When an event, a work or a person seems beyond what is explicable, myths spring up1. Handel’s oratorio on the prophecy, life, death, resurrection and living influence of Christ is entwined with legends. These appeared even during the three weeks and three days when ‘Messiah’ was being written in the autumn of 1741; they took firm root during the composer’s lifetime; and they are present with us to the present time. Even the greatest minds were susceptible to them.
A few months before his death in March 1827, Beethoven had been sent a present of the forty-volume complete works of Handel. These he read frequently. He esteemed the composer above all others, a fact obvious from his pastiche ‘Consecration of the House’ overture and even more so from him taking the tune of ‘and He shall live for’ from the Hallelujah chorus for the last fugue of his ‘Missa Solemnis’. (Mozart put the Hallelujah exclamation as “in excelsis” into the Gloria of his C minor Mass and there is also a quote in Haydn’s Creation) A month before his death, Beethoven’s doctor tried to strengthen his resolve to live by saying that the coming of spring would help him through his illness. The composer shrugged this off: ‘My day’s work is done. If there were a physician who could help me “His name shall be called Wonderful”’.
On the occasion of a performance of the work in London, a year after it was first performed in Dublin, King George II of England rose to his feet during the Hallelujah chorus; as if the King of Kings was present, or so it was believed. Some people speculate, alternatively, that the sudden sound of the blast of trumpets and thunder of drums, silent up to this, with the full chorus fortissimo, had startled him from a snooze. But, with the monarch standing, everyone else had to rise too. After the composer had died, biographers hunted down those who knew him. Handel’s household reported him working on his sacred oratorio ‘Messiah’ in a state of ecstasy; refusing food, sleeping only in short naps, if at all: “He was praying, or he was weeping, or he was staring into eternity”, they reported; and a friend claimed that the composer spoke of a vision of heaven “and the great God Himself!”
Legends infect even the libretto. Why should anyone doubt that this work of genius was compiled from two sources, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, the earlier translation of the Psalms and burial service, by the author on the title page of the piece; the Squire of Gopsall, the Reverend Charles Jennens. Yet they do dispute his authorship. Vain and painful as the clergyman undoubtedly was, complaining that Handel’s music was not good enough for its subject, “it is not nearly as good as he might and ought to have done” said he, there is no evidence to suppose that his assistant, the Reverend Pooley, was the true author. This was part of the plot of the touching film ‘The Great Mr. Handel’. The dynamic, and therefore at times irascible, Handel forbore enough to ask the reverend gentleman what changes were needed to bring up his “fine entertainment”, as Jennens called it, to an acceptable standard. In correspondence with the clergyman, Handel called it “your Messiah”. The composer needed no help. As a well educated German he had a sure knowledge of sacred scripture. We know that he had batted away an offer of help from the Bishop of London in finding a suitable text to be set for the funeral of Queen Caroline. He is known to have visited the Reverend Jennens while the libretto was being compiled and so it is possible that the composer may have had some hand in it. Beware, that here too is another legend: that Handel wrote the libretto but was too modest to acknowledge that. This myth has been asserted. But why would Handel need a front man for his work, much less one that he deferred to?
Facts, maybe, bring us a little closer to this great masterpiece.
Handel spent the summer of 1741 whiling away his time writing Italian love cantatas for two voices. Then, he was invited to Ireland. Then he got this the text for ‘Messiah’ from the Reverend Jennens. In a similar way, Salomon had spontaneously handed to Josef Haydn the libretto for ‘The Creation’, by an anonymous author, just as he was leaving London. Handel, like Haydn later, was inspired. We do not need any reason for him to be struck by the interconnected linking of the prophets, psalms, evangelists and the Apocalypse in the text that Jennens gifted to him. In 2010, a body of theologians met in Rome to explore the prefiguration of Christ in the sacred writings of the Jews. There are worse places to start to look than in this compilation. It is an amazing piece of work.
The libretto set Handel to work at his customary frenetic pace. How did it ever come about? In all probability, Jennens and Handel had received a commission from Dublin, apart from the invitation to visit Dublin from the Duke of Devonshire. New music was needed if he was to spend six months in Ireland and ‘Messiah’ is the new music for Dublin. The orchestra in Ireland’s capital was small, though excellent, as the composer reported later, ("as for the Instruments they are really excellent, Mr. Dubourgh being at the Head of them, and the Musick sounds delightfully in this charming Room"). What was lacking was reflected in writing the score; he left out the customary group of basoons and oboes for a Baroque orchestra which he may have thought that Dublin reliably lacked and he also brought women singers as soloists to Ireland, maybe as a precaution in case female voices here were not up to the considerable demands of his music. Here is how the Dublin Journal, of March 27, 1742 announced the first performance:
For relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen's Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick Hall on Fishamble Street Mr. Handel's new Grand Oratorio, call'd the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedreals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handell.
Every word of the piece is taken from sacred scripture. That caused problems in itself. The words were to be sung in a secular setting and not just by cathedral choirs as really good singers were needed for the challenging solo parts. These were to be both men and women and the best singers around at the time were opera and theatre actors: shocking! In England, it was considered a scandal to have the words of the evangelists sung by theatre actresses. People of questionable morals, respectable people opined. Consequently, despite a triumphant first performance in Ireland, the piece did not take on in England. ‘Messiah’ was not engraved in Handel’s lifetime and was seldom performed for several years on his return to London from his sojourn among the Irish, “this generous and polite nation”, as he called us. Opposition from the clergy to the project also reared an ugly head in Ireland. The Dean of Saint Patrick’s cathedral exploded in rage after some singers from the cathedral had sung in one of Handel’s first concerts in Dublin late in 1741:
... whereas it hath been reported that I gave a licence to certain vicars to assist at a club of fiddlers in Fishamble Street, I do hereby annul and vacate the said licence, intreating my said Sub-Dean and chapter to punish such vicars as shall ever appear there, as songsters, fiddlers, pipers, trumpeters, drummers, drum-majors, or in any sonal quality, according to the flagitious aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy and ingratitude.
Our great compatriot Dean Jonathan Swift was probably reacting more to his own temperament than to the scandal of cathedral musicians helping out in a secular music performance. This extraordinary man was unsettled by music of any kind.
He was later mollified, to a degree, on hearing that all of the takings from the first performance of ‘Messiah’ the following April were promised to charities close to his heart; Mercer’s Hospital, the Infirmary on Inns Quay and the Debtor’s Prison. Incidentally, after the first performance, one hundred and forty two prisoners were released, their debts paid through the composer’s generosity. Was the spirit of the Lord upon him? “He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound”, might be said of the composer (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18). Since that act of generosity, charity performances of ‘Messiah’, as Charles Burney wrote, have “fed the hungry, clothed the naked [and] fostered the orphan.”
For whatever reason, and from whatever source, Handel was aware that Dublin was not London and of more liberal Reformed Church sensibilities across the Irish Sea.
This piece has as its centre the person and mission of Christ. Both before and after ‘Messiah’, Handel’s oratorios were firmly rooted in the Old Testament. In England, as Paul Henry Lang points out, the characterisation of God, the chosen people idea, together with notions of order and territorial expansion, characteristic of the Old Testament fitted really well into British public consciousness. These make up the theme of Handel’s other oratorios. Only in the more tolerant atmosphere of Ireland, perhaps, was it appropriate to present an unfolding in music of a Christ who is miraculous and suffering, human as well as divine.
In a most pointed way, Handel emphasised the human nature of the mission of the Saviour. The way he made his statement could not have been lost on the audience at the first performance in Dublin. The alto aria “He Was Despised” was written for the great English actress Susannah Cibber. Her singing was said by Handel to be projected with a “mere thread of a voice”, but it was dramatic declamation that the composer had in mind. Furthermore, she was a close friend. Her husband was a bounder, to use the appropriate word from that time, who in early 1741 had forced her into hiding. Instead of putting up with his brutality and infidelity, Mrs Cibber left her husband in order to live with another man in London. She had to live in secret in order to avoid the humiliation of a lawsuit against her by her estranged husband; in those days the alleged tort was called ‘criminal conversation’. From December 1741, she was in Dublin, probably taking part in the earlier series of concerts that Handel presented in the city. She was safe here, as she had not been in London, where she was protected by being hidden by a few close friends including the composer and the Irish actor James Quinn. Unlike other numbers in ‘Messiah’, this aria about the rejection and suffering of Christ is not borrowed from earlier work by the composer in Italian, but is effective specifically as it would be proclaimed in the English language. A similar comment can be made also about the last aria of the work, ‘If God be with us’, which traditionally is reserved to the leading soloist, in this case Mrs Cibber. So, Handel must have been thinking of this, and of her, in his state of supposed ecstasy when he was in London writing the work a few months earlier. And here is another legend touching on the alto soloist, which even in the field of clerical presumption, is just plain bizarre. It is reported the Bishop of Elphin (Church of Ireland) told Susannah Cibber after hearing her singing of “He Was Despised” that “for this” her “sins were forgiven.” This is too much!
We are now so used to the marriage of words and music in ‘Messiah’, regarding it as perfect, that the obvious rough edges pointing to Handel’s borrowings from his earlier music are smoothed out. Except in central Dublin (and parts of south Wales), and James Quinn could hardly have told him this, there are two, and not three, syllables in “surely”! In Dublin we say “shu-er-ley”. Yet, Handel’s setting of Isaiah 53: 4 “Surely he hath born our griefs and carried our sorrows” has the emphatic first word on three separate syllables, deliberately inscribed with disconnected notes. And then we have the joyful chorus “For unto us a child is born”, a setting of Isaiah 9: 6, where the stress in the music is all the time on the word “For”. Just try saying it: “FOR, unto us a child is born.” It makes no sense. But the music does. What makes even more sense is that the rhythm and emphasis is correct as it was written in the composer’s earlier love duet “Nò, de voi non vuò fidarmi” from the cantata “NO, I will not trust thee blind love”. In this chorus only two parts predominate, as in a duet, the four lines of the chorus only coming together when the holy names of the Lord are triumphantly declaimed: Wonderful! Counsellor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Saviour! The Prince of Peace!
In the entire two hours of music in ‘Messiah’, there is only about five minutes of narrative. After reminding us that Malachi had prophesied the coming of one who would “purify the sons of Levi” and linking Isaiah 7:14 with a snippet of Matthew 1:23, nothing is heard of the Messiah until, completely unexpectedly, we are faced with the pastoral symphony played by the orchestra alone and followed by the words of the evangelist Luke which carry us to Bethlehem for the annunciation to working men, and maybe women were shepherds too, in a lonely field: they who were chosen to hear heaven open and distant trumpets, as Handel specifies, proclaim that God has become man.
Some people think that Handel was engaging in quirky note–painting in ‘Messiah’. In some parts he was. As the host of angels appears on the hillside of Bethlehem, the strings beat out the whish of their wings. As the earth shakes, and the nations “furiously rage together”, there is a tumult in the voices; as Isaiah promises to lay low the mountains while raising the plains, the soloist dips and soars appropriately; but, while it is part of this picture for the voice to rise an octave to “cry unto” Jerusalem her pardon, a similar leap is not “comfortably” sung. This, and much else, clearly exists for reasons of musical sense; not join-up-the-notes and paint-the-picture whimsy. There are also links within the music that give a symphonic feel. C minor to F minor, both with a stabbing dotted rhythm, sympathetically harmonise “He gave His back to the stripers” with “He hath born our griefs”. Looking, however, for key relationships in a baroque piece is perhaps to search for what is not there. Most numbers are dictated by the pitch of the singers, and many keys in the arias were later altered for voices different to the nine soloists engaged in the first Dublin performances. It is fanciful, as one commentator claimed, to find a linking motif in a rising perfect fourth, though a rising octave seems more predominant. But, some of the structure within the music must be deliberate. ‘Glory to God’, from the nativity narrative of Luke in Part I, uses the same melody as ‘Lift up your heads’ from Psalm 24 in Part II. The meaning is clear. The incarnation is a mystery and so it is glorious, but even more wonderful is the extension of that theme and the reuse of that music when the resurrection has come to pass.
Unlike in Beethoven’s, Bach’s or Janáček’s orchestration of the resurrection sections of the Nicene Creed, in their settings of the Mass, the conquering of death is not announced with trumpets. It is not depicted at all. Instead, the Orthodox icon of the Anastasis is as close as we can come to explain the moment in this music where the despair of suffering, in G minor, C minor, F minor, A minor and E minor, suddenly gives way to the dancing rhythms of Psalm 16 “Thou didst not leave His soul in Hell”. In the tradition of the Eastern Church, the very moment of Christ’s death witnessed the continuation of His mission over three days and its consummation. The Anastasis icon shows the Saviour, the cross at His feet, descending into the blackness of Hell, where he grasps the hands of Adam and Eve in the presence of Moses and Elijah in order to lead them all into Paradise. In that act, redemption is complete. As such, the resurrection is never in doubt. It does not have to be portrayed and the Orthodox Church, unlike Dürer and his spectacular woodcut, never allows an image of it.
What about humanity, us sinners here on earth? Well, even in the midst of the darkness of the passion, we had been forgiven because, as Isaiah foretold, we were “like sheep” turning “every one to his own way.” Handel’s readiness to excuse human frailty was too quick perhaps, and the C minor/F minor axis of the passion, grasps us again at the end of this chorus with the thought that we are saved from deserved damnation, despite being as stupid as sheep, only because “The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquities of us all.” At times, it is as if Handel can never deny humanity its sense of humour. Bach, certainly, had inspiration that might match the master-stroke that switches the words of Matthew and Isaiah in “He shall feed his flock” between contralto, probably the declamation of Susana Cibber again, and a soaring soprano replacement, but Bach’s tongue would never have been in his cheek as in the following chorus that ends Part I, “His yoke is easy. His burthen is light.”
An opera composer, not a cantata specialist, is at work in the series of dramatic musical blows that lead to the Hallelujah chorus that completes Part II. The God of Israel, in a link back to the earth-shaking prophecy of Haggai in Part I, lashes the arrogant, dispatching them in the majesty of omnipotence. Back in the first Dublin performance, the tenor voice would have concisely declaimed over a few seconds that the God’s enemies were to be smashed to pieces “like a potter’s vessel” before the heavens open in this great chorus. Handel later, probably at Jennens pestering, turned the “smash them” text into a full-scale aria; more is the pity for the forward movement of the drama. The Hallelujah chorus is often done separately on the radio or in concerts and, look’at, this never works, it’s a cheap thrill: in its proper place with trumpets and drums returning after an hour of silence it is positively enervating and one can understand even a king leaping onto his toes.
The third Part of ‘Messiah’ focuses on death. As a text, and as music, it can only work as a consolation to humanity by moving us into eternity, where no death exists. In Handel’s vision, eternity is to be shared by all men and women. The duet “O death, where is thy sting?” is reworked from an earlier Italian duet, and it is the only true duet in the work. Perhaps in Part the Third the composer is suggesting that in the present we must be consoled, given hope and inspired to join the “company of the preachers”, being sure, as we are told, that “If God be with us, who can be against us?”
It feels odd to evoke the name of Gustav Mahler while trying to write something about Handel, but maybe there is a point. The Viennese master said to Jan Sibelius that a symphony “must embrace the world”. Handel does that, with real empathy for people and for their suffering and with constant dancing rhythms for the joy of life. He also embraces eternity. At one moment, experiencing ‘Messiah’, we are exalted, in another we are caught in uninterruptible prayer or we are gripped by horror, and even, in a few instants, we are close to glimpsing eternity itself. The scheme devised by Jennens never brings us into the action of the mystery of redemption as it was once unfolded on this earth. Instead, it touches on it from on high, accepts that it had once been present in time and then removes us far above human cares to the gaze of an angel looking down on earth. In that eternal mind, and in this music, the Word, the world and eternity are seamlessly linked.
As to Handel’s purpose in writing ‘Messiah’ we know little. He did not discuss his religious beliefs. He was a composer, and so he had a compulsion to write music. He had no official position in a royal court, as was the common lot of great composers up to Beethoven, but instead he depended for a living on putting on concerts of his own music. So ‘Messiah’ was about entertainment and success as well as the deep meanings its marvellous nature draws us into claiming for it. There is a personal touch, however. There is one set of words in the libretto that Handel never set to music. In the word book for the first Dublin performance these words appeared as a preface, perhaps at the request of the composer, who was also the promoter and so must have had a hand in everything, words from Timothy and Paul, prefigured by the Eclogues of Virgil:
Majora Canamus. And without controversy great is the mystery of Godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified by the Spirit, seen of angels, preached among the Gentiles, was believed on in the world, and was received up in glory. In Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Listen back to RTÉ lyric fm's Culture File on our September concert series, 'Towards Enlightenment,' featuring an interview with exuberant guest director Roy Goodman, and some behind-the-scenes recording of rehearsals. Originally broadcast on Wednesday 25th September, 2013.
Our September 2013 tour 'Towards Enlightenment' with guest director, Roy Goodman received fantastic feedback from audiences and critics alike!
Our soloists received particular praise, with natural horn play Anneke Scott's performance described as "astonishing... She seemed to defy the laws of physics" (Irish Times) while Lisa Beznosiuk "demonstrated what a gorgeously warm tone could come from the two-keyed wooden flute" (Irish Examiner).
IBO's Artistic Director, Monica Huggett, has been nominated for a Grammy award for her recording of Bach Orchestral Suites.
Our Masterworks Series in January 2010 was selected as one of the highlights for the year by The Irish Times Critics.
From Vivaldi's inspired violin writing in the 4 Seasons to Bach's varied instrumentation in his Brandenburgs, this series represented a unique opportunity to hear the three greatest collections of instrumental concertos of the baroque period.