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Handel: “Messiah”

Messiah is probably the best, and certainly the most loved, of all oratorios; neither the Passions of Bach nor Haydn’s Creation have ever rivaled its popularity, though in the last century, Mendelssohn’s Elijah  was for a time considered its equal.What I find most intriguing about Messiah is the text of prophecy and revelation; despite the implication of the title, there is relatively little biographical accounting of the life of Christ.Handel seens especially taken with the redemptive meaning of the Messiah to the faithful: the promise of purification of the Sons of Levi, that the Lamb of God will deliver mankind from the sins of the world. The concept seems rather abstract for so popular a work, especially when we recall that Messiah (unlike the Bach Passions) was not intended as part of a devotional service, but rather as a middle-class entertainment (albiet a pious one) and but a short step removed from the stage of the Italian opera house.

Handel calls for an orchestra of strings, supplemented by oboes and bassoons and keyboard. This force is enhanced on two occasions by two trumpets and timpani (“Hallelujah” and the tremendous final choruses “Worthy is the Lamb” and “Amen”), once by two trumpets alone (“Glory to God”), and once by solo trumpet (“The Trumpet Shall Sound”); the restraint of their deployment makes these passages majestic indeed. The pifa , or pastoral symphony (i.e., of the shepherdson Christmas Night), is a charming instance of orchestrational subtlety, evoking rustic instruments and melodies without recourse to the woodwinds. I think Handel is at his most profound, both musically and philosophically, in the beginning of part II, with “Behold the Lamb of God,” the excruciating gravity of “He was Despised,” and the three successive choruses “Surely He Hath Born Our Griefs,” “And With His Stripes,” and “All We Like Sheep.”

Audiences tend to lie in wait for the familiar choruses “For Unto Us,” “Hallelujah,” and so on. But the triumph of Messiah is the uniformity of its greatness: do not miss the chromatic wanderings in “The People That Walked in Darkness,” the busy accompanied recitative “And Suddenly There Was With the Angel,” the grandeur of the French overture.

Handel conducted Messiah more than three dozen times and for each new performance would freshen things up, such that the number and disposition of soloists varied with the performance; so, too, did the musical texts, for from time to time he would insert new movements. Later on, Messiah, more than any other Baroque work, was submitted to merciless tampering: even Mozart put his hand to it, added full woodwinds to the orchestra. Performances today range from historical reconstructions to festival offerings of the monster-choir-with-major-orchestra to the ubiquitous community singalong. It is a mark of the work’s character that it survives all this attention with dignity and grace.

According to an altogether charming custom, we stand during the “Hallelujah Chorus” because (so the story goes) the king, and therefore the public, once rose to their feet at that point. Whether His Majesty was moved by a power greater than himself or was simply intending to go home at the end of part II has not been made clear.

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