Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Handel - Messiah

When Charles Jennens gave his libretto of Messiah to George Handel in 1741, he would have no idea that almost 300 years later the oratorio would still be performed and continue to be one of the most famous and popular works for chorus and soloists.  Jennens came from a wealthy landowning family in England who was also a patron of the arts. He was a writer, Bible scholar, and had such a good knowledge of music that he complained about Handel's setting of the text:
Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho’ [Handel] said he would be a year about it, and make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d... ‘Tis still in his power by retouching the weak parts to make it fit for publick performance; and I have said a great deal to him on the Subject; but he is so lazy and so obstinate, that I much doubt the Effect.
Eventually Handel (known for his stubbornness, which was probably intensified by Jenner's inflated ego) made some of the changes suggested by Jenner after the first English performance of the oratorio in 1743. The premiere of the work was given in Dublin, Ireland  during the winter concert season of 1741-1742. The proceeds of the Dublin premiere were given to charity, a practice that continued with every performance of Messiah throughout Handel's lifetime. In England the proceeds were given to The Foundling Hospital in London, and Handel bequeathed a copy of his score to the hospital upon his death.

The 250-plus pages of the score to Messiah were written in 24 days, quite a feat but not out of the ordinary for Handel and other Baroque era composers. Most music that was publicly performed at the time was new music, and the demand was high, so many composers wrote fast and reused their own music as well as the music of others.  The scoring of the work was also done according to the practice of the times, with parts for violins, violas and cellos, figured bass, 4-part chorus and soloists. But additional instruments would double some of the parts at performances when they were available, and not every set piece was included in every performance, thus there can never be a definitive performance of Messiah, but recent musical scholarship has allowed for accurate performances within the musical traditions and practices of the time.  

Messiah has been performed as a sacred piece as well as a work of the concert hall. Jennens and Handel most likely intended it for an evening's entertainment, as were most oratorios of the time. As a complete performance of  Messiah can last two and a half hours, it certainly takes up a full evening.  Hopefully the audience attending Messiah acted better than the typical opera audiences of the time that talked, yelled at each other, booed and cheered singers and kept up a general ruckus throughout the opera. Messiah is divided into three main parts:

1) Sinfony
As oratorios were in many ways unstaged operas, the convention of an overture was used. Here Handel calls it a Sinfony, and it is written in the style of a French overture. It begins with a slow section with double dotted notes in a minor key. The second section is a fugue in a slightly faster tempo.
2) Tenor recitative
Messiah is different from most oratorios as there are no assigned roles to the soloists, and no characters. The words of the King James Version of the Bible are used throught the work, and the first part begins with the foretelling of the coming of Messiah in the Old Testament, and then celebrates the birth of Messiah in the New Testament.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God:
speak comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth  in the wilderness:
prepare ye the way of the Lord,make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.

3) Tenor air
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill
made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

4) Chorus
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together;
for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

5) Bass recitative
This selection for bass shows Handel's flair for emphasizing the text. He makes use of melisma, the technique of using many notes on one part or syllable of a word. The word shake is literally shaken by the soloist:
Handel makes continual use of tone painting to enhance the text, no doubt one of the many reasons why the oratorio remains so popular.

Thus saith the Lord of hosts; yet once in a little while, and I will shake the
heav'ns and the earth, the sea, the dry land, and I will shake all nations, and the desire
of all nations shall come.
The Lord whom you seek, shall suddenly come to his temple,
ev'n the messenger of the covenant whom ye delight in, behold, he shall come,
saith the Lord of hosts.

6) Alto recitative
But who may abide the day of his coming?
And who shall stand when he appeareth.
For he is like a refiner's fire.

7) Chorus
And he shall purify the sons of Levi that they may
offer unto the Lord an offering of righteousness.

8) Alto recitative
Behold, a virgin shall concieve and bear a son,
and shall call his name Emmanuel,
God with us.

9) Alto air and chorus
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain;
o thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem lift up thy voice with strength;
lift it up, be not afraid, say unto the cities of Judah; behold your God
Arise, shine for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen above thee.

10) Bass recitative
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth and gross darkness the people;
but the Lord shall rise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee,
And the gentiles shall come to they light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

11) Bass air
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,
and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death,
upon them hath the light shined.

12) Chorus
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and the government shall be upon his shoulder;
and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God,
the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

13) Pastoral Symphony
A short orchestral interlude that gives the feeling of sheep contentedly grazing, and begins the section of the birth of Messiah

14a) Soprano recitative
There were sheperds, abiding in the field,
keeping watch over their flock by night.

14b) Soprano recitative

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone
round about them, and they were sore afraid.

15) Soprano recitative
And the angel said unto them fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings
of great joy which shall be to all people; for unto you is born this day in the
city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

16) Soprano recitative
And suddenly there was with the angel a
multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying:

17) Chorus
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.

18) Soprano air
Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion, shout,
o daughter of Jerusalem, behold, thy king cometh unto thee.
He is the righteous Saviour, and he shall speak peace unto the heathen.

19) Alto recitative
Thou shall see the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.

20) Alto air
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and he shall gather the lambs with his arm
and carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young.

21) Chorus
His yoke is easy and his burden is light.

The second part deals with the life, death and rising from the dead of Messiah.
22) Chorus
Behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.

23) Alto air
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
He gave his back to the smiters and his cheeks to them
that plucked off the hair, he hid not his face from shame and spitting.

24) Chorus
Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities,
the chastisement of our peace was upon him.

25) Chorus
And with his striped we are healed.

26) Chorus
All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way.
And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

27) Tenor recitative
All they that see him laugh him to scorn;
they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads saying:

28) Chorus
He trusted in God that he would deliver him:
let him deliver him, if he delight in him.

29) Tenor recitative
Thy rebuke hath broken his heart, he is full of heaviness:
he looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man,
neither found he any, to comfort him.

30) Tenor air
Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.

31) Tenor recitative
He was cut off out of the land of the living,
for the transgressions of thy people was he stricken.

32) Tenor air
But thou didst not leave his soul in hell
nor didst thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.

33) Chorus
Lift up your heads, o ye gates and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors,
and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is the King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, o ye gates and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors,
and the King of glory shall come in.
Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

34) Tenor recitative
Unto which of the angels said he at any time, thou art my Son,
this day I have begotten thee?

35) Chorus
Let all the angels of God worship him.

36) Bass air
Thou art gone up on high, thou hast led captivity captive,
and received gifts for men, yea even for thine enemies,
that the Lord God might dwell among them.

37) Chorus
The Lord gave the word, great was the company of the preachers.

38) Soprano air
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace,
and bring glad tidings of good things.

39) Chorus
Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world.

40) Bass air
Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his Anointed.

41) Chorus
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from them.

42) Tenor recitative
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn:
the Lord shall ave them in derision.

43) Tenor air
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,
thou shalt dash them to pieces like a potter's vessel.

44) Chorus
One of the most recognizable pieces of music ever written, the Hallelujah chorus is a supreme example of what Beethoven called Handel's genius as, "He created the greatest effect with the smallest of means."

Hallelujah, for the God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ;
and he shall reign for ever and ever.
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

The final part of the oratorio deals with the Christian promise for the believer on the second coming of Christ.

45) Soprano air
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

46) Chorus
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam we all die, even so in Christ shall all be made live.

47) Bass recitative
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.

48) Bass air
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must be put in incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

49) Alto recitative
Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written,
death is swallowed up in victory.

50) Duet, alto and tenor
O death, where is they sting? O grave, where is they victory?
The sting of death is sin and the strength of sin is the law.

51) Chorus
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the
victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

52) Soprano air
If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?
It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth?
It is Christ that died, yea rather that is risen again, who is at the
right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.

53) Chorus
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood,
to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto him that sitteth on the throne,
and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.