Handel’s Messiah

By Jeff Westover

On August 22, 1741 George Frideric Handel sat down and began to compose music to Biblical texts compiled by his friend Charles Jennens.

Handel was, by all accounts of the time, a typical creative eccentric. Known for varied mood swings, Handel was prone to excessive eating, a boisterous sense of humor and an intense sense of musical propriety. He could be stern and irritable, especially with musicians who did not perform his works as he intended. He could be stubborn and arrogant. And he was proficient at swearing in four different languages.

But for this work started that late summer in 1741, Handel was indeed inspired. “Í did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself,” he was later reported to have said.

“For, unto us a Child is born” and other select verses outlining the birth, death and redemption of Jesus Christ moved Handel to complete the famed oratorio just three weeks later on September 14th.

Could he have known then that this work would touch generations of music lovers for centuries beyond his death?

Of all the proclaimed works of music tied to Christmas perhaps none is spoken of more reverently than Handel’s Messiah. Performed now by groups large and small, amateur and professional, tradition governs both the performance and the audience participation in the piece. In halls and churches usually decked in holiday splendor, the famed Hallelujah Chorus sees audiences rise to their feet.

Handel likely never intended it to be so.

But time dictates tradition. And as many holiday traditions have evolved time has led to two popular misconceptions of the work: many call it The Messiah (Handel titled it just “Messiah”), and most think it was written expressly for Christmas.

Handel’s first performance of Messiah was around the Easter season, not Christmas. Though he was living and working in London, Handel first publicly performed Messiah in Dublin, Ireland — not in a sacred edifice like in a church but in a music hall on Fishamble Street. He nearly didn’t have enough musicians to pull it off (how many choral directors today face the same problem?). The dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin – the famed author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift – at first refused to allow his choristers to perform music set to sacred text in a secular setting of a public music hall. Lucky for Handel – and for us today – he relented.

It was a signature event. In anticipation of the crowds, the newspaper advertisements asked the ladies to refrain from wearing hoops under their skirts and asked the men to keep their swords at home, all so that seating could be efficiently accomplished.

The reviews of Messiah’s debut were outstanding. One member of the audience, so moved by singer Susannah Cibber’s solo “He was Despised”, arose from his seat and proclaimed “Woman, for this thy sins be forgiven thee!”. These comments drew a gasp from many in attendance because the rumors of Ms. Cibber’s amorous affairs were abundant.

“Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded,” wrote a newspaper review of the performance. “The sublime, the grand, and the tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear.” Handel donated the proceeds from the event to three prominent Dublin charities, helping to make a name for Messiah.

But when Handel took Messiah home to London for performing he was not as warmly received. Over the objections of local church officials who balked at performing a sacred subject in the profane settings of a public music hall, Handel next performed Messiah at Covent Garden Theater on March 23, 1743.

The critics in London, however, were unimpressed. Newspaper reviews were critical. Handel’s friend, Charles Jennens, who had supplied much of the text, wrote to another acquaintance: “His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho’ he said he would be a year about it, and make it the best of all his compositions. I shall put no more sacred works into his hands thus to be abused”.

But these early London performances did give rise to a tradition that has survived to this day. King George II arose from his seat at the beginning of the chorus – who knows if it was to because he was moved by the music or merely needed to stretch his legs. But etiquette at the time demanded that if the King arose so should everyone around him. Thus the tradition of standing for the chorus was born.

Over much of the next decade Messiah was infrequently performed and nearly forgotten. Handel brought back the piece for performances to benefit charity in 1750. Through these series of events over the next nine years the work achieved great popularity.

Two days before Palm Sunday in 1759, Handel conducted his final performance of Messiah. He collapsed after the performance and had to be carried home. As he lay dying he expressed the wish to pass on Good Friday, as Jesus did. “I do this in hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of his resurrection. On Good Friday, 17 years after the debut of Messiah in Dublin, Handel died.

As with most creative geniuses, Handel’s greatest praise came long after his time.

Ludwig von Beethoven once said: “He was the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” Franz Joseph Haydn, after hearing Handel’s Messiah for the first time, admitted: “He was the master of us all”.

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