Messiah programme notes

The Christmas Classic Returns! Under the direction of guest conductor Marvin Dueck, and featuring the Chinook Chamber Singers, along with local soloists Janet Youngdahl, Sandra Stringer, Timothy Shantz, and Ian Fundytus, the heartwarming tradition continues as we present the famously timeless Messiah oratorio in its entirety, with the small forces and brisk tempos Handel intended. Join some of our community’s preeminent musicians as the Lethbridge Symphony rings in the holidays with one of our most beloved rituals!

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Series 3 – Messiah

George Frideric Handel was already a pre-eminent composer of Italian operas prior to winning fame for writing oratorios. It was not until late in his career that he specialized in oratorio, a move largely prompted by financial incentive. In 1731 a company of boy singers covertly staged his 1718 biblical masque Esther to some acclaim, a feat abetted by England’s lack of copyright laws. Wanting to reap some success from his own work, Handel expanded it to the proportions of an opera, however he could not legally stage the work as London’s Archbishop had banned dramatic portrayals of sacred texts. To work around this rule Handel recast his piece as an oratorio, a concert genre rather than a staged one. In doing this Handel drew on the influences of Italian oratorio, English choral music, and Italian and French opera, essentially inventing the English oratorio and accumulating great profits.

Encouraged by Esther’s success, Handel continued to produce oratorios. At face value, the popularity of Messiah is surprising given that it doesn’t conform to Handel’s typical oratorio structure, wherein singers assume the roles of characters from the Old Testament. Rather, Messiah is a series of reflections concerning Jesus as saviour of humanity, and has no specific narratives. These are divided into three distinct sections: the prophecies and the annunciation of Jesus and their fulfillment in his birth, the Passion story, and Jesus’ glorification in heaven and resurrection of the dead. Charles Jennens, Handel’s friend and frequent oratorio collaborator, compiled the libretto directly from scriptural text in 1735, but did not deliver it to the composer for another six years.

Handel began work on Messiah on August 22, 1741 and finished a mere 24 days later, a pace often attributed to divine inspiration. Though certainly quick, his use of material from earlier compositions undoubtedly hastened the process. Aware of its inspirational character, Handel inscribed the letters SDG at the foot of his manuscript (Soli Deo Gloria, in English, To God alone the glory). Though the first draft was finished quickly, Handel continuously made revisions before the April 1742 Dublin debut.

The first part of Messiah is often dubbed “Christmas” due to its focus on the birth of Jesus. As such this section is jubilant in its anticipation and veneration of Christ, clearly seen in the chorus’s celebration of God (And the glory of the Lord and Glory to God in the highest). The first part also contains the work’s only two instrumental movements: an opening French overture and a pastoral Pifa. The overture conveys stateliness, while the Pifa is intended to evoke the shepherds to whom the birth of Jesus is announced.

The second section adopts a graver tone as the sufferings of Christ are its subject. It is therefore referred to as the “Easter” portion of Messiah. This can clearly be heard in such passages as the solemn choral fugue And With His Stripes We are Healed or the biting tenor accompagnato All They That See Him, Laugh Him to Scorn. However, the closing Hallelujah chorus is a clear return to joy, as the trumpets and timpani help convey the magnificence of Heaven’s reign on Earth.

Messiah’s final section consists entirely of nonlinear meditations on Christian teachings, and is therefore called “The End of Time” portion. Handel’s is as succinct as ever, as seen in the triumphant final Amen, which is just as powerful as the more famous Hallelujah.

In Dublin the debut of Messiah came on the heels of a successful concert series Handel had given the previous winter, making it a hotly anticipated event. The concert hall was so full that men were asked not to wear swords, while women were requested not to wear the fashionable hooped dresses. Handel gave all proceeds from the event to charities that assisted people in debtors’ prisons, and was so successful that ticket sales secured the release of 142 prisoners.

When Handel gave Messiah its London premiere the following year English audiences were not as taken with the piece as the Irish. Fear of upsetting religious audiences led Handel to temporarily refrain from calling the work by name, instead referring to it as “a new sacred oratorio”. The event took place in a theatre rather than a church, a choice some saw as sacrilegious, and the composer’s employment of scandalous singer-actress Susannah Cibber for the contralto arias was criticized on similar grounds. Even librettist Charles Jennens was disappointed, complaining that the composer had not done his words justice. Despite its lacklustre reception, Handel still saw merit in the work and revised and revived it in 1745, after which performance it won enduring success.

After Messiah Handel ceased writing opera entirely, instead focussing mostly on oratorio for large scale works. Up until the end of his life he continued to revise and revive the oratorio for new performances, the last of which occurred just eight days before his death. It was during these years that the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah chorus began, presumably at some point in the 1750s. Contrary to popular belief this custom was not begun by King George II, for there is no evidence he ever actually attended a performance of the piece.

The premiere performance of Messiah featured a chorus of 32 singers and a similarly modest sized orchestra. In the late 1780s, audiences saw the advent of ever-larger productions, a trend that continued well into the nineteenth century. One of the largest took place in 1857 at London’s Crystal Palace where a chorus numbering nearly 2000 and an orchestra of 500 performed the work. These perceived excesses spawned a countermovement of productions using instruments and orchestration contemporary with Handel’s time. The Lethbridge Symphony’s forces for this year’s performances are equally modest. The movement was further fuelled by efforts of musicologists to publish authentic iterations of Handel’s score. Such publications continued to be produced well into the twentieth century, one being the 1965 version by musicologist Watkins Shaw that is most commonly used today.

Zain Solinski