The Hymns and Carols of Christmas


Georg Frederic Handel
Born in Halle, Germany, February 23, 1685
Died in London, April 14, 1759

Larry Marietta's Music Notes, Sunday Morning Services at FCCB (First Congregational Church of Berkeley), December 7, 1997

George Frideric Handel's (1685-1759) beloved Messiah, was, for him, a major departure from his oratorio format: that being basically an opera in a non-staged version. Rather than having an ongoing plot from a freely-composed libretto, Messiah is solely selected biblical texts, divided into three sections that tell the story of Christ from the Old Testament prophecies to the New Testament accounts of his death, resurrection and ascension. This morning's excerpts are from Part I: Isaiah's prophesying of a Messiah, and Luke's telling of the angels appearing to the shepherds. It is interesting to note that the "Pastorale Symphony" is used by Handel as a musical means of showing the passing of time from the Old to the New Testament.

George Frederic Handel's Messiah:
257 years old and still going strong!

Christmas 98

When one thinks of Messiah, and one does think of it a great deal at this time of the year, adjectives such as splendid, magnificent, powerful spring to mind. Perhaps the best known of the many oratorios written by the prolific Mr. Handel (1685-1759), Messiah has become synonymous with the Christmas holiday season. This perennial musical favorite has found a permanent place in the hearts and minds of people of different faiths, and even those with no faith at all.

Composed in the year 1741, Messiah enjoyed only moderate success while Handel lived, but by the time of his death, it had become the most frequently performed of all his oratorios, a position it has never relinquished. Interestingly enough, it was performed regularly at Easter, but not at Christmas during Handel's time. Now, just the opposite is true; there are more performances of Messiah during the Christmas season than at any other time of the year. Much of the universal appeal of the piece (aside from absolutely sublime music) is due to the strength of its libretto, which, taken from biblical texts, focuses on the entire human condition--hope and fulfillment, suffering and death, resurrection and redemption.

Messiah has been revised and reorchestrated often throughout its long history. It was once fashionable to perform it with mammoth choirs accompanied by equally gargantuan orchestras. Today, however the emphasis is on giving more "authentic" performances employing period-instrument orchestras and small, pared-down all-male choral forces. So whatever one's musical tastes, there's sure to be a Messiah performance to please and delight.

Messiah by George Frideric Handel

Written by Henley Denmead

Born in Halle, Germany, February 23, 1685
Died in London, April 14, 1759

In the words of Dr. Charles Burney, 18th century music historian, Messiah has fed the naked, fostered the orphan, and enriched succeeding managers of Oratories more than any single musical production in this or any other country." For more than 250 years, this great and most popular of oratorios has survived and endured numerous revisions and reorchestrations in performances ranging from "cast of thousands" to today's emphasis on "authentic" performance practice employing period instruments and small all-male choral ensembles.

Handel, at the low ebb of his career and, as a consequence of a stroke, suffering partial paralysis on his left side, composed Messiah in the incredibly short period of time of 21 days. The composer had been invited to give a series of concerts in Dublin, some of which would benefit various charities. The premiere was met with considerable success and served to boost Handel's spirit for a return to London. While it is true that George II stood during the singing of the mighty "Hallelujah" Chorus at the second London performance, Messiah did not enjoy the popularity of many of Handel's other oratorios during the composer's lifetime. In fact, it was only through Handel's annual Eastertide performances to benefit his favorite charity, the Foundling Hospital, that Messiah was heard at all!

Robert Manson Myers wrote that, in the case of Messiah, "for the first time in musical history the mighty drama of human redemption was treated as an epic poem." Music historian R.A. Streatfield cited Messiah as "the first instance in the history of music of an attempt to view the mighty drama of human redemption from an artistic viewpoint." While narrative only in a general sense, the libretto prepared for Handel by Charles Jennens and taken from both the Old and New Testaments considers the whole human experience - hope and fulfillment, suffering and death, resurrection and redemption.

What Handel achieved in Messiah was a wonderful blend of elegant, Italianate melody alternating with virtuosic vocalism for the soloists and, for the chorus, unmatched choral sonorities ranging from madrigalesque lightness to the composer's characteristic ceremonial style which endeared him to the British public. Across the span of 250 years, Messiah still holds its extraordinary grip on musician and audience member alike. It reaches us with its directness of expression and its infinite capacity for self-renewal. We become aware that it bestows on us the special gift of aesthetic and spiritual grace.

An exceptional source for information concerning Messiah: Antipas, which includes An Appreciation and Explanation of Handel's Oratorio "Messiah", as well as much other information, including MIDI files.

Scanned copies of Messiah can be found at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL).

An interesting discussion concerning standing during the Hallelujah Chorus is found at the site of the Festival Singers of Wellington (for what its worth, I always stand). These are the results of a survey at Choralist.


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