Historical Perspective on Messiah Performances
George Frideric Handel wrote Messiah in the late summer of 1741, when his future as a composer was in real jeopardy. The opera ventures he instituted, and which had thrived for nearly two decades, were waning in popularity and about to fail. To help pay the bills Handel turned to oratorio, a genre musically related to opera but without staging and costumes. Even with Messiah, though, Handel was still finding his footing in oratorio. He had penned only a handful of works in the genre, some of which (especially Israel in Egypt, from 1739) were initially failures. And Messiah was itself a risky project. Though the English audiences had for several decades embraced Handel as their favorite composer, that admiration was no guarantee of this work’s success.
Principally at issue was the oratorio’s theme. A number of critics and clergy considered it blasphemous for a “theatrical entertainment” to be based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Even more controversially, the lyrics for Messiah were drawn directly from scripture, in a collation by Charles Jennens, an aristocrat and musician/poet of modest talent who had worked with Handel on a couple of earlier oratorios. And having operatic singers and actors declaim scripture in a theater was, according to some, akin to sacrilege. (Handel couldn’t win—when Messiah was later scheduled to be performed in Westminster Abbey, other members of the clergy declared it blasphemous for a public entertainment to take place in a consecrated church!)
But Jennens outdid himself with Messiah, compiling a libretto with profound thematic coherence and an enhanced sensitivity to dramatic and musical structure. He sent the libretto to Handel in July 1741, and Handel began setting it to music the following month. Unusually for Handel, he started at the beginning of the texts and worked consecutively through them, tracing and accentuating through music the powerful dramatic arc that Jennens had created. In some places, Handel borrowed and modified music he had written for other occasions, adapting it to Messiah’s texts and framework.
Handel completed the entire score in only 24 days. Enthusiastic Romanticists of later eras would attribute this swiftness to divine inspiration, though Handel composed other works of comparable size, more secular in nature, just as swiftly. He was by nature a facile composer. The miracle of Messiah’s composition, then, is not how rapidly Handel wrote the music, but how comprehensively astute, finely-detailed, and consistently powerful it is.
The first performance of Messiah took place in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and though it was a stunning success, the work met with a lackluster reception in London the following season. Handel canceled half of the six scheduled performances and withdrew Messiah from the 1744 schedule. After a brief revival in 1745, Messiah wasn’t heard again in London until 1749 at a performance in Covent Garden.
But it was a midday fundraising concert in the still-unfinished chapel of London’s Foundling Hospital later that year that helped turn around Messiah’s fortunes. On that occasion, Handel ended the concert with the “Foundling Hospital Anthem,” an assemblage of newly-composed music with excerpts from some of his older pieces, including the entire “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah, which was still relatively unknown among London audiences. The concert was so popular he was invited back the following year to conduct another benefit concert, and on that occasion Handel decided to perform the complete oratorio.
This charitable performance of Messiah in its entirety at the Foundling Hospital in 1750 was an unprecedented success, and a second performance was quickly arranged two weeks later. Easter-time performances of Messiah continued each year at the Foundling Hospital, and Handel conducted or attended every one of them until his death in 1759. In gratitude, he bequeathed to the hospital a conducting score and complete set of performance parts for Messiah.
Handel had originally composed this work with the intent of propping up his own flagging fortunes. But he discovered with the Foundling Hospital performances that Messiah attained its highest potential when employed for the benefit of those with needs greater than his own: the widowed, the sick, the orphaned, and the poor. The risk he took in writing a “theatrical entertainment” on the subject of Jesus Christ was recompensed many times over during the following centuries, when Handel’s masterpiece was universally hailed as “the sacred oratorio,” “a work consecrated by genius and dedicated by custom to the holy cause of charity.” Messiah had ultimately become, then, the means for enacting in practice the very principles of faith, hope, and love expressed in its sacred lyrics and inspiring music.
As Handel was composing Messiah, he had no idea how many performers would be available to him. For the Dublin premiere, there were 30 or so cathedral trained singers in the choir, accompanied by an equal-sized orchestra of strings, winds, trumpets, and timpani. But for that Dublin concert and all subsequent performances under his direction, Handel continued to make revisions to the score, customizing it to suit the available musicians while juggling the production costs and compensation for each singer and instrumentalist. Donald Burrows—the leading Handel scholar of our day—has proposed that Messiah was perhaps never performed the way Handel originally intended it, at least not during the composer’s lifetime.
What might Handel have “originally intended” for the scale and instrumentation of Messiah if none of those early performances fully represented his vision? It’s a thorny question. But the subsequent 250-year history of Messiah proves that whatever Handel may have imagined, the work itself has held up remarkably well, even amid the sometimes extraordinary manipulations and multiplications of his original scoring.
In 1784, a performance of Messiah was staged in London’s Westminster Abbey for the 25th anniversary of Handel’s death. The choir on that occasion numbered nearly 300 singers, accompanied by an orchestra of corresponding size. We’ll never know if Handel would have approved of such epic proportions, but he was certainly not one to shy away from striking and dramatic musical effects in his own works when circumstances and budget allowed. His 1749 suite of Music for the Royal Fireworks, for example, employed an out-of-doors band of more than 50 wind instruments plus strings—potentially nearly 100 players. Handel’s opera and oratorio orchestras grew consistently in size as he added winds and brass and multiplied the number of string players beyond the minimum whenever he could. Even in the score of Messiah, among the intimate chamberistic passages there are places such as the “Hallelujah” chorus and “Worthy Is the Lamb” that call for as much grandeur and spectacle as possible, and sections (in “Glory to God” and “Lift Up Your Heads,” for example) where the composer seems to wish he had a double choir at his disposal. Perhaps the primary considerations that prevented Handel from planning Messiah for a grander-sized chorus and orchestra were simply the cost, the difficulty of assembling such ensembles at the time, and the lack of a hall big enough to accommodate them.
That would all soon change.
At the start of the 19th century, the conditions were ripe for even larger performances of Messiah. The advent of enthusiastic amateur choral societies in England, the Romantic focus on the “sublime,” and Messiah’s reputation by that time as a surefire audience favorite ensured that performances were frequently staged on an especially grand scale. And not only in London, where the newly built Exeter Hall could hold larger ensembles and crowds, but also at the cathedral choral festivals that took place in York, Worcester, Gloucester, Hereford, Birmingham, and other locations around the country.
For these ambitiously proportioned performances, Handel’s baroque scoring was simply inadequate, and numerous new editions tried to accommodate the developing fondness for amplitude. In 1789, Mozart created a notably richer orchestration of Messiah, adding classical woodwinds and brass to the ensemble, heavily editing the dynamics and articulations, and even changing some notes and rhythms. Mozart’s goal was not at all to “improve” on what Handel had originally produced he once remarked that “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect.” Rather, he merely hoped to arrange Handel’s work into a form more appropriate to the tastes and expectations of a late-18th century Viennese audience.
Mozart’s “additional accompaniments” (as they came to be known) also enabled the bigger performances that were becoming standard practice in England in the 19th century. With winds and brass doubling the choral parts, hundreds of amateur choristers could better hear their notes in the orchestra, and the additional instruments contributed greater weight and timbral variety than could be achieved merely by adding more strings.
By the middle of the 19th century, Messiah performances occasionally reached gargantuan proportions. At the Handel Festivals in London’s Crystal Palace, beginning in 1857, the choir numbered around 4,000 singers, with an orchestra of nearly 500, entertaining audiences of over 20,000. These extravagantly massed performances used a greatly expanded orchestration by the Handel Festival’s first conductor, Sir Michael Costa. But they weren’t necessarily intended as the “best” way to hear Handel’s masterpiece. Most musicians of the day understood perfectly well the disadvantages of trying to perform on such an exaggerated Romantic scale a work conceived in baroque style. But there were other considerations that, for a time, outweighed any impulse to re-create the exact proportions and sounds of Handel’s time. The Handel Festivals, for example, were intended mainly to honor the memory of “the great Saxon composer” and celebrate his Englishness, with performances of unprecedented—indeed, unsurpassable—magnificence. (As one critic noted at these Festivals, “Handel made England musical, and music made Handel English.”) The smaller cathedral festivals, on the other hand, with performers numbering only in the hundreds, had dual goals: to improve all classes of society through exposure to great art, and to continue the revered tradition of performing Messiah as a charitable fundraiser for the poor and widowed. The more spectacular the performance, and the more people involved in it, the better the chances that those two goals would be met.
By the end of the 19th century, some music critics began to issue very public calls for a return to an authentically Handel-styled Messiah, indicating an imminent sea-change in tastes. An 1868 facsimile publication of one of Handel’s scores had revealed some stark differences between what Handel had originally written and what custom had subsequently established. After enduring another Handel Festival extravaganza in 1891, George Bernard Shaw famously begged to hear just once before he died “a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of The Messiah[sic]… with a chorus of twenty capable artists.”
Chamber-sized performances of Messiah did start to appear again in the early 20th century, though the larger ensembles still dominated. Ebenezer Prout produced a much-used (and later, much-maligned) edition of Messiah in 1902 that was intended to facilitate festival performances by these massed amateur choirs and orchestras. But Prout also proposed specifically a return to some of Handel’s original 18th-century aims, at least as much as late-19th century musical practices and the constraints of amateur performance would allow. He cut a good deal of Mozart’s “additional accompaniments,” and advocated for a piano, whenever possible, to accompany most of the recitatives (the baroque harpsichord having long disappeared from the concert platform by that time).
During the 20th century, this growing interest in baroque performance practices, with the explicit goal of producing sounds that Handel himself may have recognized, fundamentally inflected performances of Messiah. In recent decades, the balance has tipped steeply toward these “historically-informed” re-creations, and the editions by Mozart and Prout have largely been rejected as unfortunate relics of the past, or revived as “museum pieces” of historical interest only. Certainly the fresh tempi, bright timbres, and lean textures of the new “old” style of performance were a revelation to audiences who had inherited a 200-year legacy of solemn and epic Messiah concerts.
But these new versions by professional early-music specialists sometimes wanted for the kind of straightforward lay humanity that had attended Messiah throughout most of its history. As audiences were discovering the vitality of baroque-style playing and singing, especially on recording, they also flocked to roughly rehearsed and amateur “sing-along” Messiah concerts, where the sense of community, group participation, and shared faith that had traditionally attended this work were still very much present.
What this current schism demonstrates is that there isn’t simply one best way to perform Handel’s Messiah. Over the course of its history, the work has revealed a variety of potent strengths through each of its distinct performance traditions. The exhilarating palette of the Early Music movement is now an integral part of the Messiah soundscape. And yet the sublime power, dynamic range, and emotional heft of the modern orchestras and large choirs that sustained Messiah’s reputation for two centuries have earned a permanent place as well.
By Dr. Luke Howard, associate professor of music history at Brigham Young University.
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Handel was born in 1685 (the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti) in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg (then part of Brandenburg-Prussia). His parents were Georg Händel, aged sixty-three, and Dorothea Taust.  His father was an eminent barber-surgeon who served the court of Saxe-Weissenfels and the Margraviate of Brandenburg.  [d]
Halle was a relatively prosperous city, home of a salt-mining industry and centre of trade (and member of the Hanseatic League).  The Margrave of Brandenburg became the administrator of the archiepiscopal territories of Mainz, including Magdeburg when they converted, and by the early 17th century held his court in Halle, which attracted renowned musicians. [e] Even the smaller churches all had "able organists and fair choirs", [f] and humanities and the letters thrived (Shakespeare was performed in the theatres early in the 17th century).  The Thirty Years War brought extensive destruction to Halle, and by the 1680s it was impoverished.  However, since the middle of the war the city had been under the administration of the Duke of Saxony, and soon after the end of the war he would bring musicians trained in Dresden to his court in Weissenfels. 
The arts and music, however, flourished only among the higher strata (not only in Halle but throughout Germany),  of which Handel's family was not a member. Georg Händel (senior) was born at the beginning of the war, and was apprenticed to a barber in Halle at the age of 14, after his father died. [g] When he was 20, he married the widow of the official barber-surgeon of a suburb of Halle, inheriting his practice. With this, Georg determinedly began the process of becoming self-made by dint of his "conservative, steady, thrifty, unadventurous" lifestyle,  he guided the five children he had with Anna who reached adulthood into the medical profession (except his youngest daughter, who married a government official).  Anna died in 1682. Within a year Georg married again, this time to the daughter of a Lutheran minister, Pastor Georg Taust of the Church of St. Bartholomew in Giebichenstein,  who himself came from a long line of Lutheran pastors.  Handel was the second child of this marriage the first son was stillborn.  Two younger sisters were born after the birth of George Frideric: Dorthea Sophia, born 6 October 1687, and Johanna Christiana, born 10 January 1690. 
Early education Edit
Early in his life Handel is reported to have attended the Gymnasium in Halle,  where the headmaster, Johann Praetorius [de] , was reputed to be an ardent musician.  Whether Handel remained there, and if he did for how long, is unknown, but many biographers suggest that he was withdrawn from school by his father, based on the characterization of him by Handel's first biographer, John Mainwaring. Mainwaring is the source for almost all information (little as it is) of Handel's childhood, and much of that information came from J.C. Smith, Jr., Handel's confidant and copyist.  Whether it came from Smith or elsewhere, Mainwaring frequently relates misinformation. [h] It is from Mainwaring that the portrait comes of Handel's father as implacably opposed to any musical education. Mainwaring writes that Georg Händel was "alarmed" at Handel's very early propensity for music, [i] "took every measure to oppose it", including forbidding any musical instrument in the house and preventing Handel from going to any house where they might be found.  This did nothing to dampen young Handel's inclination in fact, it did the reverse. Mainwaring tells the story of Handel's secret attic spinet: Handel "found means to get a little clavichord privately convey'd to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep".  Although both John Hawkins and Charles Burney credited this tale, Schoelcher found it nearly "incredible" and a feat of "poetic imagination"  and Lang considers it one of the unproven "romantic stories" that surrounded Handel's childhood.  But Handel had to have had some experience with the keyboard to have made the impression in Weissenfels that resulted in his receiving formal musical training. 
Musical education Edit
Sometime between the ages of seven and nine, Handel accompanied his father to Weissenfels where he came under the notice of one whom Handel thereafter always regarded throughout life as his benefactor,  Duke Johann Adolf I. [j] Somehow Handel made his way to the court organ in the palace chapel of the Holy Trinity, where he surprised everyone with his playing.  Overhearing this performance and noting the youth of the performer caused the Duke, whose suggestions were not to be disregarded, to recommend to Georg Händel that Handel be given musical instruction.  Handel's father engaged the organist at the Halle parish church, the young Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, to instruct Handel. Zachow would be the only teacher that Handel ever had.  Because of his church employment, Zachow was an organist "of the old school", reveling in fugues, canons and counterpoint.  But he was also familiar with developments in music across Europe and his own compositions "embraced the new concerted, dramatic style". [k] When Zachow discovered the talent of Handel, he introduced him "to a vast collection of German and Italian music, which he possessed, sacred and profane, vocal and instrumental compositions of different schools, different styles, and of every master".  Many traits considered "Handelian" can be traced back to Zachow's music.  At the same time Handel continued practice on the harpsichord, learned violin and organ, but according to Burney his special affection was for the hautbois (oboe).  Schoelcher speculates that his youthful devotion to the instrument explains the large number of pieces he composed for oboe. 
With respect to instruction in composition, in addition to having Handel apply himself to traditional fugue and cantus firmus work, Zachow, recognising Handel's precocious talents, systematically introduced Handel to the variety of styles and masterworks contained in his extensive library. He did this by requiring Handel to copy selected scores. "I used to write like the devil in those days", Handel recalled much later.  Much of this copying was entered into a notebook that Handel maintained for the rest of his life. Although it has since disappeared, the notebook has been sufficiently described to understand what pieces Zachow wished Handel to study. Among the chief composers represented in this exercise book were Johann Krieger, an "old master" in the fugue and prominent organ composer, Johann Caspar Kerll, a representative of the "southern style" after his teacher Frescobaldi and imitated later by Handel, [l] Johann Jakob Froberger, an "internationalist" also closely studied by Buxtehude and Bach, and Georg Muffat, whose amalgam of French and Italian styles and his synthesis of musical forms influenced Handel. 
Mainwaring writes that during this time Zachow had begun to have Handel assume some of his church duties. Zachow, Mainwaring asserts, was "often" absent, "from his love of company, and a cheerful glass", and Handel therefore performed on organ frequently.  What is more, according to Mainwaring, Handel began composing, at the age of nine, church services for voice and instruments "and from that time actually did compose a service every week for three years successively."  Mainwaring ends this chapter of Handel's life by concluding that three or four years had been enough to allow Handel to surpass Zachow, and Handel had become "impatient for another situation" "Berlin was the place agreed upon."  Carelessness with dates or sequences (and possibly imaginative interpretation by Mainwaring) makes this period confused. [m]
After the death of Handel's father Edit
Handel's father died on 11 February 1697.  It was German custom for friends and family to compose funeral odes for a substantial burgher like Georg,  and young Handel discharged his duty with a poem dated 18 February and signed with his name and (in deference to his father's wishes) "dedicated to the liberal arts."  At the time Handel was studying either at Halle's Lutheran Gymnasium or the Latin School. 
Mainwaring has Handel traveling to Berlin the next year, 1698.  The problem with Mainwaring as an authority for this date, however, is that he tells of how Handel's father communicated with the "king" [n] during Handel's stay, declining the Court's offer to send Handel to Italy on a stipend  and that his father died "after his return from Berlin."  But since Georg Händel died in 1697, either the date of the trip or Mainwaring's statements about Handel's father must be in error. Early biographers solved the problem by making the year of the trip 1696, then noting that at the age of 11 Handel would need a guardian, so they have Handel's father or a friend of the family accompany him, all the while puzzling over why the elder Handel, who wanted Handel to become a lawyer, would spend the sum to lead his son further into the temptation of music as a career.  Schoelcher for example has Handel traveling to Berlin at 11, meeting both Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti in Berlin and then returning at the direction of his father.  But Ariosti was not in Berlin before the death of Handel's father,  and Handel could not have met Bononcini in Berlin before 1702.  Modern biographers either accept the year as 1698, since most reliable older authorities agree with it, [o] and discount what Mainwaring says about what took place during the trip or assume that Mainwaring conflated two or more visits to Berlin, as he did with Handel's later trips to Venice. 
Perhaps to fulfill a promise to his father or simply because he saw himself as "dedicated to the liberal arts," on 10 February 1702 Handel matriculated at the University of Halle.  That university had only recently been founded. In 1694 the Elector of Brandenburg Frederick III (later Prussian King Frederick I) created the school, largely to provide a lecture forum for the jurist Christian Thomasius who had been expelled from Leipzig for his liberal views.  Handel did not enroll in the faculty of law, although he almost certainly attended lectures.  Thomasius was an intellectual and academic crusader who was the first German academic to lecture in German and also denounced witch trials. Lang believes that Thomasius instilled in Handel a "respect for the dignity and freedom of man's mind and the solemn majesty of the law," principles that would have drawn him to and kept him in England for half a century.  Handel also there encountered theologian and professor of Oriental languages August Hermann Francke, who was particularly solicitous of children, particularly orphans. The orphanage he founded became a model for Germany, and undoubtedly influenced Handel's own charitable impulse, when he assigned the rights of Messiah to London's Foundling Hospital. 
Shortly after commencing his university education, Handel (though Lutheran [p] ) on 13 March 1702 accepted the position of organist at the Calvinist Cathedral in Halle, the Domkirche, replacing J.C. Leporin, for whom he had acted as assistant.  The position, which was a one-year probationary appointment showed the foundation he had received from Zachow, for a church organist and cantor was a highly prestigious office. From it he received 5 thalers a year and lodgings in the run-down castle of Moritzburg. 
Around this same time Handel made the acquaintance of Telemann. Four years Handel's senior, Telemann was studying law and assisting cantor Johann Kuhnau (Bach's predecessor at the Thomaskirche there). Telemann recalled forty years later in an autobiography for Mattheson's Grundlage: "The writing of the excellent Johann Kuhnau served as a model for me in fugue and counterpoint but in fashioning melodic movements and examining them Handel and I were constantly occupied, frequently visiting each other as well as writing letters." 
Halle compositions Edit
Although Mainwaring records that Handel wrote weekly when assistant to Zachow and as probationary organist at Domkirche part of his duty was to provide suitable music, [q] no sacred compositions from his Halle period can now be identified.  Mattheson, however, summarised his opinion of Handel's church cantatas written in Halle: "Handel in those days set very, very long arias and sheerly unending cantatas which, while not possessing the proper knack or correct taste, were perfect so far as harmony is concerned." 
Early chamber works do exist, but it is difficult to date any of them to Handel's time in Halle. Many historians until recently followed Chrysander and designated the six trio sonatas for two oboes and basso continuo as his first known composition, supposedly written in 1696 (when Handel was 11).  Lang doubts the dating based on a handwritten date of a copy (1700) and stylistic considerations. Lang writes that the works "show thorough acquaintance with the distilled sonata style of the Corelli school" and are notable for "the formal security and the cleanness of the texture."  Hogwood considers all of the oboe trio sonatas spurious and even suggests that some parts cannot be performed on oboe.  That authentic manuscript sources do not exist and that Handel never recycled any material from these works make their authenticity doubtful.  Other early chamber works were printed in Amsterdam in 1724 as opus 1, but it is impossible to tell which are early works in their original form, rather than later re-workings by Handel, a frequent practice of his. 
Handel's probationary appointment to Domkirche expired in March 1703. By July [r] Handel was in Hamburg. Since he left no explanation for the move [s] biographers have offered their own speculation. Burrows believes that the answer can be found by untangling Mainwaring's confused chronology of the trip to Berlin. Burrows dates this trip to 1702 or 1703 (after his father's death) and concluded that since Handel (through a "friend and relation" at the Berlin court) turned down Frederick's offer to subsidise his musical education in Italy (with the implicit understanding that he would become a court musician on his return), Handel was no longer able to expect preferment (whether as musician, lawyer or otherwise) within Brandenburg-Prussia. And since he was attracted to secular, dramatic music (by meeting the Italians Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti and through the influence of Telemann), Hamburg, a free city with an established opera company, was the logical choice.  The question remains, however, why Handel rejected the King's offer, given that Italy was the centre of opera. Lang suggests that, influenced by the teachings of Thomasius, Handel's character was such that he was unable to make himself subservient to anyone, even a king. Lang sees Handel as someone who could not accept class distinctions that required him to regard himself as a social inferior. "What Handel craved was personal freedom to raise himself out of his provincial milieu to a life of culture."  Burrows notes that like his father, Handel was able to accept royal (and aristocratic) favours without considering himself a court servant.  And so given the embarrassed financial condition of his mother,  Handel set off for Hamburg to obtain experience while supporting himself.
In 1703 he accepted a position as violinist and harpsichordist in the orchestra of the Hamburg Oper am Gänsemarkt.  There he met the composers Johann Mattheson, Christoph Graupner and Reinhard Keiser. His first two operas, Almira and Nero, were produced in 1705.  He produced two other operas, Daphne and Florindo, in 1708. It is unclear whether Handel directed these performances.
According to Mainwaring, in 1706 Handel travelled to Italy at the invitation of Ferdinando de' Medici. (Other sources say Handel was invited by Gian Gastone de' Medici, whom Handel had met in 1703–1704 in Hamburg.  ) Ferdinando, who had a keen interest in opera, was trying to make Florence Italy's musical capital by attracting the leading talents of his day. In Italy Handel met librettist Antonio Salvi, with whom he later collaborated. Handel left for Rome and, since opera was (temporarily) banned in the Papal States, composed sacred music for the Roman clergy. His famous Dixit Dominus (1707) is from this era. He also composed cantatas in pastoral style for musical gatherings in the palaces of duchess Aurora Sanseverino (whom Mainwaring called "Donna Laura")  one of the most influential patrons from the Kingdom of Naples, and cardinals Pietro Ottoboni, Benedetto Pamphili and Carlo Colonna. Two oratorios, La resurrezione and Il trionfo del tempo, were produced in a private setting for Ruspoli and Ottoboni in 1709 and 1710, respectively. Rodrigo, his first all-Italian opera, was produced in the Cocomero theatre in Florence in 1707.  Agrippina was first produced in 1709 at Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice, owned by the Grimanis. The opera, with a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani, ran for 27 nights successively.  The audience, thunderstruck with the grandeur and sublimity of his style,  applauded for Il caro Sassone ("the dear Saxon" – referring to Handel's German origins).
In 1710, Handel became Kapellmeister to German prince George, the Elector of Hanover, who in 1714 would become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.  He visited Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici and her husband in Düsseldorf on his way to London in 1710. With his opera Rinaldo, based on La Gerusalemme Liberata by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, Handel enjoyed great success, although it was composed quickly, with many borrowings from his older Italian works.  This work contains one of Handel's favourite arias, Cara sposa, amante cara, and the famous Lascia ch'io pianga.
In 1712, Handel decided to settle permanently in England. In the summer of 1713 he lived at Mr Mathew Andrews' estate in Barn Elms, Surrey.   He received a yearly income of £200 from Queen Anne after composing for her the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, first performed in 1713.  
One of his most important patrons was The 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork, a young and extremely wealthy member of an Anglo-Irish aristocratic family.  While living in the mansion of Lord Burlington, Handel wrote Amadigi di Gaula, a "magic" opera, about a damsel in distress, based on the tragedy by Antoine Houdar de la Motte.
The conception of an opera as a coherent structure was slow to capture Handel's imagination  and he composed no operas for five years. In July 1717 Handel's Water Music was performed more than three times on the River Thames for the King and his guests. It is said the compositions spurred reconciliation between Handel and the King, supposedly annoyed by the composer's abandonment of his Hanover post. 
At Cannons (1717–19) Edit
In 1717 Handel became house composer at Cannons in Middlesex, where he laid the cornerstone for his future choral compositions in the Chandos Anthems.  Romain Rolland wrote that these anthems (or Psalms) stood in relation to Handel's oratorios, much the same way that the Italian cantatas stood to his operas: "splendid sketches of the more monumental works."  Another work, which he wrote for The 1st Duke of Chandos, the owner of Cannons, was Acis and Galatea: during Handel's lifetime it was his most performed work. Winton Dean wrote, "the music catches breath and disturbs the memory". 
In 1719 the Duke of Chandos became one of the composer's important patrons and main subscribers to his new opera company, the Royal Academy of Music, but his patronage declined after Chandos lost money in the South Sea bubble, which burst in 1720 in one of history's greatest financial cataclysms. Handel himself invested in South Sea stock in 1716, when prices were low  and sold before 1720. 
Royal Academy of Music (1719–34) Edit
In May 1719, The 1st Duke of Newcastle, the Lord Chamberlain, ordered Handel to look for new singers.  Handel travelled to Dresden to attend the newly built opera. He saw Teofane by Antonio Lotti, and engaged members of the cast for the Royal Academy of Music, founded by a group of aristocrats to assure themselves a constant supply of baroque opera or opera seria. Handel may have invited John Smith, his fellow student in Halle, and his son Johann Christoph Schmidt, to become his secretary and amanuensis.  By 1723 he had moved into a Georgian house at 25 Brook Street, which he rented for the rest of his life.  This house, where he rehearsed, copied music and sold tickets, is now the Handel House Museum. [t] During twelve months between 1724 and 1725, Handel wrote three successful operas, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda. Handel's operas are filled with da capo arias, such as Svegliatevi nel core. After composing Silete venti, he concentrated on opera and stopped writing cantatas. Scipio, from which the regimental slow march of the British Grenadier Guards is derived,  was performed as a stopgap, waiting for the arrival of Faustina Bordoni.
In 1727 Handel was commissioned to write four anthems for the Coronation ceremony of King George II. One of these, Zadok the Priest, has been played at every British coronation ceremony since.  The words to Zadok the Priest are taken from the King James Bible.  In 1728 John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, which made fun of the type of Italian opera Handel had popularised in London, premiered at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre and ran for 62 consecutive performances, the longest run in theatre history up to that time.  After nine years the Royal Academy of Music ceased to function but Handel soon started a new company.
The Queen's Theatre at the Haymarket (now Her Majesty's Theatre), established in 1705 by architect and playwright John Vanbrugh, quickly became an opera house.  Between 1711 and 1739, more than 25 of Handel's operas premièred there.  In 1729 Handel became joint manager of the theatre with John James Heidegger.
Handel travelled to Italy to engage new singers and also composed seven more operas, among them the comic masterpiece Partenope and the "magic" opera Orlando.  After two commercially successful English oratorios Esther and Deborah, he was able to invest again in the South Sea Company. Handel reworked his Acis and Galatea which then became his most successful work ever. Handel failed to compete with the Opera of the Nobility, who engaged musicians such as Johann Adolph Hasse, Nicolo Porpora and the famous castrato Farinelli. The strong support by Frederick, Prince of Wales caused conflicts in the royal family. In March 1734 Handel composed a wedding anthem This is the day which the Lord hath made, and a serenata Parnasso in Festa for Anne, Princess Royal. 
Despite the problems the Opera of the Nobility was causing him at the time, Handel's neighbour in Brook Street, Mary Delany, reported on a party she invited Handel to at her house on 12 April 1734 where he was in good spirits:
I had Lady Rich and her daughter, Lady Cath. Hanmer and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Percival, Sir John Stanley and my brother, Mrs. Donellan, Strada [star soprano of Handel's operas] and Mr. Coot. Lord Shaftesbury begged of Mr. Percival to bring him, and being a profess'd friend of Mr. Handel (who was here also) was admitted I never was so well entertained at an opera! Mr. Handel was in the best humour in the world, and played lessons and accompanied Strada and all the ladies that sang from seven o'clock till eleven. I gave them tea and coffee, and about half an hour after nine had a salver brought in of chocolate, mulled white wine and biscuits. Everybody was easy and seemed pleased. 
Opera at Covent Garden (1734–41) Edit
In 1733 the Earl of Essex received a letter with the following sentence: "Handel became so arbitrary a prince, that the Town murmurs." The board of chief investors expected Handel to retire when his contract ended, but Handel immediately looked for another theatre. In cooperation with John Rich he started his third company at Covent Garden Theatre. Rich was renowned for his spectacular productions. He suggested Handel use his small chorus and introduce the dancing of Marie Sallé, for whom Handel composed Terpsicore. In 1735 he introduced organ concertos between the acts. For the first time Handel allowed Gioacchino Conti, who had no time to learn his part, to substitute arias.  Financially, Ariodante was a failure, although he introduced ballet suites at the end of each act.  Alcina, his last opera with a magic content, and Alexander's Feast or the Power of Music based on John Dryden's Alexander's Feast starred Anna Maria Strada del Pò and John Beard.
In April 1737, at age 52, Handel apparently suffered a stroke which disabled the use of four fingers on his right hand, preventing him from performing.  In summer the disorder seemed at times to affect his understanding. Nobody expected that Handel would ever be able to perform again. But whether the affliction was rheumatism, a stroke or a nervous breakdown, he recovered remarkably quickly .  To aid his recovery, Handel had travelled to Aachen, a spa in Germany. During six weeks he took long hot baths, and ended up playing the organ for a surprised audience.  He wrote Faramondo in December 1737 and Serse in January 1738. Deidamia, his last opera, a co-production with the Earl of Holderness,  was performed three times in 1741. Handel gave up the opera business, while he enjoyed more success with his English oratorios. 
In 1738 he composed music for a musical clock with a pipe organ built by Charles Clay it was bought by Gerrit Braamcamp and was in 2016 acquired by the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht.  
Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, an allegory, Handel's first oratorio  was composed in Italy in 1707, followed by La resurrezione in 1708 which uses material from the Bible. The circumstances of Esther and its first performance, possibly in 1718, are obscure.  Another 12 years had passed when an act of piracy caused him to take up Esther once again.  Three earlier performances aroused such interest that they naturally prompted the idea of introducing it to a larger public. Next came Deborah, strongly coloured by the coronation anthems  and Athaliah, his first English Oratorio.  In these three oratorios Handel laid the foundation for the traditional use of the chorus which marks his later oratorios.  Handel became sure of himself, broader in his presentation, and more diverse in his composition. 
It is evident how much he learned from Arcangelo Corelli about writing for instruments, and from Alessandro Scarlatti about writing for the solo voice but there is no single composer who taught him how to write for chorus.  Handel tended more and more to replace Italian soloists by English ones. The most significant reason for this change was the dwindling financial returns from his operas.  Thus a tradition was created for oratorios which was to govern their future performance. The performances were given without costumes and action the singers appeared in their own clothes. 
In 1736 Handel produced Alexander's Feast. John Beard appeared for the first time as one of Handel's principal singers and became Handel's permanent tenor soloist for the rest of Handel's life.  The piece was a great success and it encouraged Handel to make the transition from writing Italian operas to English choral works. In Saul, Handel was collaborating with Charles Jennens and experimenting with three trombones, a carillon and extra-large military kettledrums (from the Tower of London), to be sure ". it will be most excessive noisy".  Saul and Israel in Egypt both from 1739 head the list of great, mature oratorios, in which the da capo aria became the exception and not the rule.  Israel in Egypt consists of little else but choruses, borrowing from the Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline. In his next works Handel changed his course. In these works he laid greater stress on the effects of orchestra and soloists the chorus retired into the background.  L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato has a rather diverting character the work is light and fresh.
During the summer of 1741, The 3rd Duke of Devonshire invited Handel to Dublin, capital of the Kingdom of Ireland, to give concerts for the benefit of local hospitals.  His Messiah was first performed at the New Music Hall in Fishamble Street on 13 April 1742, with 26 boys and five men from the combined choirs of St Patrick's and Christ Church cathedrals participating.  Handel secured a balance between soloists and chorus which he never surpassed.
Hallelujah! The story of Handel’s Messiah
After the London ‘season’ ended in 1741, Handel turned as usual to writing works for the next autumn. One of these was a setting of a new libretto by the literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare’s plays, Charles Jennens, who had provided the text for Saul four years earlier. He described Messiah as a ‘Scripture Collection’, a series of short extracts from the Authorised Version of the Bible, somewhat different from Handel’s usual preference for oratorios based on larger-than-life characters and dramatic stories from the Old Testament.
Handel, in debt and depressed as a result, began composition on Saturday 22 August 1741, completed drafts of each Part in about a week each, and ‘filled up’ the score in a couple more days, a total of 23 days for the complete work – an astonishing work-rate, even if some numbers were recycled from earlier music (why throw away good music after its public performances?).
It was so quick, in fact, that most of us would be hard-pressed simply to copy out the music, let alone conceive virtually all of it from scratch.
Jennens was suprised to hear that Messiah was not scheduled for first performance in London: he wrote in a letter ‘it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing it here he was gone into Ireland with it’.
Internal evidence from the score, though, suggests that Handel had it in mind for Dublin rather than for the more generous resources of London. It’s modestly scored, for just strings, trumpets and drums, and it only requires four soloists, one each of soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
The English music historian Dr Charles Burney claims that, as a 15-year-old boy at school in Chester, he saw Handel there, en route to Dublin, ‘[smoking] a pipe over a dish of coffee at the Exchange Coffee-House’. Handel asked Burney’s music teacher, the cathedral organist ‘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’.
A bass, a printer named Jansen, was recommended to him and a rehearsal took place at the Golden Falcon where Handel was staying. Jansen failed miserably to cope with ‘And with his stripes’ from Messiah at which, says Burney, Handel, ‘after swearing at him in four or five different languages, cried out in broken English: “You shcauntrel, tid you not tell me zat you could sing at sight?”. “Yes sir”, says the printer, “and so I can, but not at first sight”’. Some scholars have cast doubt on this lively anecdote. To others it has a ring of truth if only because it seems qutie unlikely that a reputable writer such as Burney should simply invent it.
Handel arrived in Dublin from Holyhead on 18 November 1741 followed three days later by a soprano, Christina Maria Avolio, who sang for him during his stay in Dublin. He quickly set up a series of six subscription concerts including his Ode based on John Milton’s pastoral poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso in a newly built concert room in Fishamble Street (named after the fish ‘ambles’ or stalls in the market there). The concerts were an immediate success, Handel reporting that the subscribers filled ‘a Room of 600 Persons, so that I needed not sell one single Ticket at the door’.
Attendances were no less in January, with such traffic jams that ‘Gentlemen and Ladies are desired to order their Coaches and Chairs to come down Fishamble Street, which will prevent a great deal of Inconvenience that happened the Night before’. Concert promotion was not without its problems though. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral had given approval for vicars-choral from the Cathedral choir to take part in Handel’s series. Suddenly, apparently the result of a failing memory (he was described as ‘dying from the top’), he rescinded the licence to ‘assist at a club of fiddlers in Fishamble Street’, and required his ‘Sub-Dean and Chapter to punish such vicars as shall ever appear there, as songsters, fiddlers, pipers, trumpeters, drummers, drum-majors, or in any sonal quality, according to the flagitious aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy, and ingratitude’. Swift seems to have forgotten this change of heart as quickly as he first experienced it, and cathedral singers took part, potential ‘flagitious aggravations’ notwithstanding, in successful concerts from January onwards.
The Dublin Journal of 27 March 1742, announcing the first performance of Messiah, stressed its charitable aims: ‘For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12 April, will be performed at the Musick hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel’s new Grand oratorio, call’d the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handell.’
Tickets cost half a guinea each, about £45 in today’s money, but they also gave admission to the rehearsal on the 9 April which was received by ‘a most Grand, Polite and crouded Audience’. Presumably in response to such ticket sales, the Journal published an appeal on 10 April that: ‘The Ladies who honour this Performance with their Presence would be pleased to come without Hoops, as it will greatly encrease the Charity, by making room for more company’, and on the day of the performance, delayed until the 13 April, ‘The Gentlemen [were] desired to come without their Swords’, and for good reason – the ‘Musick hall’ designed for an audience of about 600, had 700 packed into it by midday, when the performance duly began.
Information about the performers for this inaugural performance is rather sketchy. Exact numbers of singers or orchestral players aren’t known. But the orchestra was certainly led by Matthew Dubourg, who moved from London to Dublin in 1728 and from then on divided his time between the two capital cities. He was a long-term friend of Handel who left him £100 in his will. They clearly seem to have enjoyed a wry joke or two together: on one occasion, after he had improvised an exceptionally long cadenza, Handel declared ‘Welcome home, Mr Dubourg!’.
Handel presumably directed the performance from the organ, his own portable-sized instrument which he had arranged to be brought to Dublin. Of the solo singers, the soprano was Christina Avolio of whom Handel wrote that ‘she pleases extraordinary’. His female alto was Susanna Maria Cibber, both actress and singer who, according to Charles Burney, ‘had captivated every hearer of sensibility by her native sweetness of voice and powers of expression’. She had fled to Dublin from London to escape the scandal of an adulterous affair and seems to achieved public absolution when one Rev. Dr. Delaney was moved to rise from his seat after her singing of ‘He was despised’ and exclaim ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven’.
The other soloists came from the Cathedral Choirs, and also sang in the chorus. This was relatively small. Handel may have called on up to 26 boy trebles from the two Cathedrals but, for the lower parts, the Handel scholar Donald Burrows has imaginatively counted up the known cathedral men, subtracted four who were probably ordained and so not permitted to engage in secular concerts, and come up with only around three or four singers to a part – the sort of chamber-music scale to which we’re refreshingly returning today.
The performance received rave reviews. The Dublin Journal reported: ‘…the best Judges allowed [Messiah] to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear’. For 268 years since, Messiah has remained pre-eminent among sacred oratorios. Through all its Classical additions by Mozart, gargantuan scoring by Sir Thomas Beecham, Crystal Palace renderings by casts of thousands (see Another fine Messiah overleaf), spontaneous ‘from scratch’ performances, up until more recent rediscovery of its original scale and character, it has never failed to ‘transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear’.
The story behind Handel’s Messiah
Dr. Jerry Newcombe is a key archivist of the D. James Kennedy Legacy Library, a spokesman and cohost of Kennedy Classics.
A Christmas favorite of many is Handel’s Messiah. I have even heard that the opening lines of its Hallelujah Chorus are the most recognizable piece of music the world over.
One time I was with some friends in London. We saw an historical placard on an old house, and it said that George Friedrich Handel had lived there. I almost went apoplectic with joy. But nearby, on what I recall was an adjoining building, was another blue marker saying that Jimi Hendrix had lived in that house for a time. And my friends got more thrills from that.
There’s something deeply touching about what I think is Handel’s greatest work, Messiah. Plus, I think this work is a great zenith of Western civilization. The story behind Messiah is a fascinating one.
In his book, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh tells how Handel barely ate during the 24 days he wrote Messiah. At one point, the composer had tears in his eyes and cried out to his servant, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” He had just finished writing the Hallelujah Chorus.
Amazingly, Messiah came at a time in his life when the 56-year old Handel was facing bankruptcy and complete failure. Also, some Church of England authorities were apparently critical of him and his work.
He seemed all washed up---with his best days behind him. But writing Messiah proved to be the positive turning point in his life.
Handel was born in Germany. His father wanted him to study law, but George Friedrich had an aptitude for music, which was clear early on. His mother bought him a harpsichord, which they kept up in the attic, secret from his father.
By the time he was twelve, Handel wrote his first musical work.
Later, after his father’s death, he tried to study law, but he had no interest. So he studied music at the University of Halle.
In 1712, Handel moved to England and never returned to Germany.
While he experienced successes through various compositions, including operas and sacred operas (oratorios based on biblical themes), Kavanaugh notes that Handel’s failures threatened to overwhelm him: “His occasional commercial successes soon met with financial disaster…He drove himself relentlessly to recover from one failure after another, and finally his health began to fail. By 1741 he was swimming in debt. It seemed certain he would land in debtor’s prison.”
But 1741 proved to be the turning point. On the one hand, he gave what he feared was his farewell concert. On the other hand, a friend of his, Charles Jennens, Jr., gave him a libretto (a text) for a sacred work. It was essentially an assembly of Bible verses, focused on the Messiah, both from the Old and New Testaments. Furthermore, a charity in Dublin paid him money to write something for a charity performance.
Messiah was the result, and it was very successful.
Jennens’ role in this masterpiece is often lost, even on fans of Messiah. He is the one who carefully gleaned through the King James Bible and assembled the verses about the Christ that Handel so brilliantly set to music.
Rev. John Moore is a music minister I know who has directly participated in 300 performances of Messiah---either as a conductor, singer, or trumpet player. He told me more about Jennens, a devout Christian.
“The Enlightenment had come into being,” said Moore, “and there were many people that were rejecting Christianity. And Deism was the religion of the elite. And there was one man named Charles Jennens who wanted to counteract that, and he was also an ardent admirer of Handel. And so he provided the libretto, and as a result, this incredible masterpiece of music with a Christian emphasis has been a major work throughout the centuries since it was written.”
The libretto of Messiah consists of 73 verses from the King James Version of the Bible---42 from the Old Testament, 31 from the New---all pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ,…the Anointed One….the Messiah.
Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1742. It was a benefit concert for charity. According to one source, proceeds freed 142 men from debtors’ prison.
A year later, King George II was present at the first performance of Messiah in London. It is said that the monarch fell asleep, and at the opening of the Hallelujah Chorus, he rose to his feet, thinking it was his cue. Whatever the reason, he stood, and that has been the custom ever since---to stand during the Hallelujah Chorus.
But Handel’s masterpiece, now a Christmas and Easter tradition, was written for a greater purpose for his hearers: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.”
Premiere and early performances
Handel’s decision to give a season of concerts in Dublin in the winter of 1741–42 arose from an invitation from the Duke of Devonshire, then serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. A violinist friend of Handel’s, Matthew Dubourg, was in Dublin as the Lord Lieutenant’s bandmaster he would look after the tour’s orchestral requirements. Whether Handel originally intended to perform Messiah in Dublin is uncertain he did not inform Jennens of any such plan, for the latter wrote to Holdsworth on 2 December 1741: “… it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing Messiah here he has gone into Ireland with it.” After arriving in Dublin on 18 November 1741, Handel arranged a subscription series of six concerts, to be held between December 1741 and February 1742 at the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street. These concerts were so popular that a second series was quickly arranged Messiah figured in neither series.
In early March Handel began discussions with the appropriate committees for a charity concert, to be given in April, at which he intended to present Messiah. He sought and was given permission from St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals to use their choirs for this occasion. These forces amounted to 16 men and 16 boy choristers several of the men were allocated solo parts. The women soloists were Christina Maria Avoglio, who had sung the main soprano roles in the two subscription series, and Susannah Cibber, an established stage actress and contralto who had sung in the second series. To accommodate Cibber’s vocal range, the recitative “Then shall the eyes of the blind” and the aria “He shall feed his flock” were transposed down to F major. The performance, also in the Fishamble Street hall, was originally announced for 12 April, but was deferred for a day “at the request of persons of Distinction”. The orchestra in Dublin comprised strings, two trumpets, and timpani the number of players is unknown. Handel had his own organ shipped to Ireland for the performances a harpsichord was probably also used.
The three charities that were to benefit were prisoners’ debt relief, the Mercer’s Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary. In its report on a public rehearsal, the Dublin News-Letter described the oratorio as “… far surpass[ing] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom”. Seven hundred people attended the premiere on 13 April. So that the largest possible audience could be admitted to the concert, gentlemen were requested to remove their swords, and ladies were asked not to wear hoops in their dresses. The performance earned unanimous praise from the assembled press: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring and crouded Audience”. A Dublin clergyman, Rev. Delaney, was so overcome by Susanna Cibber’s rendering of “He was despised” that reportedly he leapt to his feet and cried: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”. The takings amounted to around £400, providing about £127 to each of the three nominated charities and securing the release of 142 indebted prisoners.
Handel remained in Dublin for four months after the premiere. He organised a second performance of Messiah on 3 June, which was announced as “the last Performance of Mr Handel’s during his Stay in this Kingdom”. In this second Messiah, which was for Handel’s private financial benefit, Cibber reprised her role from the first performance, though Avoglio may have been replaced by a Mrs Maclaine details of other performers are not recorded.
The warm reception accorded to Messiah in Dublin was not repeated in London when Handel introduced the work at the Covent Garden theatre on 23 March 1743. Avoglio and Cibber were again the chief soloists they were joined by the tenor John Beard, a veteran of Handel’s operas, the bass Thomas Rheinhold and two other sopranos, Kitty Clive and Miss Edwards. The first performance was overshadowed by views expressed in the press that the work’s subject matter was too exalted to be performed in a theatre, particularly by secular singer-actresses such as Cibber and Clive. In an attempt to deflect such sensibilities, in London Handel had avoided the name Messiah and presented the work as the “New Sacred Oratorio”. As was his custom, Handel rearranged the music to suit his singers. He wrote a new setting of “And lo, the angel of the Lord” for Clive, never used subsequently. He added a tenor song for Beard: “Their sound is gone out”, which had appeared in Jennens’s original libretto but had not been in the Dublin performances.
The custom of standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus originates from a belief that, at the London premiere, King George II did so, which would have obliged all to stand. There is no convincing evidence that the king was present, or that he attended any subsequent performance of Messiah the first reference to the practice of standing appears in a letter dated 1756.
London’s initially cool reception of Messiah led Handel to reduce the season’s planned six performances to three, and not to present the work at all in 1744—to the considerable annoyance of Jennens, whose relations with the composer temporarily soured. At Jennens’s request, Handel made several changes in the music for the 1745 revival: “Their sound is gone out” became a choral piece, the soprano song “Rejoice greatly” was recomposed in shortened form, and the transpositions for Cibber’s voice were restored to their original soprano range. Jennens wrote to Holdsworth on 30 August 1745: “[Handel] has made a fine Entertainment of it, though not near so good as he might & ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grosser faults in the composition …” Handel directed two performances at Covent Garden in 1745, on 9 and 11 April, and then set the work aside for four years.
The 1749 revival at Covent Garden, under the proper title of Messiah, saw the appearance of two female soloists who were henceforth closely associated with Handel’s music: Giulia Frasi and Caterina Galli. In the following year these were joined by the male alto Gaetano Guadagni, for whom Handel composed new versions of “But who may abide” and “Thou art gone up on high”. The year 1750 also saw the institution of the annual charity performances of Messiah at London’s Foundling Hospital, which continued until Handel’s death and beyond. The 1754 performance at the hospital is the first for which full details of the orchestral and vocal forces survive. The orchestra included fifteen violins, five violas, three cellos, two double-basses, four bassoons, four oboes, two trumpets, two horns and drums. In the chorus of nineteen were six trebles from the Chapel Royal the remainder, all men, were altos, tenors and basses. Frasi, Galli and Beard led the five soloists, who were required to assist the chorus. For this performance the transposed Guadagni arias were restored to the soprano voice. By 1754 Handel was severely afflicted by the onset of blindness, and in 1755 he turned over the direction of the Messiah hospital performance to his pupil, J.C. Smith. He apparently resumed his duties in 1757 and may have continued thereafter. The final performance of the work at which Handel was present was at Covent Garden on 6 April 1759, eight days before his death.
5 Things You Might Not Know About Handel's Messiah
In the orchestra world, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is every bit an annual Christmas tradition as eggnog and overworked shopping mall Santas.
In the 2014-2015 season alone, 13 out of the 22 largest American orchestras will perform the piece 38 times.
The Messiah oratorio premiered in 1742 when the German-born Handel was the preeminent composer in his adopted home of the United Kingdom. Handel’s name drew such a crowd that audience members were advised to leave their hoop skirts and swords at home for fear of overcrowding at the Messiah’s Dublin premiere.
But as much of a tradition as Handel’s work has become, many modern audiences might not know just how it came to be and how it came to dominate the Yule time orchestra calendar.
|George Frideric Handel|
1. A lot of people thought itwas blasphemous
Given the oratorio’s sacred subject matter and Handel’s note on his original manuscript that read “To God alone the glory,” it’s hard to imagine that any audience could have interpreted the music as anything less than devout.
However, opera and classical composers were often the subject of moral outrage in the 1700s. During a 1727 performance of a Handel opera, two leading sopranos came to blows onstage while the audience rooted them on. The incident led satirist John Arbuthnot to write a pamphlet on the absurdity of London’s opera world that included the line, “Shame that two such well-bred ladies should call [each other] b---- and wh---, should scold and fight.”
Handel’s opera Esther also caused outrage from the Bishop of London when it was performed by cathedral singers in 1732. When Handel moved from opera into oratorio dealing with religious subject matter, many critics objected to the idea of mixing the sacred and secular worlds where the same theater might host religious subject matter one day and suggestive comedy the next.
Handel hoped advertising the piece as “A Sacred Oratorio” instead of “Messiah” would help defuse some of the controversy, and his decision to premiere the work in Dublin instead of London was in part to try the work away from Anglican bishops. But even in Ireland, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame threatened to publicly forbid singers from St. Patrick’s Cathedral from participating.
2. It is not a Christmas piece
Librettist Charles Jennens, who was a close friend and collaborator with Handel, used the biblical stories of Jesus for the Messiah’s text. Jennens described his work as “a meditation of our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief.”
But only the first third of the work was about the birth of Jesus. The second act covers the death of Jesus and the third focused on his resurrection. As such, the piece was originally conceived as a work for Easter and was premiered in the spring during the Lent season.
By the 19th century, Messiah became a regular December staple particularly in the United States. Laurence Cummings, conductor of the London Handel Orchestra, told Smithsonian Magazine that the Christmas performance custom may have partly come out of necessity.
"There is so much fine Easter music — Bach's St. Matthew Passion, most especially — and so little great sacral music written for Christmas," he said.
3. It was written incredibly fast
Handel wrote the original version of Messiah in three to four weeks. Most historic accounts estimate the composer spent only 24 days writing the oratorio.
What makes this even more astounding is the sheer scale of the 259-page score. Richard Luckett, author of Handel’s Messiah: A Celebration, writes that there are some uncorrected errors or blotted out notes but remarkably few mistakes given the speed of Handel’s writing.
NPR music commentator Miles Hoffman estimates there are roughly a quarter of a million notes in Messiah. At a little more than three weeks of 10-hour days, Hoffman said that means Handel would have had to keep a continuous pace writing 15 notes a minute.
4. There is no definitive version
Leonard Bernstein once raised eyebrows by reordering sections of Messiah for a Carnegie Hall performance. Not many conductors would have the confidence to tinker with the original intentions of a composer like Handel, but in reality his original intentions are hard to guess.
Handel rewrote parts of the oratorio to better meet the abilities of soloists and the available instruments with each of the original 13 performances. Historically, Messiah has continued to change with the ensembles that perform it. Mozart re-orchestrated Messiah in 1789 and gave it a more modern sound by Classical orchestra standards. He humbly wrote than any alterations he made should not be seen as an effort at improvement.
5. King George II stood during the “Hallelujah” chorus… or maybe not
An often repeated legend about Messiah tells the story of King George II who was so moved by the “Hallelujah” chorus during the London premiere of Messiah that he rose to his feet and then everyone in attendance followed suit as not to be sitting when the king stood.
Thus we believe the regularly debated tradition of standing during the “Hallelujah” chorus came to be — also giving birth to countless passive-aggressive battles of concert decorum between the sitters and standers.
However, according to various experts, there is no truth to this story. In fact there is no evidence King George II was even in attendance, and it is unlikely the newspaper writers that were in the audience would have overlooked mentioning a royal presence. The first reference to this story was a letter written 37 years after the fact.
Just where that leaves us in the annual stand-versus-sit showdown though is still very much up for debate.
‘Messiah’: The Story Behind Handel’s Masterpiece
Explore Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – an oratorio which traces the story of Jesus Christ and is one of the greatest choral works of all time.
Handel composed Messiah, an English language oratorio which traces the story of Jesus Christ, in 1741. Messiah was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception the oratorio gained in popularity and eventually became one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral pieces in Western music. The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus is one of the most famous pieces of Baroque choral music and the most widely known section of the work. Though it was originally written for Easter, Handel’s eminently singable Messiah has also become a mainstay of the festive season. Celebrate Easter by experiencing the story of Christ through one of the greatest choral works of all time – Handel’s Messiah.
Listen to our recommended recording of Handel’s Messiah, recorded by Trevor Pinnock with the English Concert and Choir, now.
Messiah and George Frideric Handel
In a small London house on Brook Street, a waiter sighs with resignation as he arranges a tray full of food he fully expects will not be eaten.
For more than a week, he has faithfully continued to wait on his employer, an eccentric composer, who spends hour after hour isolated in his own room. Morning, noon, and evening the man delivers appealing meals to the composer, and returns later to find the bowls and platters mostly untouched.
Once again, he steels himself to go through the same routine, muttering under his breath about how oddly temperamental musicians can be. As he swings open the door to the composer's room, the waiter stops in his tracks.
The startled composer, tears streaming down his face, turns to him and cries out, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself." George Frideric Handel had just finished writing a movement which would take its place in history as the "Hallelujah Chorus."
If Handel's father had had his way, the "Hallelujah Chorus" would never have been written. His father was a "surgeon-barber," a no-nonsense, practical man who was determined to send his son to law school. Even though Handel showed extraordinary musical talent as a child, his father refused for several years to permit him to take lessons.
George Frideric was born in 1685, a contemporary of Bach, a fellow German, and also raised as a fellow Lutheran, yet they were never to meet. Though many books on the lives of great composers begin with Bach, in fact, Handel was born several weeks earlier, on February 23, 1685.
When the boy was eight or nine years old, a duke heard him play an organ postlude following a worship service. Handel's father was summarily requested to provide formal music training for the boy. By the time Handel turned 12, he had written his first composition and was so proficient at the organ that he substituted, on occasion, for his own teacher.
He Might Have Become a Lawyer
Young Handel continued to master the clavichord, oboe, and violin, as well as composition through the years. In 1702 he entered the University of Halle to study law out of respect for his late father's desire. But he soon abandoned his legal studies and devoted himself entirely to music.
He became a violinist and composer in a Hamburg opera theater, then worked in Italy from 1706 to 1710 under the patronage of their music-loving courts. In 1712, after a short stay at the court of Hanover, he moved to England, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Handel was the sort of individual who stands out in a crowd. Large-boned and loud, he often wore an enormous white wig with curls cascading to his shoulders. When he spoke, his English was replete with colorful snatches of German, French and Italian.
Although Handel wrote his greatest music in England, he suffered personal setbacks there as well. Falling in and out of favor with changing monarchs, competing with established English composers, and dealing with fickle, hard to-please audiences left him on the verge of bankruptcy more than once.
Yet Handel retained his sense of humor through virtually any hardship. Once, just as an oratorio of his was about to begin, several of his friends gathered to console him about the extremely sparse audience attracted to the performance. "Never mind," Handel joked to his friends. "The music will sound the better" due to the improved acoustics of a very empty concert hall!
Keep the Bible in Church!
Audiences for Handel's compositions were unpredictable, and even the Church of England attacked him for what they considered his notorious practice of writing biblical dramas such as Esther and Israel in Egypt to be performed in secular theaters. His occasional commercial successes soon met with financial disaster, as rival opera companies competed for the ticket holders of London. He drove himself relentlessly to recover from one failure after another, and finally his health began to fail. By 1741 he was swimming in debt. It seemed certain he would land in debtor's prison.
Time to Pack It In?
On April 8 of that year, he gave what he considered his farewell concert. Miserably discouraged, he felt forced to retire from public activities at the age of 56. Then two unforeseen events converged to change his life. A wealthy friend, Charles Jennings, gave Handel a libretto based on the life of Christ, taken entirely from the Bible. He also received a commission from a Dublin charity to compose a work for a benefit performance.
Handel set to work composing on August 22 in his little house on Brook Street in London. He grew so absorbed in the work that he rarely left his room, hardly stopping to eat. Within six days Part One was complete. In nine days more he had finished Part Two, and in another six, Part Three. The orchestration was completed in another two days. In all, 260 pages of manuscript were filled in the remarkably short time of 24 days.
Sir Newman Flower, one of Handel's many biographers, summed up the consensus of history: "Considering the immensity of the work and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition." Handel's title for the commissioned work was, simply, Messiah.
Handel never left his house for those three weeks. A friend who visited him as he composed found him sobbing with intense emotion. Later, as Handel groped for words to describe what he had experienced, he quoted St. Paul, saying, "Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not."
On Your Feet, Folks!
Messiah premiered on April 13, 1742, as a charitable benefit, raising 400 pounds and freeing 142 men from debtor's prison. A year later, Handel staged it in London. Controversy emanating from the Church of England continued to plague Handel, yet the King of England attended the performance. As the first notes of the triumphant "Hallelujah Chorus" rang out, the king rose. Following royal protocol, the entire audience stood, too, initiating a tradition which has lasted for more than two centuries.
Soon after this, Handel's fortunes began to increase dramatically, and his hard-won popularity remained constant until his death. By the end of his long life, Messiah was firmly established in the standard repertoire. His influence on other composers would be extraordinary. When Haydn later heard the "Hallelujah Chorus," he wept like a child and exclaimed, "He is the master of us all!"
Handel personally conducted more than thirty performances of Messiah. Many of these concerts were benefits for the Foundling Hospital, of which Handel was a major benefactor. The thousands of pounds Handel's performances of Messiah raised for charity led one biographer to note, "Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan . more than any other single musical production in this or any country." Another wrote, "Perhaps the works of no other composer have so largely contributed to the relief of human suffering."
The Power of Music
This work has had an uncanny spiritual impact on the lives of its listeners. One writer has stated that Messiah's music and message "has probably done more to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all the theological works ever written."
The composer's own assessment, more than any other, may best capture his personal aspirations for his well-loved work. Following the first London performance of Messiah, Lord Kinnoul congratulated Handel on the excellent entertainment. Handel replied, "My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertain them. I wish to make them better."
The religious beliefs of the composer who created the world's most popular religious masterpiece have puzzled many musicologists. In an era when Christian musicians typically worked for local churches, this composer of secular opera, chamber, and orchestral music did not fit the usual pattern. Yet he was a devout follower of Christ and widely known for his concern for others. Handel's morals were above reproach. At church he was often seen on his knees, expressing by his looks and gesticulations the utmost fervor of devotion.
His friend Sir John Hawkins recorded that Handel "throughout his life manifested a deep sense of religion. In conversation he would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification." In one of his few surviving letters, Handel comforts his brother-in-law on the death of Handel's mother: "It pleased the Almighty, to whose great Holy Will I submit myself with Christian submission."
And he surely needed such Christian grace to endure blows inflicted by his competitors. But there was also an onslaught of attacks from within his own camp. Even after Messiah was becoming well-known, as great a religious figure as John Newton, composer of the hymn "Amazing Grace," preached often against the "secular" performances of this biblical oratorio.
Known universally for his generosity and concern for those who suffered, Handel donated freely to charities even in times when he faced personal financial ruin. He was a relentless optimist whose faith in God sustained him through every difficulty. Raised a sincere Lutheran, he harbored no sectarian animosities and steered clear of denominational disagreements. Once, defending himself before a quarrelsome archbishop, Handel simply replied "I have read my Bible very well and will choose for myself."
A few days before Handel died, he expressed his desire to die on Good Friday, "in the hopes of meeting his good God, his sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of his Resurrection." He lived until the morning of Good Saturday, April 14, 1759. His death came only eight days after his final performance, at which he had conducted his masterpiece, Messiah.
His close friend James Smyth wrote, "He died as he lived--a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God and to man, and in perfect charity with all the world." Handel was buried in Westminster Abbey, with over 3,000 in attendance at his funeral. A statue erected there shows him holding the manuscript for the solo that opens Part Three of Messiah, "I know that my Redeemer liveth."
This edition of Glimpses is abridged and adapted from a chapter on Handel in The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Cavanaugh, published in 1992 by Sparrow Press, Nashville.
You’ve never heard the Messiah like this!
Combine the premier choral conductor of our time the elite Cambridge Singers the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Handel’s timeless Baroque score, and you have the ultimate musical celebration for Christmas or Easter!
Every word on this 2-CD set comes from Scripture and exalts the name of Jesus! The prophetic words of Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi will help you anticipate the coming Messiah. And then, in the words of Matthew and Luke, the angels suddenly appear to the shepherds singing that familiar chorus, Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth, good will towards men.