George Frederick Handel could never have dreamed that his ‘Messiah’ would become a worldwide phenomenon, performed in thousands of concert halls, churches and auditoriums every Christmas, and enjoyed by millions more via radio, television and countless recordings.
Europe may well have become the most secularised continent in the world but Advent still continues to draw Europeans of all shades of faith to performances of perhaps the most popular composition ever. The Messiah has no parallel in music history.
It has become the Christmas classic, despite only one sixth of the work directly portraying the Nativity. It’s first performance, in Dublin, was shortly after Easter. On April 13 1742, seven hundred people crowded into a six-hundred seat music hall, ladies having left their skirt-hoops at home along with their gentlemen’s swords, as requested.
Messiah was not Handel’s initiative. Originally from Halle in Germany, Handel (1685-1759) had settled in England after establishing himself as a composer of operas. Opera however fell on hard times in England, where the social climate was more favourable for oratorio. Unlike opera, the oratorio used no costumes, props or acting, but was typically a narrative about Old Testament heros or Christian saints, set to music. Also unlike opera, oratorio used the chorus.
For some, oratorio was too sacred to be performed in a theatre. For others, it was too theatrical for performance in a church. As oratorio, Messiah was destined to be controversial.
On August 22 1741, a devout Anglican named Charles Jennens commissioned Handel to compose an oratorio based on the libretto or script he himself had compiled from the King James Bible and the Anglican Prayer Book. The subject was an incomparably great hero: the Messiah. The drama transcended time and space in three acts: the birth of the Messiah; the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of the Messiah; and lastly the resurrection of the saints and the Messiah’s eternal reign.
Although Handel is reported to have wished not only to entertain his audience but also “to make them better”, Jennens unabashedly set out to defend the historic Christian faith against the corrosive influence of Deism in his day. His younger brother had been driven to suicide while studying at Oxford by doubts raised by Deists.
Jennens set out to dispel doubt and despair in others. He drew his text from the apologetic talks of Richard Kidder, given as the Boyle Lectures in the 1690’s and published as A Demonstration of the Messias. Handel, Jennens believed, was the best qualified composer to give his libretto a powerful musical setting to buttress the gospel truths.
When a mere three weeks later, on September 14, Handel produced his finished score, Jennens was less than pleased. How could the greatest theme of all history be treated with such hastiness and flippancy? Yet such a working pace was typical for Handel, who began work immediately on his next work, Samson, which he finished by October 29.
Jennens need not have worried. In Dublin Messiah was an immediate success. A local paper called it ’the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard…’. For the bishop it was ‘beyond anything (he) had a notion of…’.
But in London, the following March, the first performance was less enthusiastically received. The sacred story had been desecrated by performance in a playhouse! Jennens added his complaint that Handel had ‘set it in great haste’. The stress was too much for Handel who then suffered a ‘paralytic disorder’.
Despite this initial luke-warm reaction, Messiah began to be performed annually in London from 1749 onwards, often to raise support for hospitals and infirmaries. Other cities followed–Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Bath, Gloucester…
When Handel died in 1759, after six years of blindness, Messiah had become a ‘classic’ of the contemporary repertoire. His funeral in Westminster Abbey was attended by 3000, and he was buried in the poet’s corner of the abbey. Over his grave a marble Handel holds the music of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’.
Across the channel, Messiah was first performed in Handel’s native Germany in 1772. The first performance in Berlin in 1786 was sung in Italian, as only Italian singers were available! The New York City Tavern was the venue of the oratorio’s premiere in America in 1770.
Today, beyond the wildest hopes of both Jennens and Handel, Messiah continues to enthrall millions worldwide with a message of a Child-King who shall reign for ever!
Till next year then,