About this Recording
8.570131-32 - HANDEL, G.F.: Messiah (1751 version) (New College Oxford Choir, Academy of Ancient Music, E. Higginbottom)
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George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
(1751 version)

'Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture collection I have made for him… I hope he will lay out his whole Genius and Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah…'  -- Charles Jennens (10 July 1741)

Handel wrote Messiah in anticipation of a visit to Dublin in 1741. At the invitation of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland he organized two series of concerts at the New Music Hall, Fishamble Street, during the winter season of 1741-42. He saved Messiah till last, performing it for the first time on 13 April 1742 to rapturous applause. Messiah fared less well, however, in London the following year. Audiences seem to have preferred his other new oratorio, Samson, and many people profoundly disapproved of biblical words being sung in a common theatre, which was where Handel performed most of his oratorios. Even Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens, was less than enthusiastic: 'His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great hast[e], tho' he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus'd'.

Although Handel made a number of attempts to revive Messiah in 1745 and 1749, it was not until 1750 that he began to perform it annually at the end of his Lenten oratorio season at Covent Garden, repeating it a month or so later in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital, an orphanage of which he was a governor. From this time on 'a change of sentiment in the public began to manifest', wrote Sir John Hawkins, and 'Messiah was received with universal applause'. The earliest provincial performance of Messiah was given at Oxford in April 1749 under the direction of William Hayes, the Professor of Music, and it was rapidly taken up by music societies in Salisbury, Bath, Bristol, Gloucester and Worcester. Soon, the popularity of Messiah began to eclipse that of Handel's other oratorios, and during the nineteenth century it became almost a national institution, increasingly performed by gargantuan forces – choirs of 4000 were not unheard of – providing a convenient mouthpiece for the Victorian doctrines of progress and social amelioration.

Although Handel famously completed the first draft of Messiah in a mere 24 days, he never really stopped working on it, constantly amending and updating the score to suit the singers available and the circumstances of each new performance he gave. This means that there is no one definitive version of the work for us to follow today. The present recording takes its lead from Handel's performances of 18 April and 16 May 1751, which he gave at Covent Garden Theatre and the chapel of the Foundling Hospital. Inspired by the abilities of his alto soloist, the Italian castrato Gaetano Guadagni, in 1750 Handel had written brand new settings of the arias 'But who may abide' and 'Thou art gone up on high', both of which he retained, along with Guadagni, in 1751. The other notable feature of Handel's Foundling Hospital performance followed here is the use of boy trebles for both the top line of the chorus and for the soprano arias, including the much-loved 'I know that my redeemer liveth' but excluding 'Rejoice, greatly', allocated by Handel to the tenor. Handel and his contemporaries – like William Hayes in Oxford – often substituted outstanding choristers for their soprano soloist at certain key moments in the work, like the Nativity sequence beginning 'There were shepherds abiding in the field'. The link with a choral foundation was consolidated in Handel's tenor and bass soloists, John Beard and Robert Wass, both of whom had close connections with the Chapel Royal, just as the tenor and bass soloists in this recording have close links with an Oxford foundation.

Charles Jennens's libretto for Messiah is very different from the texts of Handel's other oratorios. Instead of telling a dramatic story as in Samson, with soloists and chorus representing particular characters, the text of Messiah is almost exclusively concerned with prophecy and meditation. The words are drawn entirely from the Authorised Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Nevertheless, Jennens's biblical compilation was judicious and his overall design very strong. By skilfully combining Old and New Testament texts he was able to illustrate the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah in the events related in the Gospels. He divided the oratorio into three parts. Part I embraces the prophecies of Christ's coming, the Annunciation and the Nativity. Part II is concerned with Christ's Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, the dissemination of the Gospels, and a final ecstatic view of the kingdom of God. Part III (based on the Anglican Burial Service) celebrates Christ's Resurrection and the immortality of the Christian soul made possible through Christ's Redemption.

Notwithstanding its subject and text, Messiah is not, in the accepted sense, a sacred work. Jennens himself called it simply 'a fine Entertainment', and Handel only ever performed it in a consecrated building when he mounted his annual charity concerts in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital. This, however, did not prevent its ultimate sanctification by an adoring public convinced that by attending a performance of the work they were themselves participating in an act of worship. In Bristol in 1758 the young John Wesley heard Messiah on one of the rare occasions when it was performed in church and commented ironically that he doubted 'if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance'. Yet there is absolutely no evidence at all that Handel himself ever intended an evangelical purpose. If anything, he intended a charitable one, having performed Messiah regularly throughout this career for the benefit of the poor and needy. Ultimately, Handel's purpose was to delight and charm his listeners; as a writer in the Dublin Journal wrote after the first performance: 'Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded 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.'

Simon Heighes


Conductor's note

A new recording of Messiah? With a fine choir, a fine orchestra and fine soloists, perhaps no excuse or explanation is needed. But for those who seek particular reasons, here they are: our version provides the only modern account of Handel's unique London performances in April and May 1751, when he used treble voices for choruses and arias. We don't know why. But clearly the Chapel Royal had a treble or two who could step up to the plate, and Handel was pleased to employ them on this exceptional occasion. So we have selected three of our own boys to do the same. Secondly, just as Handel drew upon a chapel resource (the Chapel Royal) for his tenor and bass soloists (Beard and Wass), so have we: both Toby Spence and Eamonn Dougan are former clerks of New College Choir. The use of a castrato for the alto arias was neither a part of this tradition nor an option for our own time. Together these attributes give the Choir of New College, Oxford/Academy of Ancient Music's Messiah a unique status and a unique coherence. It is both a celebration of the chapel choir tradition and window onto a particular time and place in the history of Handel's own performances of his masterpiece.

Edward Higginbottom



Part One

[CD 1 / Track 1] Sinfonia

[1/2] Accompanied recitative (Tenor)
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40.1-3)

[1/3] Aria (Tenor)
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain. (Isaiah 40.4)

[1/4] Chorus
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. And all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. (Isaiah 40.5)

[1/5] Accompanied recitative (Bass)
Thus saith the Lord of Hosts: Yet once, a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come. (Haggai 2.6-7)

The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom ye delight in; behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts. (Malachi 3.1)

[1/6] Aria (Countertenor)
But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire. (Malachi 3.2)

[1/7] Chorus
And He shall purify the sons of Levi that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi 3.3)

[1/8] Recitative (Countertenor)
Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us. (Isaiah 7.14; Matthew 1.23)

[1/9] Aria (Countertenor) and Chorus
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain, O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength, lift it up, be not afraid, say unto the cities of Judah: Behold your God! O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, arise, shine for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. (Isaiah 40.9, 60.1)

[1/10] Accompanied recitative (Bass)
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. (Isaiah 60.2-3)

[1/11] Aria (Bass)
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. And they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. (Isaiah 9.2)

[1/12] Chorus
For unto us a Child is born, unto us, a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His Name shall be called: Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace! (Isaiah 9.6)

[1/13] Pifa

[1/14] Recitative (Treble)
There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them and the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them: Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying: (Luke 2.8-13)

[1/15] Chorus
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men! (Luke 2.14)

[1/16] Aria (Tenor)
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout, O daughter of Jerusalem, behold, thy King cometh unto thee. He is the righteous Saviour, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen. (Zechariah 9.9-10)

[1/17] Recitative (Countertenor)
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing. (Isaiah 35.5-6)

[1/18] Aria (Countertenor, Treble)
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd, and He shall gather the lambs with His arm; and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40-11)

Come unto Him, all ye that labour, come unto Him that are heavy laden, and He will give you rest. Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Matthew 11.28-9)

[1/19] Chorus
His yoke is easy, His burthen is light. (Matthew 11.30)

Part Two

[1/20] Chorus
Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1.29)

[1/21] Aria (Countertenor)
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53.3)

He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50.6)

[2/1] Chorus
Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him. (Isaiah 53.4-5)

[2/2] Chorus
And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53.5)

[2/3] Chorus
All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53.6)

[2/4] Accompanied recitative (Tenor)
All they that see Him, laugh Him to scorn: they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying: (Psalm 22.8)

[2/5] Chorus
He trusted in God that He would deliver Him: let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him. (Psalm 22.7)

[2/6] Accompanied recitative (Tenor) Thy rebuke hath broken His heart; He is full of heaviness; He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort Him. (Psalm 69.21)

[2/7] Aria (Tenor)
Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow! (Lamentations 1.12)

[2/8] Accompanied recitative (Treble)
He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of Thy people was He stricken. (Isaiah 53.8)

[2/9] Aria (Treble)
But Thou didst not leave his soul in hell; nor didst Thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption. (Psalm 16.10)

[2/10] Chorus
Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in! Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in! Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, he is the King of Glory. (Psalm 24.7-10)

[2/11] Recitative (Tenor)
Unto which of the angels said He at any time: Thou art My son, this day have I begotten Thee? (Hebrews 1.5)

[2/12] Chorus
Let all the angels of God worship Him. (Hebrew 1.6)

[2/13] Aria (Countertenor)
Thou art gone up on high, Thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men, yea, even for Thine enemies, that the Lord God might dwell among them. (Psalm 68.18)

[2/14] Chorus
The Lord gave the word: Great was the company of the preachers. (Psalm 68.11)

[2/15] Aria (Treble)
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things. (Romans 10.15)

[2/16] Chorus
Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the end of the world. (Romans 10.18)

[2/17] Aria (Bass)
Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing; the kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed. (Psalm 2.1-2)

[2/18] Chorus
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us. (Psalm 2.3)

[2/19] Recitative (Tenor)
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision. (Psalm 2.4)

[2/20] Aria (Tenor)
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. (Psalm 2.9)

[2/21] Chorus
Hallelujah, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth, Hallelujah! The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah! King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and He shall reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah! (Revelations 19.6, 11.5, 19.6)

Part Three

[2/22] Aria (Treble)
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.
And Though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. (Job 19.25-6)

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep. (1 Corinthians 15.20)

[2/23] Chorus
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15.21-2)

[2/24] Recitative (Bass)
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. (1 Corinthians 15.51-2)

[2/25] Aria (Bass)
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. (1 Corinthians 15.52-3)

[2/26] Recitative (Countertenor)
Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. (1 Corinthians 15.52-3)

[2/27] Duet (Countertenor, Tenor)
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. (1 Corinthians 15.55-6)

[2/28] Chorus
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15.57)

[2/29] Aria (Countertenor)
If God is for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us. (Romans 8.31, 33-4)

[2/30] Chorus
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. (Revelations 5.12-14)

[2/31] Chorus

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