George Frederick Handel composed Messiah: A Sacred Oratorio during a 3-week period in the summer of 1741, beginning on August 22nd with completion on September 14th, in the genre of English theater concert oratorio that he developed. The music was set to the text of a libretto comprised of Scripture verses compiled by Charles Jennens from the 1611 Authorized Version of the English Bible, the Great Bible of 1539, and the Book of Common Prayer. It was presented in three acts of about 3 hours duration with 2 intermissions, as would have been expected by audiences of the time attending an evening entertainment of one of Handel’s Italian Operas. Part 1 concerns the prophecies of the coming of the Christ and His birth. Part 2 deals with the events of Christ’s crucifixion, His suffering and death, and His resurrection and Second Coming. Part 3 is a commentary on the role of Christ as the Savior. The late 1730’s and early 1740’s were proving to be very turbulent in Handel’s career. Two unsuccessful attempts at reviving Italian Opera in Britain were accompanied by a marked decline in the composer’s health. However, after collaborating with Jennens on Saul and Belshazzar, Handel’s star as Britain’s premier composer would soon rise again with the completion of Messiah, although not without further controversy concerning its performance in London.
Messiah was first performed in the Music Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin, Ireland on Monday the 12th of April 1742. It is not known if Handel completed Messiah specifically for performance during his trip to Ireland, or if he had originally intended it for the following season in London. The fact that the Deans and Chapters of the Cathedrals would not supply their permission for official participation of the Cathedral choirs until the performance of Messiah became a charitable event foreshadowed the controversy to come in London and also began the long-standing traditions of Messiah performances being charitable events and using volunteer choirs for the chorus.
Handel returned to London, leaving Dublin on August 13, 1742. At this time it is evident through surviving correspondence that his relationship with Charles Jennens was cooling somewhat. Jennens was annoyed with Handel, it is thought primarily, because he did not open his London season with a performance of Messiah and the short length of time he took in its composition. Jennens felt he should have expended at least a year on it because of its sacred significance. There was also some disagreement on Jennens’ part over how Handel handled some of the treatment of the libretto and its musical interpretation.
Finally, on Wednesday, March 23, 1743, Handel performed the Messiah in London at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. He must have been aware of the controversy surrounding its performance evidenced by the fact that the ads in The Daily Advertiser and The London Daily Post listed the title of the performance only as ‘A New Sacred Oratorio’. It seems that the uproar was not about the Messiah itself, but whether a sacred piece of music should be performed in a secular venue.
The following Letter may to many of my Readers, especially those of a gay and polite Taste, seem too rigid a Censure on a Performance, which is so universally approv’d: However, I could not suppress it, as there is so well-intended a Design and pious Zeal runs through the whole, and nothing derogatory said of Mr. Handel’s Merit. Of what good Consequences it will produce, I can only say – Valeat Quontum valere potest.
To the Author of the Universal Spectator.
My…Purpose…is to consider, and, if possible, induce others to consider, the Impropriety of Oratorios, as they are now perform’d.
Before I speak against them (that I may not be thought to do it out of Prejudice or Party) it may not be improper to declare, that I am a profess’d Lover of Musick, and in particular all Mr. Handel’s Performances, being one of the few who never deserted him. I am also a great Admirer of Church Musick, and think no other equal to it, nor any Person so capable to compose it, as Mr. Handel. To return: An Oratorio either is an Act of Religion, or it is not; if it is, I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word, for in that Case such they are made…
In the other Case, if it is not perform’d as an Act of Religion, but for Diversion and Amusement only (and indeed I believe few or none go to an Oratorio out of Devotion), what a Prophanation of God’s Name and Word is this, to make so light Use of them? …How must it offend a devout Jew, to hear the great Jehovah, the proper and most sacred Name of God (a name a Jew, if not a Priest, hardly dare pronounce) sung, I won’t say to a light Air (for as Mr. Handel compos’d it, I dare say it is not) but by a Set of People very unfit to perform so solemn a Service. David said, “How can we sing the Lord’s Song in a strange Land”; but sure he would have thought it much stranger to have heard it sung in a Playhouse.
But it seems the Old Testament is not to be prophan’d alone, nor God by the name of Jehovah only, but the New must be join’d with it, and God by the most sacred the most merciful Name of Messiah; for I’m inform’d that an Oratorio call’d by that Name has already been perform’d in Ireland, and is soon to be perform’d here. What the Piece itself is, I know not, and therefore shall say nothing about it; but I must again ask, If the Place and Performers are fit? As to the Pretence that there are many Persons who will say their Prayers there who will not go to Church, I believe I may venture to say, that the Assertion is false, without Exception; for I can never believe that Persons who have so little regard for Religion, as to think it not worth their while to go to Church for it, will have any Devotion on hearing a religious Performance in a Playhouse.
[The Universal Spectator, March 19, 1743]
Not everyone felt the same as Philalethes. Some felt religion should not be excluded from the theater. As shown by a gentleman who wrote the following after reading the piece in The Universal Spectator.
On Mr. Handel’s new Oratorio, perform’d at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.
Cease, Zealots, cease to blame these heav’nly Lays,
For Seraphs fit to sing Messiah’s Praise!
Nor, for your trivial Argument, assign,
‘The Theatre not fit for Praise Divine.’
These hallow’d Lays to Musick give new Grace,
To Virtue Awe, and sanctify the Place;
To Harmony, like his, Celestial Pow’r is giv’n,
T’exalt the Soul from Earth, and make, of Hell, a Heav’n.
It must be remembered that religion in Britain was going through a period almost as turbulent, but not as violent in most respects, as the Protestant Reformation had been some 180 years before. Many were unhappy the House of Hanover was in the seat of power in Britain and this kept Jennens out of politics because he would not swear fealty to the Hanoverians. He was strongly Church of England, which put him at odds with Dissenters, Romanists, Quakers, and Deists, and would not allow him to accept the Roman Catholic Stuarts. Add the political rumblings of the Jacobites in Scotland (Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived in Scotland in July 1745 and was eventually defeated on Culloden Moor in April 1746. He escaped back to France in September of the same year and this would end the Royal Stuarts’ attempts to regain the throne of Scotland and England.) and the colonists in the New World (even though the American War for Independence would not begin for another 30+ years), it made for a very interesting time both religiously and politically in London.
After the first few performances of Messiah, Charles Jennens lost some of his antagonism for Handel, although he was still annoyed that Handel would not change some sections he felt were weak. At the end of the 1743 season, Handel had a return of poor health that was exacerbated by disagreements with his copyist-manager John Christopher Smith and Jennens, as well as the ‘clamour’ created by the performances of Messiah itself.
Handel did not perform Messiah during the 1744 season, but its revival and performance during Lent at the Haymarket Theatre in 1745 did not experience the controversy it had in 1743. Handel and Jennens appear to have patched up their relationship during this period due in part to the death of another of Handel’s librettists and changes he made to Messiah at Jennens insistence. After 1746 Jennens no longer played an active role in the further development of Messiah.
Messiah was performed only once between 1745 and its second revival at Covent Garden and the charitable performances at the Foundling Hospital in 1749. Annual performances at the Foundling Hospital just after Easter became a tradition and Handel even left an autographed copy of the Score to the hospital to use for future performances, although at one point he had to set them straight as they thought they were going to be given the exclusive rights to Messiah.
Although Handel usually employed soloists in greater number, Messiah and Samson (completed just after Messiah, but before going to Ireland) were the only Oratorios Handel composed that were written so they could be performed with just four soloists: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass. Handel used these as well as mezzo-sopranos, contraltos, boy sopranos, male altos, counter tenors, and castratos (although these were becoming rarer in this period of time as fewer were eager to make the sacrifice required).
Until 1750, at which point his failing eyesight prevented it, Handel constantly made revisions to Messiah: re-compositions, transpositions, additions, and deletions to accommodate changing soloists, the skills of the musicians, and the venue in which it was performed.
Even before Handel’s death, Messiah was beginning to circulate and have performances apart from Handel, although it is assumed that these were with his blessing; in Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Dublin, Salisbury, Bristol, and Bath to name a few. These performances were probably derived from a few manuscript scores until a full score was finally published in 1767 and made Messiah available to the general public.
As time wore on, and Commemorative performances grew in size in both the number of choral voices and orchestra, and with changes in available instrumentation, the instrumental parts were strengthened with the addition of oboes, bassoons, and French horns (these were added by Handel himself) and eventually flutes, clarinets, trombones, tympani (up to 4 sets), and trumpets. Most of the wind instruments were added by Director Johann Adam Hiller in Berlin in 1786, and by Mozart in Vienna in 1789 to adapt Messiah to the orchestral conventions of the time on the Continent. Mozart made the most dramatic changes by translating it into German, filling in string parts and revising trumpet parts to better match the improved instruments of the day. Mozart’s version does not apply itself well directly to English due to various artistic decisions he made in translation. His version was published in Leipzig in 1803 and later “completed” by Robert Franz in 1885. In 1902, Ebenezer Prout attempted to re-establish Handel’s minutiae but he was reluctant to withdraw the additional accompaniment (these being sometimes printed in small type so as not to be played in the event an organ was being used).
Throughout the Nineteenth Century these Commemorative performances were sometimes as large as 10,000 musicians comprising both the chorus and orchestra. Obviously, musical groups of this size were logistically unwieldy; requiring huge venues, multiple conductors, and at times the sheer size must have detracted from the quality of the performance. After the advent of World War I, the huge Commemorative performances went out of fashion and the smaller choral groups and choral society presentations common today became more the norm and allowed for better logistical and quality control.
As you can see, today’s Messiah is as much different, as it is the same, from the Messiah of Handel’s day. There have been attempts to reconstruct a definitive score that reflects Handel’s original composition, however, because of all of the revisions Handel himself made, as well as a scarcity of records from the period; this has proven to be an almost impossible task. However, Messiah continues to be as much a source of beauty and spiritual inspiration as it was when Handel first composed it some 260 years ago.
Today, The Sarasota Choral Society performs Messiah as published by G. Schirmer. The Choral Society annually performs what is known as the Christmas version of the Messiah, which is comprised of those sections that deal with the prophecies and the birth of Christ including the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, to “kick-off” the celebrations of the Holiday Season. (Dates and venue occasionally vary due to logistics and availability).
Many people have asked why we do not perform the “full” Messiah at this time. Traditionally, the “full” Messiah is performed in a period just before or after Easter where the full import and meaning of the work becomes even more appropriate and can be more fully appreciated. Also, unfortunate but true, some of today’s concert-goers seem to find a three and a half hour performance a little tedious and are not quite so willing to purchase tickets for the full performance. And ticket sales are what enable The Sarasota Choral Society to continue providing Sarasota and Bradenton’s largest and longest running production of Handel’s Messiah, as that is currently, along with member dues, our primary source of income.
Whether you are a fan of Handel, are moved by sacred music, or just enjoy listening to magnificent classical music professionally presented, we invite you to join us at our next presentation of Handel’s Messiah. Or if you prefer a more active participation, join us in the chorus as a Sarasota Choral Society member. Information on both may be found in the appropriate sections of this website or click on one of the links to contact us directly.
Written by Vince A. Vance,
former Board Director, Sarasota Choral Society