Handel’s Messiah: The Complete Work
|Combine the premier choral conductor of our time; his select chamber choir, the Cambridge Singers; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; and Handel’s timeless Baroque masterpiece, and you have the ultimate mu¬sical celebration for Christmas or Easter! Phenomenal vocalists Joanne Lunn, Melanie Marshall, James Gilchrist, and Christopher Purves were specially selected as soloists by Mr. Rutter for this recording.|
George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is his most famous creation and is among the most popular works in Western choral literature. Although the work was conceived and first performed for Easter, it has become traditional since Handel’s death to present the prophetic portions of the oratorio during Advent and resurrection-themed segments during Easter. Whether you were raised with the breathtaking, straight-from- Scripture movements “For unto Us a Child Is Born,” “He Shall Feed His Flock,” and “The Hallelujah Chorus”—or you’re appreciating them for the first time—you’ll be powerfully moved by this momentous production.
“If you sing in a choir—church or choral society—it is a mathematical certainty that you will have sung something by John Rutter. Be it anthem, carol, hymn or his much-loved Requiem, John Rutter’s [the] choral man who has given choirs music [that] is ubiquitous."
Messiah, (1741), is an oratorio by George Frideric Handel. It is his most famous creation and is among the most popular works in the Western choral literature. The name of the oratorio is taken from Judaism and Christianity’s concept of the messiah (“the anointed one”). In Christianity, the Messiah is Jesus. Handel himself was a devout Christian, and the work is a presentation of Jesus’s life and its significance according to Christian doctrine. Messiah,is Handel’s most famous work and remains immensely popular among concert-goers in the English-speaking world.
Although the work was conceived and first performed for Easter, it has become traditional since Handel’s death to perform the Messiah,oratorio during Advent, the preparatory period of the Christmas season. The work is also heard at Eastertide, and selections containing resurrection themes are often included in Easter services.
From John Rutter
Among Handel’s twenty or more oratorios, Messiah has long been the most often performed, holding a place of honor in the hearts of audiences everywhere. Why? The reason, surely, does not lie solely with the music, magnificent and ever-fresh though it is: Solomon, Saul, Israel in Egypt and Jepetha among others, all contain music equally fi ne. What makes Messiah unique is its libretto. Charles Jennens’s inspired idea was to not write it himself but rather to compile it from the King James Bible, presenting Handel with the most extended scriptural text he ever set to music—a text, moreover, containing the kernel of the Christian faith. For believers, this will always be more compelling than the sometimes obscure Old Testament narratives of most of Handel’s other oratorios, recounted in poetic paraphrases which rarely match the glory of the 1611 Bible.
Did Handel know that Messiah was to become his most famous work? Probably not, but its subject-matter certainly inspired him to music of exceptional directness, conviction, and glory. Perhaps that is the secret of Messiah’s ability to reach out to us all, believers and non-believers alike. Every note breathes the faith of its composer that we can be raised up to a better world and walk together in the light, a vision we need as much now as ever we did.
I grew up in London, Handel’s adopted city. I have walked past the window of his house in Brook Street where he would sit composing, visited the elegant church of St. George, Hanover Square where he worshipped, strolled through the once poor and squalid district of Seven Dials where the plight of the street orphans stirred him into giving annual Messiah performances in aid of his friend Captain Coram’s Foundling Hospital . . . I have examined some of his manuscripts, even played his (reputed) harpsichord. I never thought I would record his most renowned work, and it has been a joy to do so with my choir the Cambridge Singers, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with whom I have a long-standing and happy relationship, plus a wonderful quartet of young soloists, two of whom (I am proud to say) once sang in my choir.
Like most of the very greatest works, Messiah can be performed in many different ways, but none of them can ever encompass all its facets. Two principles guided us in our performance: first, to try to be faithful to Handel’s vision as we understood it; second, to keep the drama and the meaning of the text constantly in our minds and to allow it to speak to the listener.
After all the intensive work of preparing and making this recording, I feel privileged to have perhaps drawn a little closer to Handel the man: gruff , irascible, rather private, but surely kind and true of heart, possessed of a compassion which embraced all of humanity. After his death in 1759 a friend wrote that ‘he died as he lived—a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God and man, and in perfect charity with all the world.’ Amen—and hallelujah!
The History of Messiah
It has been calculated that Handel committed more notes to paper than any other composer in history. But even by his phenomenal standards of productivity, he composed Messiah at white heat. In six days beginning 23 August 1741, he drafted 100 sides of ten-stave paper; he wrote the whole oratorio in just three weeks.
Yet even as he forged ahead, Handel was, unusually for him, uncertain about when and where he would perform this new work. He had probably already received his invitation to give concerts in Dublin, and it may be for that reason that he wrote Messiah for a sparse orchestra of strings, trumpets, and drums only, with none of the usual woodwind with which he so liked to colour his solo numbers: he did not know what orchestral forces might be available. He added woodwind parts later, when he began performing Messiah in England. He also wrote for a combination of soloists—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass—which is normal now, but which he had never used in his previous oratorios, and may have been a way of spreading the recruitment risk. Yet he seems not to have been definite about the Dublin trip, for with hardly a break after finishing Messiah, he began his massive oratorio Samson with much larger forces and surely intended for England.
Handel left us frustratingly little correspondence and few paper trails other than his music, and it is from pieces like these, that we have to glean his intentions. With hindsight it is clear that Messiah was a turning point in his career.
He had come to England thirty years before, fresh from youthful grounding in counterpoint in Germany and melody in Italy, to make his mark as a composer of powerful music for church and state occasions and as a master of the new and fashionable Italian opera. It was as an opera composer that he became famous and remained busily employed throughout the 1720s. But the 1730s were difficult for him, prompting him to great creative developments. In this decade he began to be his own concert promoter, finance director, contractor, and conductor, as well as composer: the first completely independent major composer in history. As such, he was always looking for ways to please public taste that would also satisfy his urge to experiment in music.
Competition from new rival Italian opera companies, and a growing demand for identifiably English music, with English words and English singers, led him to accept from friends and acquaintances librettos for English oratorios: unacted, unstaged works for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, given as concert performances in a theatre. He had already written oratorios about the Messiah in Italy (La Resurezzione, 1708) and for Germany (The Brockes Passion , 1716) when Charles Jennens offered him the libretto of Messiah. He did not feel the moment was right for it, but put it on the shelf for nearly three years. His turn from Italian opera to English oratorio was gradual and unplanned; for several years he put on mixed seasons of both types of works, and although he gave his last Italian opera performance a few months before he began Messiah, he himself did not know this or intend it to be the case.
Without Messiah, Charles Jennens would be unknown today. But without Charles Jennens, there would be no Messiah. The idea was his, and he compiled the libretto before offering it to Handel. It was not their first collaboration. Fifteen years Handel’s junior, shy, touchy, cultivated, the Oxford-educated son of a Midlands landowner enriched by the family iron business, Jennens was a good amateur musician and a devotee of Handel’s music. He had copies made for himself of every note that Handel wrote; he made the long journey to London each season to hear Handel’s latest compositions; and he fostered Handel’s career by giving him English texts to set to music.
In January 1739, Handel successfully produced his oratorio Saul, to a libretto by Jennens based on Scripture. On 29 December that year, writing to his fellow Handel enthusiast James Harris about their plan to compile a libretto for Handel based on Milton’s poems L’Allegroand Il Penseroso, Jennens commented:
“I have been preparing a collection for him from Scripture, which is more to my own tast & (by his own confession) to his too; but I believe he will not set it this year, being anxious to please the Town with something of a gayer turn.”
The ‘collection from Scripture’ is the first known mention of Messiah.
Handel’s enthusiasm for the Milton project gave Jennens time to do justice to his chosen theme. By 10 July 1741 he was able to write to his friend Edward Holdsworth:
“Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit [taking the bulk of the box office] in Passion Week. I hope he 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 phrase ‘another Scripture Collection’ is a clue that Jennens was also the compiler of the libretto for Handel’s only previous oratorio with words taken directly from the Bible, Israel in Egypt. Jennens was a devout adherent of the Protestant church, believing in the fundamental truths and divine inspiration of the Bible. Like many sincere Christians of his time, he was disturbed by the increase of Enlightenment free thinking. Respect for scientific proof, rationalist criticism of sacred texts, and the disruption of old social orders as London became Europe’s finance capital all contributed to weaken the authority of Christian revelation. And in response, dozens of clergymen and concerned laymen published hundreds of sermons, tracts, and multivolume folios defending the doctrine that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament through whom God offered salvation to mankind. Messiah is the most lasting of these declarations of faith, because Jennens had the unique idea of communicating the essentials of Christian doctrine through Handel’s music.
At this point in his career, Handel was finding the English public hard to please and was considering a return to Germany. Jennens hoped that, as the climax of a London season, the new oratorio would revive the composer’s popularity and income. But Handel did not fulfil Jennens’s plan to introduce Messiah to a theatre audience in London during Holy Week. Taking the new score to Ireland, he carefully waited to perform such a novel work until he had won Dublin hearts with two highly successful subscription series of some of his other oratorios, odes, and serenatas; and then he produced Messiah not in a theatre but in the New Music Hall, Fishamble St, on 13 April 1742. Along with his principal performers, he gave his services free for the benefit of three Dublin charities—a fact much commended in the local press.
No composer could have wished for a more enthusiastic reception of a new work. The capacity audience was deeply appreciative, the Bishop of Dublin reporting that even “great numbers” of the “young and gay” listened with serious attention. Not only was the performance sold out, the reviews were universally positive:
Words are wanting to describe 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 Dublin Journal]
But it was a different story when Handel premiered Messiah in London next year, as part of a season of English-language works in his usual venue, a theatre. The papers printed objections to the utterance of the sacred Word of God in a place associated with low-life actors and scurrilous plays, and Handel suff ered something akin to a nervous breakdown. He was not helped by Jennens’s outspoken disappointment with Messiah. Seeing the score now for the first time, Jennens initially felt that Handel had not always done justice to himself as a composer or to the Word of God as divine truth. The collaborators, both strong-willed and intransigent, had a rift. It was Handel who made the first conciliatory move, and his mollifying letter (now on show in his house in London’s Brook Street) testifies to his respect for Jennens as a librettist and as a musician: “Be pleased to point out those passages in the Messiah which You think require altering.”
Messiah did not become an established favourite in England until the 1750s, when Handel began to perform it for charity, as he had done in Dublin. Benevolent and wealthy London society flocked to hear Messiah in Captain Coram’s new Foundling Hospital “for the education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children,” and Handel later bequeathed to the charity a manuscript score and a set of parts that can still be seen there.
The association of Messiah with the Foundling Hospital must have had a special resonance for Handel, since the city of his birth, Halle, was (and is) home to a similar foundation. The Franckesche Stiftung, a large-scale orphanage for the rescue and training of foundlings, and still a major educational charity, was established in 1698 by the Pietist philanthropist August-Hermann Francke, who was also professor of Oriental languages at Halle University when Handel attended it. Handel would have recognised the Foundling Hospital as a kindred charity.
By 1784 the music historian Charles Burney could write of Messiah that “this great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight.” It reached Berlin two years later; and Mozart performed it in Vienna in 1789, adding or rewriting the parts for woodwind, brass, and timpani. Both were anticipated by William Tuckey, the retired choirmaster of Trinity Church, New York, who on 16 January 1770 made extracts from Messiah the second part of a concert in George Burns’s Music Room in the City Tavern on Broadway. The advertisement showed real understanding of Messiah: “A Sacred Oratorio, on the Prophecies concerning Christ, and his coming.” Further New York performances of extracts followed, and within the next decade Messiah reached Boston and Philadelphia. The first complete Messiah in North America was in Boston in 1818, at Boylston Hall, establishing a tradition of annual performances there.
It was Handel’s normal practice to revise his works for each season in which he revived them, to suit the soloists he had assembled in his company. This means that there is seldom a definitive version of a Handel opera or oratorio. Messiah is no exception; for example, when for the 1749–50 season Handel acquired the brilliant young alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni (later to be the creator of Gluck’s Orfeo), he composed for him new settings of “But who may abide the day of his coming” (originally for bass, then for tenor), and “Thou art gone up on high” (originally for bass, then for soprano). There is no principal version of Messiah; the original Dublin performance cannot be reconstructed with certainty. The present recording follows what have become the most widely accepted choices in performance.
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