November 23 & 24, 2019
Born February 23, 1685, Halle, GermanyDied April 14, 1759, LondonIn the latter part of his career, the music of George Frideric Handel had become less fashionable and his financial straits dire. Nonetheless, in 1741, he was invited to compose works for a series of concerts in Dublin, Ireland. This series culminated in the first performance of Messiah, in spring 1742. Handel wrote for both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, but was primarily a composer of music for the court and the operatic stage. Handel turned to writing oratorios because England’s opera-going public had lost its taste for the Italianate operas he had composed for decades, and he had to make a living. The religious sentiment of mid–18th-century England, however, was steeped in the restrictive and solemn piety of the traditional liturgy. In recognition of this, Handel advertised the first performance of Messiah as “A Sacred Oratorio” rather than openly publicize his dramatic setting of the story of Christ.In the late summer of 1741, William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire and Lord Lieutenant of Dublin, invited Handel to present a series of concerts in Ireland to benefit local charities. The timing of the invitation was propitious. Handel needed to regroup and reconsider plans for his London series, and getting out of town for a while seemed a good idea.However, before leaving for Ireland that fall, Handel composed Messiah in London in a mere 24 days, completing it on September 14. He had little or no idea of the quality, disposition, or experience of the performers with whom he’d be working in Dublin. Therefore, when he arrived in Dublin in November 1741, he changed the work to suit the particular abilities of his cast, and never did perform Messiah exactly as he’d written it the previous fall.In fact, each time he prepared a performance of Messiah, Handel changed it to suit the particular abilities of the singers engaged. Sometimes he changed things slightly, simply transposing an aria from one key to another to fit the range of a particular singer. Other times, he reassigned arias to different voices either because he had a different mix of soloists, or because he had a particular guest star he wanted to feature. Sometimes he recomposed movements altogether. While some patterns emerged over time, we cannot determine with certainty that Handel favored one particular version over the others. In all, there are at least 10 different arrangements of the score, with 15 individual movements existing in at least 43 different versions. Messiah is scored for oboes, bassoons, trumpets, strings, harpsichord, timpani, soloists, and chorus.Handel presented 12 concerts in Dublin before unveiling Messiah in the spring. The work was first presented to the public in an open dress rehearsal on April 9, 1742, and the first performance took place at noon on Tuesday, April 13, in the New Musick-Hall on Fishamble Street. The normal capacity of the Musick-Hall was 600 people, but the Dublin Journal reported a crowd of at least 700. Such was the excitement about the new work that a Journal article admonished women to “come without hoops” and men to “come without swords” so that more people could be crammed in.The event was a categorical artistic and financial success, earning great reviews and making it possible for 142 people to be released from debtors’ prison. Handel waited a year before presenting Messiah in London. Seven years later, in 1750, he came upon the idea to perform the oratorio as a fund-raiser for the Foundling Hospital. Annual performances have continued in London and around the world ever since. The Hospital still possesses Handel’s autographed score and performance notes, which he left to the institution upon his death. Messiah marked the beginning of a resurgence in Handel’s career; when he died, in 1759, he was able to leave a substantial legacy to a niece, friends, servants, and charities in England.
—Program notes by Tom Hall