"A Sacred Oratorio"
Composed: London 1741—2 · First Performed: Dublin 1742
The establishment of Messiah as a venerated English institution for Christmas and Choral Societies has a long and complicated history. A few excerpts are familiar to almost everybody, unlike any other work by its prolific and misunderstood composer. Messiah remains Handel's best known work, although this was not a status that it enjoyed until the last few years of his life, brought about by annual performances in Handel's oratorio seasons and charitable benefit concerts at the Foundling Hospital (an organisation for underprivileged children, and which still exists today as The Thomas Coram Foundation). It was not originally envisaged as a Christmas tradition, but its microcosm of Christian doctrine and faith was intended as a timely thought-provoker for Lent and Easter.
The popularity of the work grew through events such as the Handel Centenary Commemoration (Westminster Abbey, 1784) and huge-scale Victorian epics typified by thousands of performers crammed into the Crystal Palace. All such events progressively strayed further from Handel's musical world, attempting to make choirs and orchestras ridiculously large, often with 'new' parts created for extra instruments. However, ill advised 'improvements' grew to such an extent that by the 19th century editors and conductors had distorted Messiah beyond its Handelian origin. It is such misunderstanding that led Berlioz to describe Handel's music as "a barrel of roast pork and beer" - the French innovator of romanticised orchestration obviously failed to recognise a kindred brilliance that radiates from so much of Handel's original score. The overwhelming popularity of Messiah not only led to a misconception of Handel's musical character and artistic intentions, but also eclipsed almost every other work he composed except the Water Music and Fireworks Music - both also highly un-typical of his orchestral abilities.
Handel, arguably the most cosmopolitan and versatile theatrical composer of the baroque period, was born and trained in Germany, achieved mastery and success in every musical genre while in Italy, and then settled for nearly five decades in England, during which time he assimilated all those nation's musical styles and specialised in operas and oratorios. These oratorios were almost always dramatic narratives, functioning like English operas composed for concert performances in theatres such as Covent Garden. Most are based on Biblical or religious stories, but some, such as Semele and Hercules, are blatantly secular. Even Messiah, which does not tell a story in conventional terms and is therefore unlike almost all other baroque oratorios, amply demonstrates Handel abilities as an operatic composer.
The libretto for Messiah was designed and selected from the New and Old Testaments with utmost care by Charles Jennens (1700—73), a literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare's plays who was educated at Balliol College, Oxford. However, despite his merit and ability, Jennens never gained his Degree or much recognition from society because he was a non-juror, refusing to acknowledge the Hanoverian dynasty as legitimate heirs to the throne of England. Yet Jennens could not be a Jacobite (i.e. a supporter of the deposed Catholic Stuarts) either because he was staunchly Protestant. Such figures are often forgotten by the over-simplification of history, but Jennens' upper-middle class background enabled him to live in some comfort at a fine house in Gospall, Leicestershire, and devote his time to artistic pursuits in the absence of a prominent public life.
Jennens had been a known admirer of Handel's music since 1725, when he commenced regular subscriptions for publications of Handel's music by ordering a copy of Rodelinda. By the mid-1730s Jennens became personally acquainted with Handel, and before Messiah had already furnished Handel with texts for the dramatic oratorio Saul (1738), collaborted on the extensive masque L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il moderato (1740), and later also provided the text for the striking masterpiece Belshazzar (1744). It is also now suspected that Jennens may have been involved with Handel's only other scriptural oratorio Israel in Egypt (1738). Despite a difficult working relationship - Handel later preferred to collaborate with lesser but more amiable writers - Jennens remained a life-long admirer and supporter of Handel's music. His own personal library of Handel manuscripts, the 'Aylesford' Collection (now held at Manchester Central Library), was copied by Handel's assistants from the autograph scores, and remains a priceless resource for Handel scholars.
Messiah was composed at Handel's usual quick speed, but was premiered a year later in Dublin without Jennens's involvement. Handel appears to have been reluctant to present such a sacred subject matter in a London theatre, which seems wise considering the Bishop of London's outrage in 1732 when cathedral choristers had sung in Esther. The theatre, and Handel's music, were still perceived by many ecclesiastics as profane and subversive. Even Dean Jonathan Swift, a cranky old man with Gulliver's Travels long behind him, almost prevented the Dublin performance by threatening to forbid singers from St. Patrick's Cathedral to take part. Swift relented, but the contention Messiah aroused was still considerable enough to persuade Handel that the London premiere, a year later, should be advertised under the title "A Sacred Oratorio", thus avoiding any charge of blasphemy.
For this occasion Jennens used his influence to supervise the wordbook - the 1743 equivalent of what you are reading now - and presents the work very much as if it were an opera, organised into three distinct 'Acts' and subdivided into scenes:
Jennens's own explanation of Messiah, printed and distributed to his contemporary audience, can also illuminate a modern audience. It explains Jennens's thought process in taking seemingly random scriptures from the Mosaic Old Testament and the more benign teachings of the New Testament, reconciling apparent paradoxes, and enhancing our appreciation and understanding of Handel's musical settings.
There is no definitive musical text for Messiah because of the many changes Handel was obliged to make during the seasons it was performed. Some numbers were recomposed, such as "But who may abide", which is best known as the alto virtuoso piece composed for the castrato Guadagni in 1750. Others were customised for the soloists available, such as another version of "But who may abide" transposed up for an additional soprano soloist in 1754. Some earlier changes were simply made to satisfy the discontented Jennens (the choral version of "Their sound is gone out" replaced a less effective setting in a passage of the first version of "How beautiful are the feet"). Jennens was also unhappy that Handel devoted more energy to composing Newburgh Hamilton's Samson than finishing off Messiah in 1742.
Therefore it can be bewildering to sort out exactly which authentic version of Handel's Messiah - if any - to perform. The most satisfying historically accurate reconstructions generally date from the early 1750s. Ironically the rarest version heard in modern performances is the 1742 Dublin original. Yet Messiah, in one form or another, remains a well loved and familiar masterpiece that can cope with being presented in numerous ways. Conductors usually pick and choose their favourite versions to make an inauthentic composite programme, but the character and flair of Handel's music is rarely anything other than supremely dominant.
© David Vickers
(in order of recommendation):
Clifford Bartlett: Messiah. Oxford University Press.
Donald Burrows: Messiah. Edition Peters.
John Tobin: Messiah. Bärenreiter (Hallische Händel Ausgabe).
Watkins Shaw: Messiah. Novello (New Novello Handel Series).
1742 Dublin version (approximate reconstruction)
1752 version (only authentic version for conventional SATB soloists):
1754 Foundling Hospital version (SSATB soloists):
Comprehensive variants all included on:
Mozart's arrangement (in German):
Handel's Messiah: A Bibliography
General Reading (in order of recommendation):
Donald Burrows: Handel: Messiah. (Series: Cambridge music handbooks). Cambridge University Press, 1991. The definitive book for anybody wanting to read up on Messiah.
Richard Luckett: Handel's Messiah: A Celebration. Victor Gollancz, London, 1992. An informative and well researched book commemorating the 250th anniversary of Messiah. An enjoyable well illustrated book that discusses Messiah during and after Handel's life.
Watkins Shaw: The Story of Handel's Messiah: 1741—1784. Novello, Sevenoaks, 1963.
Watkins Shaw: A textual and historical companion to Handel's Messiah. Novello, Sevenoaks, 1966. Intended to accompany Watkins Shaw's popular Novello edition of Messiah - one of the first respectable scholarly editions of the oratorio to be published.
Julian Herbage: Messiah. Parrish, London, 1948. Enjoyable and nicely illustrated book, yet short. Clearly intended for enthusiastic non-specialists.
Bernd Baselt: "Georg Friedrich Handels Messias" [Georg Friedrich Handel's Messiah] in Zwischen Bach und Mozart: Vortrage des Europaischen Musikfestes Stuttgart 1988. Barenreiter, Kassel, 1994. General introduction to Messiah written by the compiler of the HWV catalog.
Literature for Performers:
Percy M. Young: Messiah: A Study in Interpretation. Dobson, London, [n.d.]. An entertaining read for anybody with an interest in performing Messiah.
Graydon Beeks: "Some thoughts on performing Messiah" in American Choral Review April—July 1985. An argument that Handel's first draft autograph of Messiah - never used in performances - should be heard more often.
William Gudger: "Playing organ continuo in Handel's Messiah" in American Organist Magazine February 1985. A suggestion of how Handel expected the organ to be used in his oratorios.
Musicological studies of Messiah:
John Tobin: Handel at Work. Cassell, London, 1964. An examination of Handel's compositional process as demonstrated by the original manuscripts of Messiah. Tobin edited Messiah for the Hallische Handel Ausgabe (published by Barenreiter), and was one of the first conducters in the 20th century to use performing forces on a similar scale and layout to Handel.
Jens Peter Larsen: Handel's Messiah: Origins, composition, sources. Norton, New York, 1972.
Watkins Shaw: "Handel: Some contemporary performance parts considered" in Eighteenth-century music in theory and practice: Essays in honor of Alfred Mann. Pendragon Press, New York. [n.d.] Discusses the work of various copyists in 18th century manuscripts of Messiah (and other works such as Deborah, the 'Utrecht' Te Deum, Samson, and early Italian works).
Donald Burrows & Watkins Shaw: "Handel's Messiah: Supplementary notes on sources" in Music and Letters August 1995. A summary of important sources for Messiah discovered since 1965.
Donald Burrows: "The autographs and early copies of Messiah: Some further thoughts" in Music & Letters July 1985. A follow up to the above article written with Watkins Shaw summarising recent research on Messiah.
Hans Joachim Marx: "Zu den alternativen Fassungen von Handels Messias" [The alternative versions of Handel's Messiah] in Georg Friedrich Handel: Ein Lebensinhalt--Gedenkschrift fur Bernd Baselt (1934—1993). Handel-Haus Halle, 1995. A survey of the different versions of Messiah performed under Handel's own direction.
Hans Joachim Marx: "Die "Hamburger" Direktionspartitur von Handels Messiah" [The "Hamburg" conducting score of Handel's Messiah] in Festschrift Klaus Hortschansky zum 60. Geburtstag. Schneider, Tutzing, 1995. An examination and re-evaluation of the Messiah conducting score.
Some more specialist articles:
David B. Greene: "Handel's Messiah: Music, theology, and ritual" in Soundings: A Music Journal Vol. 75; Issue 1; Spring 1992.
Christian von Holst: "Der Messias in kunsthistorischer Sicht: Nachweis der betrachteten Kunstwerke" [Messiah in the perspective of art history: A list of art works viewed] in Zwischen Bach und Mozart: Vortrage des Europaischen Musikfestes Stuttgart 1988. Barenreiter, Kassel, 1994. Discusses twenty paintings demonstrating iconographic traditions relevant to Messiah.
J. Merrill Knapp: "The Luke 2 portions of Bach's Christmas oratorio and Handel's Messiah" in A Bach tribute: Essays in honor of William H. Scheide. Barenreiter, Kassel, 1993. A comparison of the same source texts as used by Bach and Handel.
Hans Joachim Kreutzer: "Von Handels Messiah zum deutschen Messias: Das Libretto, seine Ubersetzungen und die deutsche Handel-Rezeption des 18. Jahrhunderts." [From Handel's Messiah to the German Messias: The libretto, its translations, and Handel's reception in Germany in the 18th century.] in Obertone: Literatur und Musik--Neun Abhandlungen uber das Zusammenspiel der Kunste. Konigshausen & Neumann, Wurzburg, 1994.
Alfred Mann: "Missa and Messiah: Culmination of the sacred drama" in A Bach tribute: Essays in honor of William H. Scheide. Barenreiter, Kassel, 1993. A comparison of the Protestant influence on major works by Bach and Handel.
Werner Rackwitz: "Dramatische Aspekte in Handels Oratorium Messiah" [Dramatic aspects in Handel's oratorio Messiah] in Handel-Jahrbuch 1991. A discussion of the operatic musical styles in Messiah.
David Schildkret: "On Mozart contemplating a work of Handel: Mozart's arrangement of Messiah" in Festa musicologica: Essays in honor of George J. Buelow. Pendragon Press, New York,1995. A discussion of Mozart's version of Messiah arranged for Gottfried van Swieten.
Ruth Smith: "The achievements of Charles Jennens (1700—1773)" in Music & Letters May 1989. An overview of the life and writings of Charles Jennens, the compiler of Messiah and the author of some of Handel's best oratorio librettos.
Howard Smither: "Messiah and progress in Victorian England" in Early Music August 1985. An examination of the role Messiah played in England during the Victorian era.
The bibliography for Messiah is vast, and this list only represents a selection. Some of these books and articles will only be accessible through a good library. The most essential book Handel: Messiah by Donald Burrows is in print and available through any good bookshop. All references follow the bibliographical format of Author; Title; Journal or book (if relevant); Publisher; City; Date; Short description (where necessary).