Consider for a moment the situation in which Handel found himself in 1740. His penultimate opera, Imeneo, had lasted only two days at Lincoln’s Inn Fields; and his final opera, Deidamia, also lasted only two performances (this time, both on the same day) before being cancelled. Although his oratorios were substantially more successful, there was not a large enough audience to support them in London. Desperate for a success, Handel was invited to Ireland by William Cavendish in the summer of 1741, and, with the idea of supporting charities in Dublin, Handel prepared for the trip by composing Messiah, based on libretto by his long-term collaborator Charles Jennens.
The story of the speed of Messiah’s composition is well known: Handel began work on 22 August and finished the third part on 12 September; the orchestration took two days, and the whole work was completed on 14 September 1741. With the scores thus completed, he set out for Ireland, but was delayed by bad weather in the cathedral town of Chester. Charles Burney, a student at the time, takes up the story:
I was at the Public-School in that city, and very well remember seeing him smoke a pipe over a dish of coffee at the Exchange Coffee-house; for, being extremely anxious to see so extraordinary a man, I watched him narrowly as long as he remained in Chester …. During this time, he applied to Mr Baker, the Organist, my first music-master, to know whether there were any choirmen in the cathedral who could sing at sight; as he wished to prove some books that had been hastily transcribed by trying the choruses which he intended to perform in Ireland. Mr Baker mentioned some of the most likely singers then in Chester, and among the rest a printer of the name of Janson, who had a good base voice, and was one of the best musicians in the choir…. A time was fixed for this private rehearsal at the Golden Falcon, where Handel was quartered; but, alas! on trial of the chorus in the Messiah, ‘And with his stripes we are healed,’—poor Janson, after repeated attempts, failed so egregiously, that Handel let loose his great bear upon him; and after swearing in four or five languages, cried out in broken English, ‘You shcauntrell tit you not dell me dat you could sing at soite?’—‘Yes, sir,’ says the printer, ‘and so I can, but not at first sight’.” (Burney 1785.)
Dublin Journal, 17 April 1742.
It was by all accounts a runaway success: “On Tuesday last, Mr Handel’s Sacred Grand Oratorio, the MESSIAH, was performed at the New Musick-Hall in Fishamble-street; the best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the equisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words composed to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear”.
If we were being uncharitable, we might call Messiah a pastiche—after all, it includes operatic arias, church anthems, Tuscan shepherds, German passion music, and Italian chamber duets (most notably ‘For unto us a child is born’, which began its life as ‘No, di voi non vuò fidarmi’!). But I am nothing but charitable about this remarkable work and prefer to think of it as a bravura performance by an extraordinarily talented composer, weaving together the strands of his personal musical history to produce the spectacular masterpiece we will perform this evening.
In 1706, Handel experienced his first Italian Christmas in Rome. Among the many people who travelled to Rome at that time of the year were musicians from the Abruzzi hills, playing the piffari—essentially an Italian bagpipe. Their traditional melodies were in compound metres like 6/8 and 12/8 and, under the broad heading of siciliano, became popular as the final movements of concerti such as Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. Echoes of the Abruzzi shepherds are to be found in Messiah, in the movement often called the ‘Pastoral Symphony’. It is tempting to imagine, as H.C. Robbins Landon does in his excellent biography of Handel, that the old composer might have looked fondly back on his youth in Italy and included this material as a reminder of happier times.
Messiah is, above all else, a drama, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the first couple of movements. In the overture, we are in the darkness of E minor; then Handel moves seamlessly into the lightness of E major for the opening lines of ‘Comfort ye my people’. Similarly, we move in one arioso from ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth’ (B minor) to ‘but the Lord shall arise upon thee’ bringing us to bright D major. The scale of the work moves between the intensely personal (‘He was despised and rejected’) and the universal (‘worthy is the Lamb that was slain’); and its imagery, both textual and musical, is direct and vivid. It is easy to hear these familiar words without fully considering their impact. When you hear ‘For he is like a refiner’s fire’ tonight, consider what a contemporary equivalent of a refiner’s fire might be.
I have always found Messiah to be a deeply affecting work with enormous emotional impact, and I hope that in our telling of this story, we can share its extraordinary beauty and power with you.
- This concert was reviewed by the Canberra Times.
- You may be interested in reading the complete programme for this performance of Messiah.