Hundreds of years after its creation, Handel’s ‘Messiah’ is still a treasured part of the annual musical calendar. Performances all over the world offer listeners a chance to experience some of Handel’s most sublime music.
Clarissa Dunn explores some of the many ways Handel’s masterpiece has been performed from its triumphant Dublin premiere to a Grammy Award winning gospel reinterpretation, with commentary from Handel biographer Jonathan Keates and excerpts from some acclaimed recordings.
Handel’s ‘Messiah’ like Shakespeare’s plays has been moulded and adapted to suit the styles and preoccupations of every epoch.
There is no definitive version of Messiah. Handel never performed his oratorio exactly as he wrote it in 1741. Like many other baroque composers, he saw any composition as being adaptable. In fact, Handel reworked the score of Messiah at least 10 times, often tailoring arias to the limitations or talents of specific singers.
The star of the 1742 Dublin premiere was an actress, Susannah Maria Cibber.
“She came from a very theatrical and musical family she herself was actually performing in spoken drama in Dublin but Handel then saw how effective her singing voice would be, and also, I think it was a chance for her, she had been through this extremely seedy divorce case, adultery case, and it was a chance for her to put herself back on track with the public.” – Jonathan Keates, author of Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel's Masterpiece
Susannah’s husband had tried to sue one of her lovers and the court case spared none of the details, which featured “a snooping landlord, interconnecting bedrooms and an abduction attempt foiled at the last minute by her brother, the respected composer Thomas Arne” - of Rule Britannia fame.
In 1750 Handel assembled a dream team, admired for their flamboyance and virtuosity, and from here on Messiah began to make a real impact on English audiences showing the contemporary taste for vocal virtuosity.
“All of the soloists were to some degree ‘Mr Handel’s scholars’, singers with particular gifts that he had singled out and nurtured.”
One in particular was a significant inspiration to this version of Handel’s score, a castrato called Gaetano Guadagni. The remarkable 20-year-old came to London with an Italian comic opera troupe and was keen to sing in English as well as Italian so Handel took him under his wing.
From 1750 until his death Handel’s ‘Messiah’ was performed annually at an orphanage - The Foundling Hospital in London, as a charity fundraiser.
When Handel died in 1759 his loss was felt deeply. Three thousand people attended the funeral at Westminster Abbey where choirs from the Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Chapel Royal sang during the service.
Handel’s friend, the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac, made a monument in Handel’s likeness from a death mask of the composer. You can see it in Westminster Abbey - Handel is frozen in a moment of inspiration, clutching a quill in one hand and looking to the heavens while he completes music from Messiah – ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’.
Above this monument a small tablet records the Handel festival or 'Commemoration' of 1784 – marking 25 years since Handel’s death.
This series of Handel concerts was given in the Abbey by vast numbers of singers and instrumentalists, and established a fashion for large-scale performances of Handel's choral works throughout the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth.
After the 1784 commemorations, the score of Messiah became fixed, star-specific solos were dropped, and the performing forces became huge.
Not all performances of ‘Messiah’ at this time were elephantine, a mini-Messiah came to light recently in Tauranga.
The edition, printed in 1784, for 4 singers, harpsichord and violin had been sitting in a paper bag in the Smith family piano stool for years, and was rediscovered and given a parlour-style performance by musicians from Waikato University in Tauranga just last month.
About 16 copies were made of this edition published serially in The New Musical Magazine in London by Harrison and Co, providing a Messiah suitable for performing at home.
From 1859 onwards Handel Festivals including a performance of Messiah were held triennially in London’s Crystal Palace, and this monster performance trend continued past the First World War.
Crystal Palace was an enormous glass building (three times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral) and big enough to hold thousands of performers. It had a false roof and special resonators to improve the acoustics.
In 1920 four thousand performers including voices from Sheffield, Leeds, Huddersfield traveled to augment the London chorus.
The last Crystal Palace Festival took place in 1926 conducted by Henry Wood, the founder of the Proms.