Handel's Messiah


2022-12-14 19:00 2022-12-15 22:00 60 Canada/Eastern 🎟 NAC: Handel's Messiah


In-person event

Among the great choral works of Western music, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is arguably the best and most cherished, exuding joy and humanity from start to finish and celebrating our relationship to the divine.   Handel composed Messiah in just 24 days to safeguard his livelihood at a time when expensive operas were becoming less popular and more difficult to produce. Without a dramatic narrative to guide him, Handel instead relied on scripture to create his musical...

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Southam Hall,1 Elgin Street,Ottawa,Canada
December 14 - 15, 2022




George Frederic Handel’s Messiah (1741) is probably the composer’s most famous work; indeed, as music scholar Donald Burrows has noted, it’s the only composition of its time that has been performed continuously, and with remarkable frequency, since its premiere in Dublin on April 12, 1742. Along with its significant performance history, the enduring popularity of Messiah owes much to the unique qualities of its text and the ways in which it was set to music.

Messiah is an oratorio, a genre which can be broadly defined as an opera on a religious topic. However, while an oratorio may have a narrative plot containing characters and operatic elements such as recitatives, arias, and choruses, it’s intended to be performed in concert form—that is, without scenery, costumes, and acting (though action would be implied). Messiah is, notably, a certain kind of concert oratorio that Handel himself had developed in England, for performance in the opera theatre, during the Lenten season when opera could not be performed. Handel introduced Messiah to London theatres beginning in 1743, and in subsequent revivals, he always scheduled its performance at the end of the theatre season, and within a couple of weeks before Easter. Today, Messiah is usually performed around Christmas, a recurring highlight of concert hall seasons.

Messiah tells the story of God’s redemption of mankind through Christ the Saviour. Charles Jennens, a friend of the composer’s, created the libretto by selecting and adapting verses from the Old and New Testaments in the Authorized Version of the Bible. The verses are grouped so the drama unfolds over three main parts: Part One presents the prophecies about the Messiah’s coming, and their fulfillment in his birth; Part Two follows the passion story of Christ, his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, the rejection of Christ, and God’s ultimate victory; Part Three is a meditation on what is accomplished through Christ’s victory—the promise of eternal life and triumph over death. While the story has clear religious significance, Jennens avoids a dogmatic interpretation. As a result, Messiah’s narrative, rich in complex human themes and emotions, can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of belief or creed.

The presentation of Messiah’s story, not by the personification of individual characters but in a descriptive format through the voices of the four soloists and chorus, makes this work unique to the oratorio genre. This aspect, in turn, shaped how Handel set Jennens’s libretto to music. By using a flexible approach to the then-standard forms and aspects of recitative, aria, and chorus, the composer deftly infuses variety and drama to the telling of the text. Listen to how recitative accompanied by the orchestra’s strings (compared to recitative accompanied only by continuo, i.e., keyboard and cello) drives the narrative forward in key moments such as “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them” (Part One), “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart” (Part Two), and “Behold, I tell you a mystery” (Part Three). By contrast, the airs (or arias) offer opportunities to contemplate more deeply the diverse moods and emotions expressed, while the choruses are moments to revel in the shifting musical textures—from layered counterpoint to majestic chordal declarations—that enliven these commentaries.

Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

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