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2.110289 - MUSICAL JOURNEY (A) - GERMANY: A Musical Visit to the Benedictine Abbey Church at Ottobeuren (NTSC)

A Musical Visit to the Benedictine Abbey Church at Ottobeuren, Bavaria, Germany
With music by George Frideric Handel


The Abbey of Ottobeuren was founded in 764 under the Frankish Emperor Pippin III, father of Charlemagne, and housed the relics of the Roman martyr St Alexander. In 960 Bishop Ulrich of Augsburg acquired the relics of the martyr St Theodore for the Abbey, which remains dedicated to St Alexander and St Theodore. In the following years the Abbey underwent various vicissitudes, periods of prosperity and of warfare and destruction. The present buildings owe their existence to the Abbot Rupert II Ness, who in 1711 embarked on a programme of restoration. The secularisation of the earlier 19th century brought its problems, but Ottobeuren finally regained its independent status in 1918, and the church, under Pope Pius XI, was declared a Basilica Minor.

The Abbey Church was built during the years 1737–1766, started by the architect Simpert Kraemer and continued and completed under Johann Michael Fischer. The frescoes are by Johann Jakob and Franz Anton Zeiller, and stucco figures, including a considerable number of putti, by Johann Joseph Christian. The baroque Holy Trinity Organ by Karl Joseph Riepp, in fact a double organ, installed to mark the 1000th centenary of the monastery, enjoys particular fame as the only such instrument to be preserved in its original form, without any major restoration. The basilica has two choir organs with a third instrument, installed by Steinmeyer in the 1950s, at the north end of the nave. The church is aligned, unusually, from north to south, so that the high altar is in fact at the south end of the church. There are sixteen altars, including altars to St Anne and to St Benedict and St Scholastica, and other figures represent St John the Baptist and the baptism of Christ. The vaulted ceiling frescoes include trompe-l’oeil figures, seeming to observe the world below, and emblems of the Holy Spirit, God the Father and the Lamb of God, with other scenes of scripture, tradition, and the foundation of the Abbey.

Music Handel: Choruses from Messiah

Part the First
And the glory of the Lord (Isaiah XL, 4)
And He shall purify the sons of Levi (Malachi III, 3)
For unto us a child is born (Isaiah IX, 6)
Pifa (Pastoral Symphony)
Glory to God in the highest (Luke II, 14)
His yoke is easy (Matthew XI, 30)

Part the Second
Behold the Lamb of God (John I, 29)
Surely He hath borne our griefs (Isaiah LIII, 4–5)
And with His stripes we are healed (Isaiah LIII, 5)
All we like sheep have gone astray (Isaiah LIII, 6)
He trusted in God (Psalm XXII, 9)
Lift up your heads, O ye gates (Psalm XXIV 7–10)
Let all the angels of God worship Him (Hebrews I, 5)
The Lord gave the word (Psalm LXVIII, 12)
Their sound is gone out (Psalm XIX, 4)
Hallelujah! (Apocalypse XIX, 6; XL, 15; XIX, 16)

Part the Third
Since by man came death (1 Corinthians XV, 21–22)
But thanks be to God (1 Corinthians XV, 57)
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain (Revelations V, 12–14)

George Frideric Handel was born in Halle 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 offer 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 the 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.

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.

Messiah opens with an Overture in the French style. The first part of the oratorio leads from prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, celebrated by the chorus “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”, to His birth, in the misplaced accentuation of “For unto us a Child is born”, adapted from one of Handel’s Italian operas, as were certain other elements in the new work. According to common practice, Handel re-used parts of his own earlier compositions here as elsewhere, although borrowings from other composers in Messiah are relatively rare.

The first part of Messiah, which ends with the chorus “His yoke is easy, His burthen is light”, includes a Pastoral Symphony, an instrumental interlude that continues the Christmas tradition of using the rhythm of a traditional Sicilian shepherd dance to recall the biblical narrative. Handel’s original title for the movement was Pifa, a reference to the piffaro, the shepherd bagpipes here imitated.

The second part of the oratorio opens with the chorus “Behold the Lamb of God”, and takes the story through Christ’s suffering and death to the glory of the Resurrection, celebrated in the famous Hallelujah Chorus, with its brilliant use of the trumpet, the only instrument, apart from strings and keyboard instruments, included in the first version of the score for Dublin.

The third part of the oratorio celebrates victory over death, ending with “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain”, which moves directly into the final impressive Amen chorus that ends the work.

Keith Anderson

Bratislava City Choir (chorus master: Ladislav Holásek), Capella Istropolitana, cond. Jaroslav Krček [Naxos 8.550317]

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