Time For Handel’s Messiah

George Frideric Handel (at age 64 in 1749) produced works, including Messiah that dazzled even the musical titans who would succeed him. (AGE Fotostock)

The Glorious History of Handel’s Messiah

by Jonathan Kandell/Smithsonian.com

George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was originally an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses “without Hoops” in order to make “Room for more company.” Handel’s superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then embroiled in a scandalous divorce.

The men and women in attendance sat mesmerized from the moment the tenor followed the mournful string overture with his piercing opening line: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Soloists alternated with wave upon wave of chorus, until, near the midway point, Cibber intoned: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” So moved was the Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

Now, of course, Messiah is a fixture of the Christmas season. Woe to the concert hall in the United States or Britain that fails to schedule the piece around the holiday, when, as well, CD sales and Web downloads of the oratorio soar.

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  1. Messiah is an oddball oratorio, as there is no dialog, action, or named characters, only commentary. Every other oratorio by “Il Sassone” (as Handel was referred to during his stay in Italy) was an opera in disguise.

    “…at St. George’s Hanover Square church, where Handel worshiped…”

    Worshiped as a heretic, since he only accepted the New Testament, and and considered the Old Testament nothing more than a collection of (mostly gruesome) fables, since he could not reconcile Jesus with YHWH.

    “‘Even when the subject of his work is religious, Handel is writing about the human response to the divine,’ says conductor Bicket. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Messiah.”

    No, most apparent in Jeptha, where the human response to the divine makes a mockery of Old Testament brutality.

    “He [Mozart] insisted that any alterations to Handel’s score should not be interpreted as an effort to improve the music.”

    The re-orchestration was to suit available performers, such as replacing the trumpet solo with a horn solo in “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, since Mozart’s available forces lacked a trumpeter up to his standards.

    It ain’t authentic, but people should hear Beecham’s re-orchestration and performance of Messiah (RCA Victor Gold Seal, BMG Classics 09026-61266-2). Would be terrible from a lesser conductor than Beecham, and of course Vickers and Tozzi contribute immensely to its success.

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