|About this Recording
8.550667-68 - HANDEL: Messiah
George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel was born in Hallé in 1685. His elderly father, barber-surgeon to the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, entertained natural prejudices against the choice of music as a profession for his young son, the second child of his second wife, and Handel enjoyed an education that led him, after his father's death, to a brief period of study at the University of Hallé in 1702. The following year he moved to Hamburg, joining the opera there, at first as a string-player, then as harpsichordist and composer. Success in Italian opera in Hamburg coupled with the doubtful musical prospects the city offered, persuaded Handel to try his fortune in Italy, where he spent the years between 1706 and 1710, confirming his generally Italianate style of composition in works for the theatre, the church and private entertainment.
In 1710, rejecting an otter from the ruler of Innsbruck, Handel accepted the position of Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, the future King George I of England, and immediately took leave of absence for the staging of his opera Rinaldo in London, where Italian opera was gradually gaining a place. Two years later he was back in London for good, concerned in particular with the composition, management and presentation of Italian opera. During the following thirty years he wrote nearly forty Italian operas for the London stage, to which he devoted a considerable part of his working life.
Early oratorio may be seen as a by-product of opera as it developed at the turn of the 16th century in Italy. England was late in its grudging acceptance of opera and had shown little interest in oratorio, as it had developed in other countries during the 17th century. Handel had written Italian oratorio in Rome. His first attempt at he new form of English oratorio came in 1732 with his setting of an adaptation of Racine's biblical drama Esther, described by one hostile critic as a "Religious Farce", and certainly a very profitable one to its composer. English oratorio combined the musical delights of Italian opera, with a text in English and a religious subject that might appeal to the Protestant conscience. Since oratorio was not staged, there was also a considerable saving in the cost of production.
Of all English oratorios Handel's Messiah has always been the most overwhelmingly popular. It is the least theatrical of all his oratorios and the most purely sacred in its choice of subject, the Messiah, a compendious version of the coming of Christ, His death and resurrection. The text, by Charles Jennens, drew extensively on the Authorized Version of the Bible, and an additional attraction has always been the large number of choruses included, a larger number than in any other of Handel's oratorios.
Messiah was written with Handel's usual speed in 1741 for performance in Dublin, some of it rehearsed briefly by inadequate singers in Chester, as he made his way to Holyhead to embark for the voyage. The first performance was given at the New Music Hall in Fish-amble Street, Dublin, on 13th April, 1742, in aid of charity. The first London performance took place in Lent 1743 at Covent Garden, but the work failed to please, in part because of reservations that some held about the suitability of such a sacred subject for a theatre. Messiah only achieved its lasting success after performances in 1750 in aid of the Foundling Hospital, established ten years earlier by Captain Thomas Coram. At his death in 1759 Handel left a fair copy of the score and all parts to the Hospital, an institution that continued to benefit from annual performances of the work.
Handel's Messiah: The First Performance
In the course of these 250 years the Messiah has been performed in many different ways. The wish to adhere closely to the composer's own practice was followed by gestures of conscious departure, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the availability of piano scores spawned the practice of performing the work with large (usually amateur) choirs accompanied by a single instrument, an organ or even a piano, resulting in versions which not only distorted the Handelian score, but also ignored the composer's intentions. Recently, however, there has been a general awareness of the argument of authenticity in modern performances. Much research has been done and many articles and books have been published, particularly in 1985, the Handel anniversary year, all of which have led up to a greater understanding of the work. Nevertheless, despite the frequent use of original instruments, large scale performances are still very much the norm.
It is therefore perhaps surprising to many to discover that Handel, when composing the work, was guided by an unusual wish for economy. Uncertain of what forces he would find in Dublin, he had written for a small string ensemble with trumpets and timpani. Nor was there a complete distinction between soloists and choristers. Some of the soloists were drawn from the Dublin Cathedral choirs used by Handel and the other soloists also sang in the chorus. The modern practice of performing the work with four soloists and a separate choir was not Handel's intention. In fact, he rarely used less than six soloists and they almost always sang in the choruses as well. The Scholars Baroque Ensemble's version of the Messiah is an attempt to be faithful to Handel's original intentions and provides an opportunity to hear the work as first performed on 13th April 1742.
Handel himself made several changes during the seventeen years of performances before he died, so The Scholars Baroque Ensemble make no claim that their version to celebrate 250 years since the first performance is the definitive one. The following notes will be of interest to those who are familiar with the work:
Instrumentation: There were no oboes or bassoons in the first performance, only a small string band with 2 trumpets and timpani. (There are, for example, no con or senza ripieno marks in the original score, these being added later for larger-scale performances in London.) Oboes were also added for later performances, but only served to double the voices. Although there are no separate parts for a double bass, there are clear indications in the score of its use by changes of clef in the part.
Singers: Handel had sixteen singers including both female and boy sopranos. The soloists formed part of the choir and Handel used both contralto and counter tenor soloists as well as more than one soprano, tenor and bass. For later performances in London he also revised two bass arias for a castrato soloist.
"But who may abide", known nowadays as an aria for alto, was originally written for bass and entirely in 3/8. The version for alto was probably re-written by Handel in 1750, some eight years after the first performance, and often was performed by a castrato.
Pifa suggests by its title shepherds' music played traditionally at Christmas by the Italian pifferari (pipers, shepherds). The familiar middle section was added later by Handel but eventually rejected.
"Rejoice greatly" The original shows Handel's notation in two different time signatures. The bass continuo part is in 4/4 whereas the violin and solo soprano part, both containing triplet patterns throughout, are marked 12/8. The final version, with the entire score in 4/4, probably did not appear until 1749. The aria in its original version was written for the only Italian opera soloist amongst Handel's singers.
"He shall feed his flock". The Recitative and entire aria were originally written for soprano.
"Thou art gone up on high" was originally written for bass. The commonly-heard versions for alto date from 1750 and were written for a castrato.
"How beautiful are the feet" The now famous aria for soprano was marked as "A Song ommitted in the performance" and was probably reinstated in 1749 to precede immediately the chorus "Their sound is gone out", which was written in 1749 and therefore not part of the earlier performances (this chorus is the only one with separate oboe parts which gives added support to the fact that oboes were not used until about 1749). The original version was for alto duet leading straight into the chorus "Break forth into joy".
"If God be for us" The aria (these days normally sung by a soprano soloist accompanied by solo violin) was sung in the first performance by the famous contralto Mrs Cibber who sang it transposed down to C minor accompanied by tutti violins.
David van Asch
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
* = soloist
Organ made by Bernhardt Junghänel
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
Performances by The Scholars Baroque Ensemble have been acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, perhaps because "authenticity" is not their only purpose. More important is the clarity and vitality obtained by the use of a minimum number of players and singers to a part (often only one), common practice in the 18th century.
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