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. 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 note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD
Tobi Hunt McCoy is enjoying another year as Season Stage Manager with the National Arts Centre Orchestra. In past seasons, she stage-managed Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Christopher Plummer in 2001 and Colm Feore in 2014. For the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra she co-produced the 1940s Pops show On the Air with Jack Everly, a show they had co-produced in 2007 for the NAC Orchestra.
Last season, Hunt McCoy made her Southam Hall acting debut in the role of Stage Manager in the Magic Circle Mime Co.’s production of Orchestra from Planet X. Additional professional duties have included aiding Susanna and the Countess in schooling the Count and Figaro on the finer points of marital love during The Marriage of Figaro; keeping her eyes open (for the first time ever) during the flying monkey scene in The Wizard of Oz; mistakenly asking Patrick Watson for proof of identity backstage; holding her breath while marvelling at the athletic ability of the cast during Cirque à Broadway; and cheering on Luke and Princess Leia with Charlie Ross, Émilie Fournier, and Erik Ochsner during the Star Wars Pops concert.
In her spare time, Hunt McCoy is the Head of Arts, English, Drama, and Library at Lisgar Collegiate Institute.