Handel’s Messiah

Handel’s Messiah is certainly one of the most popular choral works of all times. The magnificent music by Handel is as divine as it is earthy and direct, and very characteristic of the genius of the great German composer. There are many legends and anecdotes regarding this oratorio, which exists in several versions. All these versions were authorized by the composer, proving that Handel was a practical man, a man of theatre, who was always able to make the best out of his available “ingredients.”


The NAC Orchestra first performed Messiah in December 1970 led by Mario Bernardi with soloists Pauline Tinsley (soprano), Maureen Forrester (mezzo-soprano), Seth McCoy (tenor) and Donald Bell (bass-baritone). The Orchestra has performed it almost every December since then.


Handel

Messiah, HWV 56

GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
Born in Halle, February 23, 1685
Died in London, April 14, 1759

“Handel’s Messiah is more than a piece of music; it is a monument of Western civilization which has, across the two and a half centuries since it was written, acquired the status of a myth.” These words of the British critic and historian Nicholas Kenyon suitably summarize the view of Messiah in the West, for few works in the entire history of music have engendered such widespread appeal through inspirational beauty. If “the characterizing trait of all authentic masterpieces is their capacity for infinite self-renewal,” as critic Lawrence Gilman once observed, then Messiah rests securely fixed as a gleaming star in the firmament of masterpieces. Surely it represents the single best-known and most often performed example of oratorio.

Messiah’s continuing overwhelming popularity, which extends back to Handel’s own time, would have surprised its creator. He regarded himself first and foremost as a dramatic composer, which meant a writer of operas, and it is chiefly for opera that he would expect to be remembered today. For over two decades, Handel was lionized as the greatest of English composers (despite his German birth and Italian training), and Londoners flocked to see his forty-plus operas produced between 1711 (the year of his arrival in London) and the late 1730s. But the fickle public grew tired of opera, and by the mid-thirties it was finished as a popular draw. Something new was needed to attract the public, something perhaps uniquely English.

Handel rose to the occasion by creating the English oratorio, beginning with Esther in 1732 and continuing over the next quarter century with 22 more. These works used English (not Italian) texts, and drew their subject matter mostly from Old Testament stories, with which the English particularly identified. The oratorio as Handel fashioned it was essentially an unstaged drama employing all the same musico-dramatic ingredients of opera: recitative, arioso, aria, solo ensemble, chorus, and dramatic characterizations, but without the trappings of sets, costumes and physical movement. Additionally, the role of the chorus was raised to far greater importance in oratorio.

The idea for Messiah (Handel’s autograph manuscript bears no article) came from Charles Jennens, a musical amateur and something of a literary figure, with whom Handel had worked on other choral works. Drawing nearly all his texts from Old Testament sources (principally the Authorized English Bible of 1611), Jennens fashioned a meditative framework in which the whole of Christ’s life and work is laid out: the prophecies of His coming, His birth and the subsequent rejoicing, His life, the Passion, Resurrection and hope for His Second Coming.

The first performance of Messiah took place on April 13, 1742 at Neale’s Music Hall in Dublin. It was a stunning success, but subsequent performances in London during the next few years met with cool reception. Then, in 1750, it caught on, and from that year its popularity never slackened. Handel died nine years later, eight days after his last public appearance at a Messiah performance. But Messiah continued to live, to grow, in fact, to assume monstrous proportions.

The concept of Messiah as musical myth, as something larger than life, took hold at the first great Handel Commemoration in 1784, where the chorus numbered 275, the largest choral force ever assembled for a single performance to date (most performances in Handel’s lifetime employed a chorus of about twenty), and an orchestra of 250 assisted. The inflation continued throughout the nineteenth century. In 1843, the Musical Examiner asked, “Who ever heard of a choir too large for Handel?” Apparently few had, for in 1857, Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society gave a performance with somewhere between 600 and 700 voices. Two years later, at the Great Handel Commemoration Festival marking the centenary of the composer’s death, we find a chorus of 2,765 and an orchestra of 460. For Boston’s Grand National Celebration of Peace in 1869, the “Hallelujah Chorus” was performed by a staggering force of 10,000 voices and 500 instrumentalists.

Now the pendulum has swung again in the opposite direction. Over the past several decades,  modern scholarship has emphasized the relative paucity of performing forces in Handel’s day, and there have been numerous recordings and live performances that adhere to one or another versions of a score that Handel used.  However, it is appropriate to remind ourselves at this point that there is no such thing as an “authentic” Messiah. Nor can we speak of a “definitive” version or a “complete” version. Right from the date of completion of the score in September 1741, until Handel’s death 18 years later, the composer constantly revised, altered and modified Messiah in accordance with the exigencies of individual performances. These changes took the form of transposing numbers to suit the range of the vocal soloists, omitting numbers entirely if they proved too difficult, abridging them if time were a factor, rearranging them for reasons of pacing, inserting additional material, inflating the choir, incorporating extra orchestral instruments, and so forth, much as a Broadway show today is subjected to the same process.

Like other Handel oratorios, Messiah is divided into three parts. Part I tells of the coming of Christ as related in Old Testament prophecies. His birth is announced, again in Old Testament scripture (“For unto us a Child is born”), and an angel tells shepherds in the fields the good tidings. Peace on earth and the redemption of humankind are at hand.

Part II speaks of the Passion, Resurrection (again, almost entirely through Old Testament prophecy) and the spread of the gospel. The great vision of Christ’s triumph and glory is revealed in the concluding “Hallelujah Chorus” to words from the book of Revelation.

The theme of Part III is announced by the soprano’s words, “My Redeemer liveth… and shall stand at the latter day upon the earth” – an expression of faith in redemption and rebirth symbolized in the view of Christ’s Second Coming. Messiah’s final vision, in a setting of unsurpassed musical grandeur, is that of Christ, the Lamb of God, sitting on the throne in all eternity.

In conclusion, the words of former Cleveland Orchestra annotator Klaus G. Roy provide a fitting commentary on Messiah’s near-mythic role in our lives: “Handel’s Messiah seems to be, like nature itself, unchangeable yet ever-changing. It has been produced in versions almost too numerous to count, in abridgements, in expansions, in contemporary dress both stylish and styleless, in auditoriums acoustically perfect or ludicrously inappropriate, in little churches and in vast cathedrals. It has put up with presentations that observed the letter and lost the spirit and with many more that somehow found the spirit without observing more than a minimum of the letter. To some it has represented religion personified; to others, religious art, and to yet others, art. For some it has been made hateful by distortion, by overuse, by sheer boredom. For others it has been the one art work the regular ‘consumption’ of which was their primary contact with great music. And for still others who had avoided hearing it until – in their view – conditions were likely to be right, it has proved revelatory. All these things, and more, Messiah has been and continues to be. It takes a work of extraordinary substance to exert such perennial power over humankind.”

By Robert Markow

Chorus

Choristers from:
Cantata Singers of Ottawa (CSO)
Capital Chamber Choir (CCC)
Ewashko Singers (ES)

Rehearsal Pianist: Claire Stevens
Chorus Manager: Andi Murphy

Soprano
Donna Ager (ES)
Kristi Aruja (CSO)
Rosemary Cairns Way (ES)
Nadine Dawson (CSO)
Valerie Douglas (CSO)
Maura Forrest (CCC)
Deirdre Garcia (CSO)
Jennie Glassco (CCC)
Cait Hurcomb (CCC)
Sharon Keenan-Hayes (CSO)
Allison Kennedy (ES)
Sumin Lee (CCC)
Erica Loughlin (CSO)
Ilene McKenna (ES)
Jessyca Morgan (CSO)
Colleen Morris (CSO)
Christine Muggeridge (ES)
Sophia Nickel (CSO)
Cathy Patton (CSO)
Julie Payette
Aude Pull (CCC)
Kristina Roudiy (CSO)
Hannah Searson (CCC)
Mackenzie Stone (CCC)
Nicole Van Oosten (CCC)
Anna von Holtzendorff (CSO)

Alto
Barbara Ackison (CSO)
Wanda Allard (ES)
Pat Beckett (CCC)
Trish Brooks (CSO)
Judy Brush (CSO)
Elizabeth Burbidge (ES)
Vickie Classen Iles (CSO)
Janet Cover (CSO)
Nichole Ekkert-Vine (CSO)
Ellie Glantz (CCC)
Carolyn Greve (CCC)
Rachel Hotte (ES)
Pein-Pein Huang (CSO)
Eileen Johnson (CSO)
Caroline Johnston (ES)
Grace Mann (CSO)
Janessa Mann (CCC)
Jessica McClay (CCC)
Andi Murphy (CSO)
Reba Sigler (ES)
Topp Tolson (ES)
Caren Weinstein (ES)
Diana Zahab (ES)
Mary Zborowski (ES)

Tenor
Gary Boyd (CSO)
Cameron Climie (CCC)
Christian Damus (CCC)
Dorian Gerdes (CSO)
Louis Jacques (CCC)
Ross Jewell (CSO)
Mann Karl (CSO)
Philip Klaassen (ES)
David Lafranchise (ES)
Grayson Nesbitt (ES)
Demetry Prezelj (ES)
Aaron Shenkman (CSO)
Aidan Shenkman (CSO)

Bass
Wallace Beaton (CSO)
Mike Bulthuis (CSO)
Phillip Burness (CCC)
Grant Cameron (ES)
Erik de Vries (ES)
Mark Dumbrique (CSO)
Alain Franchomme (ES)
Andrew Hodgson (CSO)
Greg Huyer (CSO)
Björn Johansson (CSO)
Nathan Maclean-Max (CCC)
Christopher Mallory (CCC)
Kevin Marimbu (ES)
J.P. McElhone (CSO)
Ronan Pouliquen (ES)
Peter Reilly-Roe (CSO)
Stephen Slessor (ES)
Madox Terrell (CCC)
Mike Vanier (CSO)
Paul Whiteley (CCC)
John Young (CSO)


Menu