BORN: February 23, 1685 (as Georg Friederich Händel) in Halle, Saxony DIED: April 14, 1759 in London
The mention of Baroque music brings immediately to mind the towering figures of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. Both composers left us with an indispensable part of Western civilization’s music, but apart from their shared nationality and birth year, their paths to immortality couldn’t have been more different. Bach was born into a family of musicians, Handel’s father was determined that his son should study law. Where Bach remained in Germany throughout his life, composing tirelessly in the service of the church and assorted royal benefactors, Handel left Germany as a young man, first relocating to Italy and ultimately to England, where he remained for the rest of his life as a celebrity. He is, in fact, regarded as an English composer (hence the Anglicized version of his name) rather than a German one.
Possibly as fulfillment of a promise to his father (who had died in 1697), Handel was enrolled at the University of Halle in 1702 and probably attended law lectures (it is unclear), but his career direction was determined when he was appointed as the organist at the Domkirche in Halle. Around the same time, he made the acquaintances of Georg Philip Telemann (studying law, coincidentally) and Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. These associations confirmed his decision to devote himself to music.
When his appointment in Halle ended a year later, Handel found himself in Hamburg, a city with an established opera company, and which attracted him as a result of his interest in dramatic and secular music. There is considerable disagreement about which compositions date from this time, the evidence being sketchy and often contradictory. In 1706, Handel moved to Italy at the invitation of the Grand Duke of Tuscany and while there, composed sacred music for the clergy (opera was banned within the Papal States) including cantatas, oratorios and the Dixit Dominus (1707). His first two operas, Rodrigo and Agrippina, were also composed at this time and premiered in Florence and Venice respectively, with great success.
In 1710, Handel became Kapellmeister to the German prince who would become King George I of England in 1714 upon the death of Queen Anne. His first opera in England, Rinaldo, was popular and successful and for the next twenty five years, Handel enjoyed a thriving career as a composer of Italian opera for English audiences. Opera was a high stress artistic endeavor, however, subject to the patronage of the wealthy and the changing taste of the public, and by the late 1730’s, Handel had had enough. He had an international reputation and ample aristocratic patronage, but his last seasons of opera had been financially disappointing. In 1736, with the composition of Alexander’s Feast, Handel decided to switch his energies from Italian opera to English choral works. The oratorios Saul and Israel in Egypt soon followed.
The librettist for Saul, Charles Jennens (1700-1773), felt that another work based on the Scriptures might pull Handel from the financial hole his last failing operas had dug him into. Inasmuch as theatrical performances were banned during Holy Week, Jennens felt that a work based on Scripture would almost certainly assure Handel large audiences. When Jennens submitted his text for the work to Handel, he confided to a friend that “...I hope he will lay out his whole Genius and Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah”. At the same time, Handel had been invited by the Duke of Devonshire to perform in Ireland for the benefit of local hospitals, and with this in mind, Handel set Jennens’ text to music, creating one of the world’s most beloved and acclaimed choral works in slightly more than three weeks.
Success was immediate. The first six subscription performances were followed by six more, after which Handel concluded the Dublin season with it, donating the profits to several charities. The London premiere in 1743 received a slightly less rapturous welcome, some citing the “inappropriate” use of a commercial theatre and local theatrical singers in a work based on Scripture. Librettist Jennens himself had some reservations about the work, but he and Handel did not remain at odds for long and Handel subsequently made a few of Jennens’ suggested revisions.
In 1750 Handel established the practice of making Messiah the last oratorio of his Lenten season at Covent Garden and by the time of his death in 1759, it had become the most frequently performed of his compositions. Two hundred and fifty years later, that remains the case.
Jennens’ text for Messiah is based on the Old Testament and the King James Bible, as well as the use of psalms from the Book of Common Prayer. The work is in three main parts which mirror the liturgical year. Part one includes Advent, Christmas and the earthly life of Jesus Christ. Part two covers Lent, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. Part three dramatizes the end of the church year, dealing with the end of time and the promise of redemption. Unlike most of Handel’s oratorios, the singers do not personify individual dramatic roles; the overall intention of Jennens’ libretto is to acclaim what he called the “mystery of Godliness”. His design divides the three main parts into smaller “scenes”, each of which is a group of recitatives, arias and choruses. There are only two orchestral episodes in the work, the opening Sinfonia and the Pifa or Pastoral Symphony mid-way through Part I.
Part I - The prophecy and realisation of God's plan to redeem mankind by the coming of the Messiah
Scene 1 : Isaiah's prophecy of salvation Scene 2 : The prophecy of the coming of Messiah and the question, despite (1), of what this may portend for the World Scene 3 : The prophecy of the Virgin Birth Scene 4 : The appearance of the Angels to the Shepherds Scene 5 : Christ's redemptive miracles on earth
Part II - The accomplishment of redemption by the sacrifice of Christ, mankind's rejection of God's offer, and mankind's utter defeat when trying to oppose the power of the Almighty
Scene 1 : The redemptive sacrifice, the scourging and the agony on the cross Scene 2 : His sacrificial death, His passage through Hell and Resurrection Scene 3 : His ascension Scene 4 : God discloses his identity in Heaven Scene 5 : Whitsun, the gift of tongues, the beginning of evangelism Scene 6 : The world and its rulers reject the Gospel Scene 7 : God's triumph
Part III - A Hymn of Thanksgiving for the final overthrow of Death
Scene 1 : The promise of bodily resurrection and redemption from Adam's fall Scene 2 : The Day of Judgment and general Resurrection Scene 3 : The victory over death and sin Scene 4 : The glorification of the Messianic victim
During the final years of Handel’s life, he frequently modified the score for specific performances according to the availability of singers and instrumentalists. There is still a great deal of variety in the nature and configuration of Messiah performances more than 250 years later. What has not changed is the love both audiences and musicians have felt for this magnificent work.