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NBD0061 - HANDEL, G.F.: Messiah [Oratorio] (Herfurtner, Petrone, Schade, Immler, Salzburg Bach Choir, Bach Consort Wien, Dubrovsky) (Blu-ray, HD)
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Text by Charles Jennens
Hanna Herfurtner, Soprano
Filmed in the Basilica Stift Klosterneuburg, Lower Austria,
Sponsored by Land Niederösterreich
‘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 (10th 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 13th 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.
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.’
At last the final rehearsal was scheduled for 7th April 1742. Only a few relatives of the choristers from the two cathedrals were allowed in to listen, and to save money the Music Hall in Fishamble Street was only dimly lit. They sat alone, dotted about on the empty benches, a couple here, a group, there, to hear the new work by the great composer from London. The large hall was shrouded in a cold, dark fog. But no sooner had the choirs begun thundering down like sounding cataracts, than something remarkable happened. Involuntarily, the individual groups moved up so that they were sitting together, gradually becoming a single, dark block of marvelling listeners, for each of them felt as if the force of this music which had never been heard before was too much for them individually, as if it would wash and sweep them away. They huddled closer and closer together; it was as if they wanted to hear with one heart, to receive, as one pious congregation, the message of hope which, framed and articulated in ever changing ways, thundered towards them from the intertwining voices. Each of them felt weak in the face of this elemental force, and yet blissfully gripped and carried along by it, and a shiver of ecstasy rippled through them all as though they were a single body. When the Hallelujah Chorus resounded for first time, it carried them aloft, and everyone suddenly rose to their feet; they felt it was impossible to cleave to the earth in the grip of such power, they stood to raise their voices an inch closer to God and offer Him their reverence by way of service. And then they spread the news from house to house that a piece of music had been created, the like of which had never before been heard on earth. And the whole town was aquiver with joyful anticipation at hearing this masterpiece.
Six days later, on the evening of 13th April, the crowds gathered in front of the doors. The ladies had come without their hoop skirts, the gentlemen without their swords, so that more people could fit into the hall. 700 people pushed their way forward—an unprecedented number—so quickly had the work’s fame spread and gone before it, but when the music started, there was a breathless hush, and they listened ever more quietly. Then the choirs came swooping down with the force of a hurricane, and hearts began to quake. Handel stood near the organ. He wanted to supervise and direct his work, but it tore itself away from him. He lost himself in it, it became a stranger to him, as though he had never heard it, never created or formed it. Once more he was carried along by the river he himself had created. And at the end, at the beginning of the “Amen”, his lips unconsciously parted and he joined in with the choir; he sang as he had never sung in his life. But then, no sooner had others’ thunderous applause and cheering filled the hall than he quietly slipped away to the side so as to thank not the people who wanted to thank him, but the grace which had bestowed this work upon him.
The floodgates had been opened. Now the sounding river once again pursued its course for years and years. From now on, nothing could bow Handel, nothing again lay low this man who had risen from the dead. The opera company he had founded in London once again went bankrupt; his creditors once again hounded him over debts; now he stood upright and overcame every adversity. The 60-year-old went on his way unperturbed, past the milestones that were his compositions. People presented him with difficulty upon difficulty, but he was gloriously able to overcome them all. Age gradually undermined his strength, his arms became paralysed, gout cramped his legs, but with an indefatigable spirit he carried on composing and composing. Finally his eyesight gave way; while he was writing his Jephtha he went blind. But with his eyes closed, like Beethoven with his ears stopped, he still carried on and on composing, indefatigable, undefeated, and ever humbler before God, the greater his earthly triumphs became.
Like all true and uncompromising artists he did not glory in his own works. But one he loved—the Messiah. He loved this work out of gratitude, because it had saved him from his own personal pit, because in it he had redeemed himself. Every year he put on a performance in London, on each occasion donating the entire profit, 500 pounds every time, to the Hospital—the man who had recovered giving to the infirm, the one who had been set free to those who were still in chains. And with this work, with which he had clambered up out of Hades, he also wished to take his leave. On 6th April 1759, already very sick, the 74-year-old once again had himself led onto the rostrum at Covent Garden. And there he stood, a blind giant of a man, in the midst of his faithful companions, in the midst of the musicians and singers. His empty, blind eyes could not see them. But then as the massive, crashing breakers of sound came rolling towards him, as the rejoicing and assurance of a hundred voices swelled towards him with the force of a hurricane, his tired face lit up and became radiant. He beat time, he sang with them as earnestly and fervently as if he were a priest officiating at the head of his own coffin, praying with them all for his and every man’s redemption. Only once, when the trumpets came in stridently for the fanfare in “The trumpet shall sound”, did he start and look up with his staring eyes, as though he were already prepared for the Last Judgement. He knew he had done his work well. He could appear before God with his head held high. Moved, his friends led the blind man home. They too felt that a leave had been taken. On his bed, he was still quietly moving his lips. He wanted to die on Good Friday, he murmured. His doctors were surprised. They didn’t understand him, for they did not know that Good Friday fell on 13th April, the day on which the heavy hand had knocked him to the ground, and the day on which his Messiah had sounded out into the world for the first time. On the day on which everything in him had been dead, he had risen again. And on the day on which he had risen again, he wanted to die, to be certain of rising to eternal life.
And this unique will did indeed have power over death, as over life. On 13th April Handel’s strength failed. He could no longer see anything; he could no longer hear anything; his bulky form lay motionless on the pillows, a heavy, empty shell. But as an empty shell will roar with the sound of the sea, inside him, inaudible, there was music, stranger and more magnificent than any he had ever heard. Slowly its insistent swelling released his soul from his exhausted body, to bear it up into the weightless regions. Flood to flood, eternal music to the eternal realms. And the following day, before the bells of Easter had awoken, the mortal part of George Frideric Handel finally breathed its last.
Stefan Zweig, Sternstunden der Menschheit
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