Händel: Messiah

It doesn’t make any sense for me that the program notes try to depict what you are about to listen. I prefer them to offer some complementary reading.

Messiah, Georg Friedrich Händel’s oratorio on biblical texts selected by

 Charles Jennens

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 Program notes of the concert performed in Burgos (Spain), on the 250 anniversary of Händel’s death. December 2009.

I should be sorry if I only entertained them;

I wished to make them better.” (Händel) 

    One of Georg Friedrich Händel’s (1685-1759) most outstanding characteristics as an artistic peak of the Enlightenment, consists of his person’s and his musical legacy’s European dimension. Händel was born and raised in the provincial German city of Halle, nearly forty kilometres far from Leipzig and only some one hundred from Eisenach, in the same year of 1685 when Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth took place. Händel, (contrarily to Bach, who was strongly attached to the Germanic soil) felt the necessity of nourishing with the experience of travel, a fact that led him around Europe during all the first years of his adulthood. At the age of 25, nevertheless, a favourable financial position, due to the social and professional recognition from part of the London audiences, motivated his definitive settlement on the Thames, where a new British nationality was to be adopted in 1727. Some health problems, quite frequent from his thirties (he even lost his sight, like Bach) advised against forcing his organism with new journeys. Nine years after Bach’s death, the British citizen Händel died, just when little child Mozart tried for the first time to climb up onto his father’s harpsichord stool.

The historical development of Messiah performance 


1751 Version cover, by Higginbottom, Choir of New College Oxford, Naxos

    The work’s sense of seclusion may cause some surprise on the audience if we take into account that many people expect to find the whole oratorio’s character similar to that of the brilliant and overwhelming choir Hallelujah. Far from any grandiloquence, the work was conceived for a relatively modest ensemble. It is not easy to determine the orchestration of the original version, because of the quantity of variations done by the composer himself, depending on the varying conditions in which his work had to be executed. Händel offered the Dubliner audience in 1742 the premiere counting on a choir of approximately eight voices for each part, with the four soloists integrated in it. The orchestra’s size, therefore, should have been rather reduced: about three desks of first violins, other three for the seconds, two for the violas and a couple of cellos and double basses, in addition to organ and harpsichord. In what concerns to the winds, should have been just a couple of oboes and a bassoon. The participation of trumpets and timpani is reduced to three moments of the work (Hallelujah, the air “The trumpet shall sound” and the final choir “Worthy is the lamb”). Nevertheless, it was the author himself who started the stream of modifications on the score: nine years after the premier, he adapted the work for a church acoustic, to be performed in London. The number of musicians, therefore, had to be enlarged. According to Nikolaus Harnoncourt (in the essay included in his recording of 1982), after the composer’s death, the oratorio adopted colossal proportions in what regards to the number of performers. In 1784, a choir of some three hundred singers, accompanied by an orchestra of about two hundred and fifty musicians, including horns and trombones, should have made shake the Westminster’s stained glass windows. The celebre baron Van Swieten, who could perfectly have attended such a musical event, got a copy of the score and took it with him to Viena, where he invited his mason brother, Wolfgang Mozart, to make his own arrange of the oratorio according to the taste of the classical period. Not only did he overcome the task in 1789 without altering the architectonic essence of the händelian work, but he also assimilated the mastery of the choral fugue on religious text that he was to put into practice two years later in his Requiem (verify this point checking the borrowing of the subject of the choral fugue “And with His stripes” from the second part of Messiah, in Mozart’s Kyrie from his Requiem). Among the available versions, the most outstanding could be that of Sir Charles Mackerras (Archiv, 1990). In other composer’s hands, the mixture of styles would have turned into a kind of musical Frankenstein, but in Mozart’s it seems so natural and fresh as if Baroque and Classicism would have been coetaneous.

Multitudinous performances of the work, framed in the great tradition of the Germanic conducting, predominated during the Romantic times and the first two thirds of the 20th century, reaching a peak point (phonographically speaking) with the arrangement done under the auspices of Sir Thomas Beecham in 1959. This performance represents the stereotype of a taste for a disproportionately post romantic vision of the works from the past. Nevertheless, it can be said in support of this vision, that represents the creative ambition, the musical desire still not obsessed by the commitment with the historical verisimilitude.

During the last decades, the historicist criterion has become condition sine quae non for the performing of any music before Classicism. Nowadays everybody seems to look for the sound that the author might have had in mind. For that reason, pits and stages have been cleared up of musicians, tending like this to a more chamber style. As early as in 1932, Theodor Adorno advised about the betrayal done to the Baroque aesthetic in the händelian performances of his time. In his essay on modern music  Quasi una fantasia he stood up for means economy as a way of approaching the Baroque expressivity. Anyway, that historicist stream did not come out until late 1970’s. From then on, any execution of Messiah must base itself (according to a not written law) on a series of regulations (as the employ of original instruments –or copies-, a determined way of ornamenting, vibrating, the performance of nuances, etc.) converging in a characteristic Baroque sound.

The English conductor Edward Higginbottom, who is defending tonight his own version of the händelian oratorio, is a musician owner of great erudition and knowledge who, from his lecturing in Oxford develops a brilliant educative task around the historicist performing of music. We can point as a sample the excellent recording of the mentioned 1751 version with this Choir of New College Oxford. Händel changed in this version the  soprani for children voices. The result, in Higginsbottom’s hands is freshly transparent and bursting with energy, with some tempi absolutely overpowering.

The music and its ideal acoustics 

The problems around the quantity of performing variations have a lot to see with the acoustical frame where the audition takes place. When the author composed this work, he was thinking of the acoustic of a theatre, not the sound of a church. Inside temples, reverberation times are wide, so if tempi were too fast, sounds would mix up in the vaults and music would never be understood. Händel was a man of theatre who mastered the operatic texture. For that reason, his oratori are essentially theatrical. All that virtuosity required by many excerpts, corresponds to the aesthetics of the Italian opera and not to that of church music. The frequent cascades in progression of the air Every valley could be translated to one of his operas as aria di baule (those airs that the first singers carried in their folders to be performed, as an encore, in the middle of a different opera) without breaking the integrity of the operatic style.

The mentioned great post romantic versions of the work, nevertheless, used to slow tempi down in order to be performed in churches by a huge symphonic-choral mass. In this sense, the space that Cultural Cordón offers inside this Casa del Cordón, is acoustically optimal so as the conductor by able to defend his own idea of the work, disregarding any inconvenient from a dry sonority or an excess of reverberation.

Musical structure 

    Händel achieves in Messiah a perfect balance with the three different sections of the work. The mystic signification of the number three plays its role regarding to general sectionalisation and subdivision of each part: The text of the first part refers to the prophecy of a Messiah and the birth and life of Jesus. The second treats the theme of the fulfilling of the divine’s mission through his passion and death. The work concludes thanksgiving God for the Redemption.

He looks for a convenient balance through the alternation of virtuosity airs, pastoral moments, brilliant choirs, or meditative airs of great beauty. His command of theatrical scheme makes easy for him to access such a music-textual balance. His music possesses great dramatic charge. The most relevant difference with Bach’s oratori or passions, resides in the last’s pure sincerity. Bachian music stands on the text, achieving then a sublime means of expression. Everything in Bach is inside music. Händel, nevertheless stamps the dramatic character, the theatrical performance, the mimesis. Whilst in Bach music is expression of a substance, in Händel it is imitation of reality, I mean, an artistic representation of the world and life.

If only we should stand out some momentous excerpts of the work, we could quote the wonderful contrasting effect produced between the distressing E minor of the beginning and the immediately subsequent recitative in the major mode. The pastoral movement, Pifa (a denomination derived from the pífano instrument, related to the shepherds of the Italian Abruzzi) is the only, together with the initial sinfonia, that requires a totally instrumental performance.

The air from the first part And He shall feed His flock, is in the opinion of not few, one of the most inspired melodies of the händelian output. It can be observed how a shine breaks when the choir pronounces the name of the Messiah as “Wonderful Counsellor” in For unto us a child is born. The second part, in a more meditative mood, ends with the well known outburst of joy, Hallellujah, when the trumpets first appear. The choirs, that all along the work require extreme virtuosity, have the personality and expressivity of one more character, as if they were real choral airs (see the final  Worthy is the Lamb). The Amen is kind of a summary monument to the art of fugue, and closes the work, as a huge plagal cadenza, when everything, in music and in text, has already been said. After it, the cathartic meaning of the author makes its sense: he meant to provoke an apollonian effect on the audience’s soul.

The texts 

The composition of Messiah kept Händel busy only for three weeks. Logically, a person so devoted into musical creation did not stop to employ part of his time looking for and selecting texts. For that task he counted with Charles Jennens, who had already written some libretti for him. Jennens was an unconditional admirer of Händel’s and it’s because of his care that all a manuscript collection considered fundamental for the händelian studies, has been preserved. However, his relationship with the composer must have been, at least, controversial. His labour in Messiah is not definitively that of a librettist. He just had to choose a series of biblical verses (Prophets, Psalms, Saint Paul’s letters and the Gospels) well known all of them. Even so, in the time of composing the present oratorio, Händel must have had him in high esteem, because he agreed the requirement of modifying some parts of the score that the librettist considered not enough inspired. Jennens seems to be the author of the next lines:

I gave Händel my texts for Messiah, oratorio that I consider positively. I really consider he has achieved an entertaining work. Nevertheless, it does not live up to the expectations I had put on it. Hardly could I convince him to correct some of the most remarkable mistakes, but he persisted in keeping the overture. There are in it some passages not worthy of Händel, but even less worthy of my libretto.

     Händel is supposed to have answered ironically:  I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.

© Enrique García Revilla 2012.

About enriquedeburgos

Enrique García Revilla
This entry was posted in Cultural Cordón, Notas al programa, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Händel: Messiah

  1. Pingback: Mesías participativo en Burgos | Les soirées de l'orchestre

  2. Pingback: Händel: El Mesías | Les soirées de l'orchestre

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