Saturday, December 17, 2016 at 3:00pm
Saturday, December 17, 2016 at 7:30pm
St. Andrews Episcopal Cathedral
305 E Capitol St
Adult tickets: Adults $20, Students $5, Group (10 or more) $15
The Historical Background of Handel’s Messiah
© 2011, Mark Nabholz, DMA
This brief article was previously published in
“Messiah: Sermons by John Newton on Handel’s Oratorio,” ed. Fred Marsh (CE&P, 2011)
George Frederick Handel composed Messiah, his most enduring and popular oratorio, in the span of just twenty-four days during August and September, 1741. Sharing his birth year, 1685, with J. S. Bach, Handel arrived in England in late autumn 1710, when he was just twenty-five years old. Henry Purcell, England’s most celebrated composer in many generations, had been dead for fifteen years and Handel, though foreign born, filled the vacuum with distinction.
Over the next thirty years he became both well known and well off with a long procession of successful operas and oratorios, but by the late 1730’s his situation in London had gone sour. Rival composers were determined to eclipse him, and his operas, long, complicated, serious affairs, waned in popularity; his opera company went bankrupt in 1737. The Church of England, peeved that he composed sacred music for public concerts, attempted to ban the performances. In some way lost to history he even managed to make a group of “fashionable people” angry and they set out to destroy him, to the point of hiring thugs to rip down placards announcing his concerts. Discouraged and facing financial ruin, Handel decided it was time to leave England. He announced his farewell concert for April 8, 1741.
It was during this period of deep despondency that he was visited by his friend, Charles Jennens, who presented Handel with his libretto on the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus drawn entirely from the Scriptures, assembled to refute the stylish Deistic attacks on the divinity of Christ. On the heels of this encounter Handel was invited by the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland to travel to Dublin to direct a series of benefit concerts. Anxious to escape his unhappy circumstances in London and knowing the enthusiastic response that his other religious works had received in Dublin, he worked feverishly to complete Messiah in time to mount a performance in Ireland, “in order to offer this generous and polished nation something new.”
Under pressure to finish the piece quickly, Handel resorted to something for which he was already known: he recycled music previously written for other occasions. During the 18th century it was common practice for composers to borrow from themselves and others with impunity. On one occasion, when asked why he had lifted some music from a rival composer, Handel responded, “It’s much too good for him; he did not know what to do with it.” One historian close to the time put it this way:
If ever there was a truly great and original genius in any art, Handel was that genius in music; and yet, what may seem no slight paradox, there never was a greater plagiary. He seized without scruple or concealment, whatever suited his purpose….Whatever Handel stole, by passing through the powerful laboratory of his mind, and mixing with his ideas, became as much his own as if he had been the inventor.1
Composer William Boyce, an English contemporary of Handel, described it more succinctly: “He takes other men’s pebbles and polishes them into diamonds.”
Sometimes Handel borrowed from himself on an immense scale. For instance, over half of his oratorio Deborah (1733) was taken note-for-note from earlier compositions. His musical theft in Messiah was more modest. Still, four of the most beloved choruses began their lives as secular Italian duets. The choruses “For unto us a Child is born” and “All we like sheep” were lifted from a secular cantata for two sopranos, No, di voi non vo’fidarmi (No, I never want to trust you). “He shall purify” and “His yoke is easy” were taken nearly verbatim from a similar secular cantata, Quel fior che all’ alba ride (“That flower that laughs at dawn”). Both of these secular cantatas were completed just weeks before he received Jennens’ libretto, so the tunes were doubtless still fresh in Handel’s mind.
Handel was able to recycle music from such disparate sources because of a Baroque aesthetic theory known as The Doctrine of the Affections. Based on ancient rhetorical principles, the Doctrine of the Affections dictated that a piece of music should express a single emotional state. A happy piece started happy and finished happy. Sad music was sad from beginning to end. If the composer wanted to change moods he composed another movement to express that altered sentiment. The sudden emotional shifts that became so popular in music of the Classical era would have sounded schizophrenic to audiences of Handel’s time. At risk of oversimplification, this meant that when Handel encountered the joyful and encouraging text “His yoke is easy and His burden is light,” he had but to review his collection of joyful music, select a piece that could accommodate the syllables of the new text, and adapt it to the purpose at hand.
In no way does this borrowing demean Handel’s skill. In fact, his wedding of that great Biblical text to pre-existing music proves, rather than disproves, the depth of his genius. Who among us, when we read that text from Matthew 11, does not hear the jaunty tune that began its life carrying a text about a flower that laughs at the sun? Ivan Hewett of the BBC eloquently states, “The mysterious simplicity of Handel…the way he transfigures ordinary emotions and limns them with something eternal; these are the things that make him great.”2
Charles Burney (1757-1817), English music historian, related the following anecdote in a letter dated March 30, 1776:
[A lady] being very musical, was invited by him [Handel] to a private rehearsal of Messiah, and being struck with the exceeding dignity of expression…after the musick was over she asked him how it was possible for him who understood the English Language but imperfectly, to enter so fully into the sublime spirit of the Words. His answer is I think a lesson to all Composers, at least of Sacred Musick, “Madam, I thank God I have a little religion.”