Handel's Glorious Messiah
A beloved holiday tradition, Handel’s celebrated oratorio—with its blazing trumpets, thundering timpani and spectacular “Hallelujah!” chorus—provides a moment to experience reflection, renewal and joy during the busy season.
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an Oratorio by George Frideric Handel
The Words selected from Holy Scripture by Charles Jennens
George Hanson • Conductor
Shannon Mercer • Soprano
Renée Tatum • Mezzo-Soprano
John Bellemer • Tenor
Stephen Bryant • Bass
Pacific Chorale — John Alexander • Artistic Director
Robert Istad • Associate Conductor/Chorusmaster
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, organ, strings, chorus: soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass soloists
Performance time: 2 hours
Recitative: Comfort ye my people
Aria: Ev’ry valley shall be exalted
Chorus: And the glory of the Lord
Recitative: Thus saith the Lord
Aria: But who may abide the day of His coming?
Chorus: And He shall purify
Recitative: Behold, a virgin shall conceive
Aria & Chorus: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion
Chorus: For unto us a Child is born
Pifa “Pastoral Symphony”
Recitative: There were shepherds abiding in the field
Recitative: And the angel said unto them
Recitative: And suddenly there was with the Angel
Chorus: Glory to God
Aria: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion
Recitative: Then shall the eyes of the blind
Aria: He shall feed His flock
Chorus: His yoke is easy, His burthen is light
Chorus: Behold the Lamb of God
Aria: He was despised
Chorus: Surely He hath borne our griefs
Chorus: And with His stripes we are healed
Chorus: All we like sheep have gone astray
Recitative: All they that see Him
Chorus: He trusted in God
Recitative: Thy rebuke hath broken His heart
Aria: Behold, and see if there be any sorrow
Recitative: He was cut off out of the land of the living
Aria: But thou didst not leave His soul
Chorus: Lift up your heads, O ye gates
Recitative: He that dwelleth in Heaven
Aria: Thou shalt break them
Aria: I know that my Redeemer liveth
Chorus: Since by man came death
Recitative: Behold, I tell you a mystery
Aria: The trumpet shall sound
Chorus: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain – Amen
Historians often remind us that even when the tumult of current events seems unprecedented, it isn't. In a year that included a hotly contested presidential election, the luminous message and thrilling beauty of Handel's glorious Messiah remind us of things that never change.
"Why do the nations so furiously rage together," he asks us, "and why do the people imagine a vain thing, the kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed?" He could have had our modern turmoil in mind when he chose this verse from Psalm 22 for Messiah. But politics was a messy business 275 years ago, as well.
This staying power is one reason that Handel's Messiah has become the most popular oratorio in the world by far; another, of course, is its outpouring of melody and dramatic effects.
Just listening to those treacherous melismas as the bass soloist sings of furiously raging nations will bring the 2016 campaign right back to you—but with a different perspective than a television news show.
From the very beginning, listeners have found this kind of relevance in Messiah's extraordinary music. Papa Haydn, always generous praising the merits of other composers, called Handel "der Meister von uns allen," "the master of us all" at a performance of Messiah. But Beethoven, who was far more grudging with his approval, used almost the same words—"der unerreichte Meister aller Meister," "the unequalled master of all masters," to describe the composer of Messiah.
Always concerned with dramatic intensity and profound ideas, Beethoven added "Go and learn from him how to achieve vast effects with simple means." Messiah is certainly rich with them, along with beautiful melodies and the insistent rhythms that are characteristic of the Baroque era, easy to love and hard to forget.
"What the English like is something that they can beat time to, something that hits them straight on the drum of the ear," writes Handel biographer Richard Alexander Streatfeild, citing Anton Schmid, the 20th-century Austrian intellectual and resistance fighter against the Nazis. Today Messiah still bangs us straight on the drum of the ear, inspiring reinterpretations in swing, rap and jazz styles.
Master of both sacred and secular music, Handel was born in 1685, at the height of the Baroque era. He was a native of Germany, but his early travels included Italy, where he assimilated the Italian styles of operatic composition before settling in England.
Successful in all vocal and instrumental music forms, he was the English court's go-to composer for the nation's most important ceremonial music. His gifts seem to converge in Messiah, with its endlessly expressive melodies and towering drama so perfectly suited to expressing the story and the glory of Christ's birth.
The Adoration of the Shepherds, color on canvas, 1622 by Gerard van Honthorst.
Although Messiah was originally composed for performance during Lent, it has been universally adopted as a musical high point of the Advent season. For Handel himself and for millions of listeners it is not only a thrilling entertainment but also a deep expression of religious faith that sounds new no matter how many times we have heard it.
Handel famously described the process of composing the "Hallelujah" chorus as the heavens opening up to him. Yet Messiah was also a commercial imperative for him. He composed it at a time when he was in need of a major success: He had enjoyed a hugely successful run writing and producing his own operas, but the public taste for his operas was fading.
Having already written operas on sacred themes, he turned to the unstaged oratorio form. Messiah is the foremost example of what became known as the English oratorio, which combines religious texts with elements of intense drama, sometimes in ways hard to distinguish from opera. Most of them combine biblical and non-biblical texts, though Messiah is drawn entirely from the Bible.
Composition of Messiah was completed within 24 days, a breakneck pace for so expansive a work. The text was provided by Charles Jennens, drawn mainly from the biblical books of Isaiah and the gospel of St. Matthew—a selection that, according to some sources, reflected Jennens’ and possibly even Handel’s anti-establishment political leanings. After all, who but a radical egalitarian would so potently emphasize Isaiah’s prophecy that “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low?”
Still, a message of straightforward religious inspiration was overriding for Handel and remains so for his audiences.
There are many traditional accounts of seemingly divine inspiration as he worked. In one, his assistant walked into the room where he was composing after shouting to him for minutes on end with no response. He supposedly found Handel in tears, pen in hand, and asked what was wrong. “I thought I saw the face of God,” Handel said.
The immediate popularity of Handel’s Messiah made it an instant tradition in England and elsewhere, and annual performances gradually moved from Eastertide to the Christmas season. By 1784, Messiah performances at events such as the Handel Centenary Commemoration were commonplace, often drawing together huge choral and orchestral forces.
The chapel of the London's Foundling Hospital, the venue for regular charity performances of Messiah from 1750.
As an impresario, Handel was accustomed to tailoring his works for specific performers and production circumstances, and various editions of Messiah existed even within his lifetime. He also expected soloists to interpolate vocal ornamentations as appropriate, a practice that reappeared during the bel canto revival that began during the 1960s.
What to Listen For
Whether you are singing along or just listening, Messiah is an experience of beauty that is deeply participative. It opens with a stately symphonia with a pace like that of a slow, halting march. This sets a tone of solemn importance that frames even the most joyful passages to come.
What follows is a full evening’s worth of music in three sections. In all there are more than 50 separate numbers, typically choral songs alternating with solos for individual soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor or bass voice. Together they present a version of the Christian story of the Messiah, or anointed one, from the annunciation and birth through the crucifixion and resurrection.
Despite the commercial considerations that were never far from Handel’s mind, Messiah is first and foremost an expression of faith. By combining majestic beauty and grandeur of scale with humble sincerity, Messiah has gained a household familiarity that is rare among classical compositions.
At the most basic level, Messiah is an adaptation in music of the biblical accounts of the birth of Christ, a religious story sung by a chorus and/or soloists accompanied by an orchestra and/or an organ. The choral forces are usually the familiar four-part SATB mix— soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass—that you know if you sang chorus in high school or in church.
There is also a natural comparison between this work and the large-scale oratorios of Bach, the other supreme master of the Baroque era. Like Handel, Bach was born in 1685, and both were pious men. But they approached oratorio in opposite ways: where Bach saw religion and the glory of God’s creation in every detail of daily life, Handel was a man of the world and of the theater.
He enjoyed his success, wrote operas that were some of the most sensational entertainments of the day, and became one of the most famous men in Europe.
The sheer theatricality of Messiah contributed greatly to its success, and still does. Though not staged, it is religion made theater.
The Virgin of the angels, 1881 by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Its drama and beauty flow first from its beautiful melodies, which inspire us while capturing the revelatory emotions described in the text. But they also gain extraordinary intensity through the Baroque compositional technique of “word painting,” in which the flow of notes in the music actually seems to replicate a shape or contour that the notes describe.
One frequently cited example of word painting occurs early in Part I, in the tenor aria “Every valley shall be exalted.”
Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill made low
The crooked, straight
And the rough places plain.
On the word “mountain,” the tenor’s voice rises to a high F#, creating a literal peak of sound; then it drops by an octave, showing how the mountain is made low. On “crooked,” the melodic line vacillates between the jagged C# and the straight B, coming to rest on the straight B. Similarly, the word “exalted” is raised up by an octave in its final syllable.
Messiah teems with effects like these, which deepen our experience of the text with almost palpable realism. For example, slightly later in Part I, in the chorus “And He shall purify,” note the way the articulations on the word “purify” leap like the flames of the refiner’s fire in the text.
The effect of word painting can even focus on a single syllable—as when, two choruses later in “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” the mezzo-soprano soloist leaps up a fourth on the word up: “get thee up unto the high mountains.”
For many listeners, a climactic and favorite painterly effect is the heavenly fluttering of wings when angels appear to the shepherds by night, as conveyed by arpeggios in the strings: “An suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying…”
This moment, which forms a dramatic climax about two-thirds of the way through Part I, is as graphic and immediate as a movie; think of Handel’s score as the CGI of its day. Among dozens of additional examples, favorites include:
“Glory to God on high…and peace on earth.” The words “Glory to God on high” are literally high in tone, giving us a heaven’s-ear perspective on the text sung by sopranos and altos; “and peace on earth” takes us back down to the earthly realm, sun in the lower registers of the tenors and basses.
“Let us break their bonds asunder” is sung with broken phrasing and staccato, detached notes.
“Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world:” the harmonic ambiguity and pain of complex minor chords, representing sin, are taken away with a harmonic resolution that opens into a clear major cadence.
“And with His stripes we are healed:” The stripes, which are wounds Christ has endured, are exposed in counterpoint, one after another, intensifying the sense of repeated lashings.
For all of its vividness, Handel’s mastery of word painting accounts for just part of the dramatic impact of Messiah. It combines with his gift for melody and a sympathetic understanding of psychology that appeals to us in a way that is less literal, but more deeply human.
When we hear the soprano soloist singing “Come unto Him, all ye that…are heavy laden,” who can fail to take comfort at the tenderness of her vocal line? Equally intense are the passages of joyful anticipation and of triumph, as in the prophecy expressed in “For unto Us” and in the glorious “Hallelujah” chorus, which so overwhelmed Handel’s contemporary audiences that, we are told, they spontaneously rose to their feet in awe—a tradition that persists to this day in many parts of the world.
Today, there is no definitive performing edition or single “correct” approach to performing Messiah, and every conductor who leads it must make critical decisions in order to do so. But those decisions are informed by the living traditions that we all enjoy as listeners, and by the work of Handel scholars and performers. For example, the soprano aria “Rejoice greatly” exists in both 4/4 and 6/8 tempos, each with its own unique appeal; the 4/4 version is graceful and dignified, while the 6/8 version dances with joy.
Behind the poetry and the drama of such stories, Handel’s Messiah continues to exert a very real influence upon modern composers.
Take, for example, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Composed in 1971, it brings together music, dance, and diverse religious and secular traditions in a way that owes much to Handel’s and Jennens’ highly unconventional libretto, which defied contemporary expectations for the text of an oratorio. And Bernstein is not the only one.
Could Benjamin Britten have found the form or the audience for his profound War Requiem without the ubiquity of Handel’s Messiah? In general, the continued fascination of the oratorio form for modern composers owes much to Messiah’s evergreen popularity.
Andrew Lloyd Webber—like Handel, a master of theatrical craft in music—wrote a requiem mass as his only full-scale classical work. Paul McCartney, too, ventured into oratorio with his only classical work, The Liverpool Oratorio—an eight-movement opus that traces the life of a character named Shanty, based loosely on McCartney himself.
These works could hardly vary more widely in their style or substance. Yet without the continuing popularity of Handel’s groundbreaking oratorio Messiah, they would probably not exist.
George Frideric Handel's autograph manuscript of the title page of Messiah, 1741: Fascimiles of this were already reproduced with permission and sold before 1903.
One more small point: why throughout this note do I refer to the oratorio as Messiah? Is the title not “The Messiah”? Scholars agree that the original designation was simply Messiah, and this title is considered historically accurate.
But over the nearly 275 years that it has been performed, many published versions of the score—including the one in my own music library—are marked “The Messiah” on the title page. Then again, in conversation and in print, “Handel’s Messiah” is a common reference. Take your pick; all of these usages are acceptable, and none will ever be mistaken for any other work.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in-chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
To meet tonight's Guest Artists, please continue here.
To learn more about the Pacific Chorale, please click here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, please click here.