28 Nov 2021

HANDEL: Messiah

by Jeff Counts

Duration: 120 minutes in three parts.

THE COMPOSER – GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL (1685-1759) – Music history is full of big failures and the bigger successes that so often follow. The popularity of that refrain is due to its frequency, of course, but also the fact that the ashes from which so many composers rise come from fires they set themselves. Handel, after two poorly received opera attempts in the early 1840s (Deidamia only got three performances, Imeneo just two), was rumored to be considering a shameful departure from his adopted home country of England.

George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel

THE HISTORY – The commission opportunity that stalled the (presumed) flight back to the continent was nothing less than Messiah. Done for good with opera and the fickle tastes that governed its relevance, Handel found in Messiah a return to a more weatherproof genre (in England at least)—that of the oratorio. He completed the score during a 24-day fury in the late summer of 1741 and by the reactions of the Irish press during the rehearsals and 1742 Dublin premiere, it was clear that the quickness of its creation did not speak to a lack of assured quality or effectiveness. “The finest composition of music that ever was heard,” went one comment and another claimed, “Words are wanting to describe the exquisite delight it afforded the admiring and crowded audience.” Though not as initially well liked in London (Charles Jennens, the Englishman who created text upon which the oratorio is based, was reportedly underwhelmed with Handel’s “entertainment”), the Irish success was important in that it gave Handel the courage he needed to return to England and eventually reclaim his position as her leading man of music. Besides, soon enough Messiah would establish itself there too. As much as the piece meant to Handel’s career at the time, he couldn’t know it was destined for the truly rarified air of “official annual tradition” throughout the English-speaking world in the centuries to come. The practice of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus comes from a convenient, if completely speculative, legend. No one really knows for sure whether or not King George II stood for it in 1743, making it necessary for all of his subjects to do the same and inadvertently setting a precedent. In fact, no one knows for sure whether or not he was even at the performance. His reportedly spontaneous show of emotion persists regardless. It is also interesting to note that, contrary to modern convention, Handel clearly intended Messiah for the Easter observances rather than Christmas, and performances during his day were always given in the spring.

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1742, Swedish scientist Anders Celsius created the first version of his temperature scale, Benjamin Franklin invented what was to become the “Franklin Stove,” and Russian Czarina Elizabeth cruelly ordered the expulsion of the Jews from her kingdom.

THE CONNECTION – Messiah is performed every season by the Utah Symphony as part of the traditional “sing-in.”