“There were some parts that were affecting, but I doubt it has staying power” – John Wesley
“I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God”. – George Frideric Handel
On today’s date, April 13 in 1742, George Frideric Handel’s classic Oratorio “The Messiah” had it’s premiere performance in Dublin, Ireland. The two comments above are two very different reactions to the piece. The first, by the founder of the Methodist Church was one that was shared by some of those who heard it. But the second, by the composer himself during the writing of the work, is a better reflection of the general reaction to this piece as it has come down to us over the years.
Handel, the Oratorio, and “The Messiah”
George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) was a German born composer who had become well known outside of his native land. He had spent most of his career in England writing music to appeal to the noble caste of that country. Italian Opera was the favorite form of entertainment for the British aristocracy, and at this Handel had been quite successful. But by 1740, Handel had had a medical setback (apparently
a stroke) which left him unable to perform. This left him in dire financial straights. So he took to composing oratorios. These were much like operas in that they usually told a story, and involved dramatic solos alternating with chorus. But unlike operas, they were done in concert presentation; meaning no elaborate sets or costumes, or dramatic productions. Thus they were much cheaper and easier to produce. In July of 1741, Charles Jennens (above) sent a libretto (the text to be sung) for an oratorio. He wrote to a friend: “I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject. The Subject is Messiah”.
“The Messiah” is Written and Performed
And in two very busy months, Handel wrote a masterpiece. Like all of Handel’s oratorios although it is on sacred subject matter, it is much closer to theater than it is to a church service. The text is entirely scriptural, and unlike the rest of Handel’s oratorios, it doesn’t tell a story, although it does follow the biblical telling of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It is actually a series of moments from the life of Jesus, contemplating the Christian ideal of sin and redemption, and going
through until Christ’s final triumph. It is divided into three parts: Part One covering Christ’s birth, Part Two covering his passion, his death and his resurrection, and Part Three covering judgement day and ending with Christ’s acclamation. The first performance was given at the Great Music Hall in Dublin (above), Ireland as a part of a series of concerts. But all of the proceeds of the performance of the Messiah were given to charity. The name of Handel as the composer was still a draw and the audience grew to 700, as ladies heard requests by management to wear dresses “without Hoops” in order to make “Room for more company.” The performance was a great success in Ireland. one clergyman was moved to shout “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!” on hearing the aria “He Was Despised”.
One can find many, many accounts online covering the story behind the Messiah, and it’s writing. And these accounts tend to differ on points of detail. There are various versions available online to be found of the reasons why King George II stood up for the “Hallelujah” Chorus which concludes Part Two during a performance in the 1750’s. One says that His Majesty’s foot had simply fallen asleep, and he was simply trying to awaken it. Another version has it that His Majesty was standing to honor the chorus’s declaration of Christ as “King of Kings”. During the 1970’s, my then private double bass teacher, Alex Cirin told me a version that he had heard that George II had himself fallen asleep, and that when the chorus made its forte’ entrance, the King was awakened and startled into standing up. Whatever the case, the audience of the day dutifully followed the tradition that when the Kings stands, everyone else must also stand. And hence the tradition has stood right down to the present – whenever the Hallelujah Chorus is played, the entire audience stands. “The Messiah” did well in its Dublin premiere, but was less successful in its London premiere about a year later. Nevertheless, it has proven to be one of the most popular pieces ever written, and has long since become a staple of Christmas and Easter traditions all over the world.
“A History of Western Music” by Donald Jay Grout, W.W. Norton and Co. Inc., 1973