratorio Handel ever wrote - the others were essentially dramatic works based on versions of Biblical stories. Messiah, unusually for Handel, is scarcely dramatic in that sense at all. The only section of narrative to be found in it is perhaps the episode of the appearance of the angels to the shepherds - elsewhere, the texts, spanning the Old Testament, the Gospel story, the epistles of Paul and the book of Revelation, constitute a reflection and commentary on events rather than a re-enactment of them, and the text, instead of dramatising the life of Christ, moves from prophesy to fulfilment, and from the First Coming to the Second. One effect of this non-dramatic aspect is that there is much less recitative than in Handel's other comparable works, as it is recitative which usually carried the burden of narrative.

In a composition apparently completed in so extraordinarily short a period, you might have expected that the composer, following common practice of the time, would save himself some effort by recycling substantial material from other works he had in his drawer or even from other people's compositions. But in Messiah there are surprisingly few examples of this. As far as borrowings from elsewhere are concerned, the Pastoral Symphony in Part 1 is based on a bagpipe theme played at Christmastide by the 'pifferati' of Naples and Rome, a debt he acknowledged by putting the word 'Pifa' at the beginning of the movement. And the fugal theme of 'And with his stripes', with its striking four-note motif, was pretty much common property for improvisers and composers - it was used by Bach at around this same period for the A minor fugue in book 2 of the 48 Preludes and Fugues, and would be picked up again by Mozart in the Kyrie of his Requiem. The most significant borrowings to be found in Messiah are however from Handel's own music, and notably from a set of often quite florid Italian love-duets which he had recently completed. From these he drew material for five of the choruses: 'But thanks be to God', 'His yoke is easy', 'And he shall purify', 'For unto us a son is born', and 'All we like sheep'. It's no coincidence that these are among the choruses which choirs find most difficult in Messiah because of the virtuoso runs he give to the singers, runs which in their original love-duet context were intended for expert professional soloists. Consequently these choruses have a lightness of touch, with voices answering each other, which contrasts with the more monolithic and grandiose style Handel uses for other choruses which he composed from scratch - 'Surely', say, or 'Since by man came death', or most obviously 'Hallelujah' or 'Worthy is the lamb'. Handel is of course very expert in re-shaping this musical material as he transposes it from a love-duet into a choral form, but this shift does nevertheless produce on occasion an odd displacement of emphasis in the word-stress: for example, 'For unto us a son is born', seems odd until you go back to words of the original love- duet: 'No, di voi non vo' fidarmi' (roughly: 'No, I'll never trust you again'). Similarly, hard-pressed choir-members have often wondered why Handel, in 'His yoke is easy', perversely sets the word 'easy' to a run which is very difficult to execute neatly. The original Italian text was 'Quel fior che all alba ride': 'the blossom which in the light of dawn is laughing'. The same applies to 'And he shall purify', where the word 'purify' inexplicably (in the context of Messiah) engenders yet more challenging runs for the choristers. The music to which these words are set is taken from this same duet about spring. As one rather severe commentator (Myers) puts it, 'In Handel's original music the riot of semiquavers on the word 'primavera' (spring) is highly commendable, but in Messiah the same brisk ornamentation seems scarcely adapted to the triumphs of Levitical purification.' Other slight problems of word-setting arise from the fact that the German immigrant Handel never, it seems, fully mastered English intonation and stress-patterns - you have oddities such as setting the word 'surely' as three syllables. In 'The Trumpet shall sound', for instance, Handel's underlay at one point throws stress onto the fourth syllable of 'incorruptible' and so editors have had to rearrange the layout of words there. In other cases we have all simply got used to the occasional strange emphasis: 'He shall feed his flock', or most famously 'He was despised'.

I've been talking about the choruses and the difficulties they present, and so it is comforting to learn that even the experienced cathedral singers of Handel's time could have problems confronting his scores for the first time. I can't resist relaying an anecdote told by Handel's contemporary, the musicologist Dr Charles Burney. Handel, on his way to Dublin to organise his concerts, was delayed in Chester for several days, waiting for the wind to change before embarking for Ireland. He had with him some hastily written out part-books for Messiah . I'll let Burney take up the story:

During this time, Handel applied to Mr Edmund Baker, the organist at Chester, to know whether there were any choirmen in the cathedral who could sing at sight, as he wished to prove some books that had been hastily transcribed, by trying the choruses which he intended to perform in Ireland. Mr Baker mentioned some of the most likely singers then in Chester, and, among the rest, a printer of the name of Janson, who had a good bass voice, and was one of the best musicians in the choir. A time was fixed for this private rehearsal at the Golden Falcon, where Handel was quartered; but alas! on trial of the chorus in the Messiah 'And with his stripes we are healed', poor Janson, after repeated attempts, failed so egregiously, that Handel let loose his great bear upon him; and after swearing in four or five languages, cried out in broken English: "You shcauntrel! Tit not you dell me dat you could sing at soite?" - "Yes, sir, says the printer, and so I can; but not at first sight.

So what was Handel's chorus characteristically like? You'll recall that in Dublin the choir was drawn from the two cathedrals - so they were professionals, and only men and boys, since women did not sing in choirs at that period, although of course female soloists were used. How big were the forces Handel used? We get a fairly clear indication of this from a record of payments made to the participants in a London performance of the work in 1759, where there were 35 instrumentalists and a choir of just 23 singers. Small choirs were the norm. By contrast, at a commemorative concert held in Westminster Abbey in 1784 to celebrate the centenary of Handel's birth there were no less than 513 performers. (Though they got the date wrong - Handel was born in 1685, so the centenary celebration in 1784 was a year early.) For more run-of-the-mill performances, however, large choirs did not become the fashion until the Victorian period.

The fame of Messiah took time to establish itself and to spread abroad. Its first performances in London were pretty much a failure, partly because of continuing ecclesiastical disapproval of performing sacred works in theatres, but it was very successfully revived in 1750 for the benefit of the Foundlings' Hospital, a popular charity, and was performed annually for some years thereafter. When Handel went completely blind he gave up directing the performances himself, but continued playing the organ concertos which habitually accompanied them. Mozart adapted the work for Viennese audiences, Beethoven revered Handel throughout his life. It was in the Victorian period that performing Messiah passed definitively, in the British consciousness, from being an entertainment (as it had quite normally been billed in the 1740s) to being something like a communal religious and even patriotic ritual. Interestingly, Messiah was performed in Boston Mass. in 1818 but not performed in Paris until 1873. By this time, the Crystal Palace in London was housing performances with mammoth forces, culminating in 1883 with an orchestra of 500 and a choir of 4000. That year's performances there were attended by over 87,000 people. The wheel has since come full circle, with an emphasis on 'authentic' performance with a small contingent of participants. Perhaps our forces represent a happy medium between these extremes? - although we might still stand condemned by George Bernard Shaw's dictum that it should be 'a capital offence to perform a Handel oratorio with more than eighty performers'. At all events, whatever one's views on that subject, let us hope that listeners feel once more something of the same thrill as was experienced by Handel's first biographer, the Rev. John Mainwaring, who praised the 'sublime strokes' of Handel's choruses, and especially the final three choruses culminating in the Amen where (he says) 'the ear is filled with such a glow of harmony as leaves the mind in a kind of heavenly ecstasy'.