275 Years Ago: Handel’s “Messiah” Premiers

It was on this day, 13 April, that George Frideric Handel’s magnificent oratorio Messiah was premiered in the Great Music Hall on Dublin’s Fisamble Street. Though in this day and age Messiah is most often performed for Christmas, it was written for specifically for Easter. The thirteenth of April in 1742 was Tuesday of Holy Week according to the older Julian calendar which Great Britain and Ireland used at the time of the premier. Messiah has remained one of the most frequently performed of all choral works. Because the full oratorio can take more than two and a half hours to perform, Messiah is today most often performed as selected excerpts.

The first performance on 13 April 1742 was realized by a rather modest orchestra and chorus. As Messiah gained in popularity, it became common to include bigger and bigger choirs with larger numbers of instrumentalists and more complex instrumentation. No less a musical luminary than Mozart felt moved to orchestrate a more elaborate, grander orchestral setting of Handel’s “greatest oratorio.” The trend toward ever more immense productions perhaps reached a zenith with an 1857 rendition in London’s Crystal Palace which included an orchestra of 500 and a chorus of 2,000 singers! The end of the Victorian Era saw a decline in the great numbers of choral societies that had characterized the 19th Century musical landscape. Accordingly, in the 20th Century, a revival of more “authentic,” smaller scale performances gained adherents. These performances returned to the surviving 18th Century manuscripts for musical details and aimed to more nearly match the original scope and scale of the productions of Handel’s day.

The enduring popularity of Messiah and the nearly perfect musical expression of deep religious sentiment which appropriately pervades Messiah have fostered various tales and legends about the creation of the masterpiece. Some of these remarkable stories are quite true: Handel did, in fact, compose the entire oratorio in a mere 24 days between 22 August and 14 September 1741. The surviving autographic score does contain certain errors, but surprisingly few for a piece of such length. Handel himself has often been quoted as asserting that while composing Hallelujah, “I did think I did see all heaven before me and the Great God Himself!” Though the quotation does not appear in sources contemporary to Handel, (it first appears in print in Horatio Townshend’s 1852 Handel’s Visit To Dublin) it has become an inextricable part of the tales surrounding Messiah.

Certainly, Handel did feel moved by religious sentiment in creating this great work; he concluded the manuscript with the abbreviation SDG, (Soli Deo Gloria; “Only to God the Glory”) and he later noted that he was pleased that so many of the performances in his lifetime, including the premiere, were charitable benefits.

Of the many beautiful and noteworthy choruses throughout Messiah, surely none is more famous or more familiar than he glorious Hallelujah which concludes Part II of the oratorio. By tradition, the entire audience rises at the start of the chorus and remains standing until its conclusion. King George II attended the first London performance of Messiah in 1743. Moved by the opening of Hallelujah, the King rose to his feet. Etiquette required that his subjects do the same. Because this tribute seemed an especially apt recognition of the inspired music, the practice of standing for the Hallelujah chorus has been maintained to this day. The great classical composer Franz Josef Haydn, upon first hearing the chorus in London’s Westminster Abbey, stood with the audience, and wept from emotion. At the conclusion, he proclaimed, “He is the master of us all.”

This chorus has been both praised frequently and criticized for the frequency with which it is heard in innumerable versions and parodies. However, there can be no more sincere tribute to this iconic masterpiece than that from Ludwig van Beethoven: “Go and learn from [Handel] how to achieve great effects with simple means.”

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better. – George Frideric Handel, upon being informed that the audience for the premiere had found Messiah entertaining.

Sources:

The Oxford Companion To Music, Tenth Edition, edited by John Owen Ward; Oxford University Press, 1995

Handel: Messiah, edited by Watkins Shaw; Novello Handel Edition, 1992

Accompanying booklet from Messiah, recorded by The Smithsonian Chamber Players, the American Boy Choir, with tenors and basses of the Norman Scribner Chorus, conducted by James Weaver, 1981.

The Life of George Frederick Handel, William Smyth Rockstro; MacMillan and Company, London, 1883

Handel’s Visit To Dublin, Horatio Townsend, Esq; William S. Orr and Company, and J. A. Novello, London, MDCCCLII

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