Handel’s Messiah has been the stuff of legends since its premiere in Dublin in 1742 reviewed thus, “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.” The soloists of The Song Company complete this Salon interpretation with Parts II & III of Handel’s most beloved work for Passiontide and Easter in this special presentation designed for these times – to reveal surprising intimacy in this much-loved oratorio.
The composer of the most famous oratorio ever written almost missed his date with destiny. Handel was born in Halle, Germany, and his parents set their sights on a law career for their son. He followed their wishes in his very early studies until his musical talents emerged as more impressive and urgent. His father was persuaded to allow him to pursue music, and Handel began to study violin, piano, organ, composition, and harmony. After travels through Europe, Handel’s musical journey brought him to settle in England in 1711, and he became a naturalized British subject in 1726. Financial and health issues plagued him and caused a shift in his compositional focus from opera to oratorios.
In 1741, Charles Jennens, a great admirer and sometime collaborator with Handel, presented him with a libretto based on Old and New Testament passages from the King James version of the Bible. Handel began to work at setting it to music almost instantly, and composed at a phenomenal rate (including borrowing from earlier works by himself and others), finishing the entire oratorio in twenty-four days: August 22 to September 14. He wrote as if in a trance – food, sleep, ordinary life passed him by... the story goes that when he had finished the great Hallelujah chorus he sat for a moment, with tears in his eyes. “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God Himself!” he cried to his servant.
An oratorio means “oratory by music”. While sharing the drama and story-telling nature of an opera, oratorios were performed without sets or costumes. During Handel’s time, Bibles were too expensive for most people to own one; illiteracy also was a barrier. The oratorio genre proved to be an accessible way to educate people in significant portions of the Bible. At the conclusion of the highly successful Dublin première of Messiah in 1742, a friend complimented Handel: “I must congratulate you upon such a beautiful piece of entertainment”, to which Handel replied, “Entertainment! That was not written for entertainment, but for education”, or as another source has it: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better”. It is thought that of all of the performances of Messiah Handel led (and he did so on some three dozen occasions, always at Easter time), he gave the earned money to charity, and it’s amazing to think that as a result of the world première more than one hundred people were released from debtors’ prison!
Jennens sent the following text to be printed at the head of the word-book for the oratorio, and it summarizes the subject of Messiah: “And without controversy, great is the mystery of Godliness; God was manifested in the Flesh, justified by the Spirit, seen of Angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in Glory. In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Messiah is in three Parts, each unfolding a chronological portion of the greatest story ever told.