Handel’s Messiah

This page is dedicated to enabling your enjoyment of Messiah, whether you are listening to our performance of it in entirety on November 23 or participating in our You Sing It Messiah on December 9.  On this page, you will find program notes created by our Maestro Leroy Kromm and audio tracks to practice. 

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November 23, 2019 7:30 p.m. Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church Saratoga, CA

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December 9, 2019 7:30 p.m. California Theatre San Jose, CA

Think you know Handel’s Messiah well?   Click the image to test your knowledge on this trivia quiz.

Program Notes

Handel was highly regarded during his lifetime and was known as an opera composer; when he arrived in London in 1710, he was already a celebrity from his opera successes. But the British culture grew less fond of Italian opera, and as a result, Handel struggled with his opera enterprises. So in the 1730s, in response to the changes of public taste in music, Handel turned to English Oratorio. Messiah was his sixth work in this genre, written in 1742. Although its structure resembles that of opera, it is not opera; there’s no drama, no characters, no staging nor dialogue. And Messiah wasn’t written for anything specific or for anyone in particular; it was originally for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual numbers. It wasn’t until the years after his death, that Messiah was more often performed on a much grander scale, with big orchestras and even bigger choirs; portions of the piece were often omitted. The expansion of performing forces was a trend of the 19th century, reflecting the broader, more harmonically complex music of its time. In many ways, baroque music, characterized by big gestures, exaggerated motion, exuberance, grandeur, and sharp contrasts, lent itself very easily to the changing trends of larger forces of the 19th century because of those attributes. So naturally, the 19th century, with its trend toward bigger forces and haute-drama, might have looked back fondly to the “old days” of baroque grandeur with interest. Bigger performing forces also brought about another factor as well—slower tempi, when it came to performing Messiah.  
 
After his success with Messiah (1742) Handel never composed an Italian opera again. Almost blind, and having lived in England for nearly fifty years, he died in 1759, a respected and rich man. It is likely that Handel never imagined that his Messiah would become as popular as it has today, 277 years later. But the work’s evolution of how it is performed today compared to the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is an interesting study in and of itself. There tends to be an agreement today that historically informed performances are closer to those of Handel, and therefore better than those of the 19th century and beyond. A great deal of judgment exists for performances of Messiah that don’t reflect those original intentions. But the truth is, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what and when that was, considering Handel himself varied the piece’s performing forces greatly within his own lifetime. This is all to say, there is a lot of opinion about Messiah, but there is little doubt about Handel’s own fondness for the work. His annual benefit concerts for his favorite charity—London’s Foundling Hospital, a home for abandoned and orphaned children—always included Messiah. And, in 1759, when he was blind and in failing health, he insisted on attending an April 6 performance of Messiah at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Eight days later, Handel died at home. His funeral was given full state honours, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey in London.
 
In 1823, Beethoven proclaimed Handel to be the “greatest composer that ever lived.” (British Library / Bridgeman Art Library International)
 
Was the premiere of Messiah a flop?
 
The answer to the above question is simple. A record number of 700 people attended the premiere performance of Messiah on April 13, 1742, in Dublin. The crowd wanted to see Handel, whose fame was already at the superstar level, and Susanna Cibber, the contralto soloist, who was involved in a scandalous divorce. Besides all that, the Dublin performance was not a flop at all, but a huge success. And the proceeds were divided among three charities: Mercer’s Hospital, the Charitable Infirmary, and prisoners’ debt relief. Historical references to a “less than successful premiere” pertain to the London performance a year later. But that was not “a flop” either. 
 
Not much is known about Handel’s sudden acceptance of an invitation to perform in Ireland, but it was probably offered by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire, which gave Handel an opportunity to escape the pressure of his less than successful opera endeavors in London and to consider a future of English Oratorio. 
 
Dublin had an active theatre and concert life and Handel’s visit coincided with the opening of a new concert venue, the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, where Handel gave two performances each of L’Allegro, Acis and Galatea and Esther between December 1741 and February 1742. He was persuaded to stay longer than planned and produced another concert series which included Alexander’s Feast and Hymen, an unstaged serenata adapted from Imeneo. This was Handel’s last performance of an Italian opera, by the way.
 
The second series of concerts finished on April 7, 1742, but Handel was eager to build on his success, so he arranged the first performance of Messiah for April 13. Expectation was high: the rehearsal on April 12 was ticketed and the following morning excited newspapers reported that the oratorio ‘far surpasses anything of that Nature, which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom’. Handel estimated that the venue could hold 600, but an extra 100 people crammed in, and it was a triumph with glowing critical acclaim. But that initial success did not carry over to the early London performances. The London premiere was held at the Covent Garden Theatre, now the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, on March 23, 1743, during the reign of George II. The theatrical location for the performance of a religious work was one of the criticisms by the press. It was in London where the tradition started of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus.
 
After the initial lackluster reviews of the London premiere, Handel canceled some of the performances that were already scheduled. In 1750, the oratorio was presented in the chapel of London’s Foundling Hospital as a charity performance. That became an annual event from then on and continued after Handel’s death.
 
 
Why do people often stand at the “Hallelujah Chorus” during Messiah performances? 
 
Ricky O’Bannon, Content Director at Los Angeles Philharmonic writes the following, “An often repeated legend about Messiah tells the story of King George II who was so moved by the “Hallelujah” Chorus during the London premiere of Messiah that he rose to his feet and then everyone in attendance followed suit so as not to be sitting when the king stood.”
This is often the cited reason why audiences stand today at the “Hallelujah” Chorus. But did the King really stand? And more importantly, was the King actually present?
 
We tend to believe the regularly debated tradition of standing during the “Hallelujah” Chorus and how it came to be — also giving birth to countless passive-aggressive battles of concert decorum between the sitters and standers. As a frequent Messiah soloist with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the conductor, Nicolas McGegan told us soloists that if audience members stood, we should stand as well, especially since we were sitting at the front of the stage. He knew the audiences well, so during extended Messiah-runs, he told us in advance which venues we would likely need to stand; it was not as often as you might think. The Midwest tends to stand; California not so much. Berkeley, for example, never stood. And neither did San Francisco. 
 
O’Bannon continues, “According to various experts, there is no truth to the King George story. In fact there is no evidence King George II was even in attendance, and it is unlikely the newspaper writers that were in the audience would have overlooked mentioning a royal presence at the concert. The first reference to this story was a letter written 37 years after the fact. Just where that leaves us in the annual stand-versus-sit showdown though is still very much up for debate.” 
 
Whether Messiah is performed on the concert stage or in a house of worship, or whether King George II was even present at the London premiere, concert protocol surrounding the “Hallelujah” Chorus still continues a tradition that often brings people to their feet.
 
Here’s something to consider—a concert hall audience possesses a different nuance and sensibility than a church sanctuary audience. Church assemblies are accustomed to standing for various worship moments, such as hymn singing or prayers. And I suspect that standing at the “Hallelujah” Chorus today, if and when it happens, comes more from a position of faith and devotion, rather than a position of concert decorum. Or perhaps a bit of both, motivated primarily by the former theory.