It always strikes me around this time of year, when our thoughts turn toward Messiah, that if things had turned out differently Georg Frideric Handel might never have invented the English oratorio. Most of us are familiar with the form through Messiah, which received its first performance in Dublin in 1742, and has been wildly popular practically ever since. In fact, since its first London performances it has been performed every year and unlike so much music from the first half of the eighteenth century it has never fallen out of favor with audiences.
A little digression here: Messiah (which takes much of its text from the King James Bible) was never intended as a Christmas piece, but rather was first offered during Lent. We of the Folger Consort, although we too have succumbed to the modern tradition of Christmas-time performances, favor the institution of Monteverdi’s masterpiece, the Vespers of 1610, as the new standard December masterpiece and the return of Messiah performances to their original schedule. But that is probably material for another blog post…
But back to the chain of events which led Handel, a German living in London who loved Italian opera above all else, to invent the English oratorio, and hence to write this most beloved of works.
Starting with fifteen wildly popular performances of Rinaldo in 1711, he had great success with opera. But Handel’s three decade run in London as a successful opera producer and composer ended in 1737. It really wasn’t his fault—his operas continued to be sung by famous singers and the tunes were just as appealing as ever. But by the 1730s he had rivals, all competing for the shrinking number of Londoners who were still inclined to attend long Italian operas. Audiences were becoming dissatisfied with pieces featuring implausible plots sung entirely in an incomprehensible language.
Yet Handel still yearned to compose theatrical music. As early as 1713 he was in the habit of playing on the organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral and then crossing the street to the Queen’s Arms Tavern to indulge his legendary appetite for, well, extra-musical refreshments. Some of his Cathedral companions there no doubt assisted the German opera composer in acquiring a thorough knowledge of the English choral tradition, especially the music of Henry Purcell.
He used this knowledge in the creation of his only truly original musical form, the English oratorio. Although the oratorios were never staged, the musical style and dramatic sweep of the recitatives and arias are straight from the opera tradition. Handel’s use of English and choruses made the form unique. The struggles of the Old Testament heroes and fates of their people portrayed in their librettos, or ‘word books,’ found a national resonance with the subjects of George I. Prosperous Londoners, at the center of their vast empire, really did identify with the chosen people of the Bible.
It has been fashionable for scholars to deny the supremacy of Messiah in Handel’s vast body of works, and it is unfortunate, in a sense, that the popularity of this and a few other works overshadow the true scope of Handel’s genius. He was a composer who drew equally upon French, Italian, German, and English traditions to forge a uniquely personal musical style in orchestral, chamber, vocal, and especially theatrical music. And yet Messiah does illustrate his greatness, in a perfectly proportioned work including splendid examples of Handel’s wit, great humanity and compassion. And, of course, the work has remained incredibly popular. It seems pointless to deny the judgment of those like Benjamin Victor, who in 1752 declared his willingness to “ride forty miles in the wind and rain to be present at a performance of the Messiah in London.”
As a gift to the public in conjunction with the Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Folger Consort present a free download of six selections from a live audio recording of Handel’s Messiah from performances by Folger Consort and the Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford.
Robert Eisenstein is, with Christopher Kendall, one of two artistic directors of the Folger Consort, the resident early music ensemble of the Folger Shakespeare Library.