Probably Handel’s most famous work, Messiah (1741) is the only composition of its time to be performed continuously since its premiere in Dublin on April 12, 1742. The remarkable frequency of its performance was due in part to the accessibility of the score (which was published in 1767), and its enduring popularity owes much to the unique qualities of its text and the ways Handel set it to music.
Messiah is an oratorio—a semi-dramatic genre akin to opera but on a religious topic. Like an opera, an oratorio may have a narrative plot with characters, and unfold with operatic elements such as recitatives, arias, and choruses. However, unlike an opera, it’s performed in concert form—that is, without scenery, costumes, and acting (though action would be implied). In Italy during the first half of the 18th century, oratorios were substitutes for opera during Lent, a solemn season during the Christian liturgical calendar when one had to abstain from opera among other worldly activities. Messiah is, notably, a certain kind of concert oratorio that Handel had developed in England, as an alternative to Italian opera, which, by mid-century, was falling out of favour and fashion with audiences there. After its premiere, he introduced Messiah to London theatres beginning in 1743. Initially, the oratorio’s sacred subject appearing in a secular context provoked controversy but later, shifts in circumstance and audience tastes eventually made this a non-issue. In subsequent revivals, Handel always scheduled performances of it at the end of the theatre season, within a couple of weeks before Easter. Today, Messiah is usually performed around Christmas.
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 in 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.
Handel’s Messiah is unique to the oratorio genre because its story is presented, not through the personification of characters, but rather, in a descriptive format by the voices of the four soloists and chorus. The text thus becomes something to be contemplated, enhanced by the composer’s deft use of recitative, aria, and chorus to infuse variety and drama. In the recitatives, there’s a notable distinction between those accompanied by continuo (i.e., keyboard and cello) versus those accompanied by orchestra (“accompagnato”). While the former serve to introduce new topics, the latter drive the narrative forward in key moments, for example, “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). For the ensuing airs (or arias) during which matters are more deeply reflected upon, Handel uses a mixture of forms. He had originally planned four arias to be set in the elaborate Baroque da capo (ABA) form, but only the one for alto, “He was despised”, was not shortened before the first performance. When performed in full, as it will be in this NACO performance, this aria carries deep emotional weight, setting the stage for the dramatic arc of Part Two that ultimately culminates in the glorious “Hallelujah” chorus.
Regarding the choruses, shifting musical textures—from unison declarations to layered counterpoint to majestic chordal statements—enliven these commentaries to powerful effect. The aforementioned “Hallelujah” chorus is a particularly brilliant example, incorporating monophonic (“King of Kings”), homophonic (the opening “Hallelujah”), and polyphonic (“And he shall reign for ever and ever”) textures. Listen also to how it goes from low and quiet on “The kingdom of this world is become” to suddenly loud on “the Kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ”, on a similar motif but in a higher register, as if radiant—a musical representation of the transformation described in the text. In the final “Amen” chorus, Handel inventively contrasts homophonic and polyphonic textures as well as vocal and orchestral timbres to bring the oratorio to a magnificent close.
Program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD
Since its debut in 1969, the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra has been praised for the passion and clarity of its performances, its visionary educational programs, and its prominent role in nurturing Canadian creativity. Under the leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra reflects the fabric and values of Canada, reaching and representing the diverse communities we live in with daring programming, powerful storytelling, inspiring artistry, and innovative partnerships.
Alexander Shelley began his tenure as Music Director in 2015, following Pinchas Zukerman’s 16 seasons at the helm. Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and former Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra (2009–2017), he has been in demand around the world, conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic, DSO Berlin, Leipzig Gewandhaus, and Stockholm Philharmonic, among others, and maintains a regular relationship with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and the German National Youth Orchestra.
Each season, the NAC Orchestra features world-class artists such as the newly appointed Artist-in-Residence James Ehnes, Angela Hewitt, Joshua Bell, Xian Zhang, Gabriela Montero, Stewart Goodyear, Jan Lisiecki, and Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds. As one of the most accessible, inclusive, and collaborative orchestras in the world, the NAC Orchestra uses music as a universal language to communicate the deepest of human emotions and connect people through shared experiences.