Most music lovers have encountered George Frederick Handel through holiday-time renditions of the Messiah's "Hallelujah" chorus. And many of them know and love that oratorio of Christ's life and death, as well as a few other greatest hits like the orchestral Water Music and Royal Fireworks Music, and perhaps Judas Maccabeus or one of the other English oratorios. Yet his operas, for which he was widely known in his own time, are the provinceRead more mainly of specialists in Baroque music, and the events of his life, even though they reflected some of the most important musical issues of the day, have never become as familiar as the careers of Bach or Mozart. Perhaps the single word that best describes his life and music is "cosmopolitan": he was a German composer, trained in Italy, who spent most of his life in England.
Handel was born in the German city of Halle on February 23, 1685. His father noted but did not nurture his musical talent, and he had to sneak a small keyboard instrument into his attic to practice. As a child he studied music with Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, organist at the Liebfrauenkirche, and for a time he seemed destined for a career as a church organist himself. After studying law briefly at the University of Halle, Handel began serving as organist on March 13, 1702, at the Domkirche there. Dissatisfied, he took a post as violinist in the Hamburg opera orchestra in 1703, and his frustration with musically provincial northern Germany was perhaps shown when he fought a duel the following year with the composer Matheson over the accompaniment to one of Matheson's operas. In 1706 Handel took off for Italy, then the font of operatic innovation, and mastered contemporary trends in Italian serious opera. He returned to Germany to become court composer in Hannover, whose rulers were linked by family ties with the British throne; his patron there, the Elector of Hannover, became King George I of England. English audiences took to his 1711 opera Rinaldo, and several years later Handel jumped at the chance to move to England permanently. He impressed King George early on with the Water Music of 1716, written as entertainment for a royal boat outing.
Through the 1720s Handel composed Italian operatic masterpieces for London stages: Ottone, Serse (Xerxes), and other works often based on classical stories. His popularity was dented, though, by new English-language works of a less formal character, and in the 1730s and 1740s Handel turned to the oratorio, a grand form that attracted England's new middle-class audiences. Not only Messiah but also Israel in Egypt, Samson, Saul, and many other works established him as a venerated elder of English music. The oratorios displayed to maximum effect Handel's melodic gift and the sense of timing he brought to big choral numbers. Among the most popular of all the oratorios was Judas Maccabeus, composed in 32 days in 1746. Handel presented the oratorio six times during its first season and about 40 times before his death 12 years later, conducting it 30 times himself. In 1737, Handel suffered a stroke, which caused both temporary paralysis in his right arm and some loss of his mental faculties, but he recovered sufficiently to carry on most normal activity. He was urged to write an autobiography, but never did. Blind in old age, he continued to compose. He died in London on April 14, 1759. Beethoven thought Handel the greatest of all his predecessors; he once said, "I would bare my head and kneel at his grave." Read less
1. Accompagnato: Comfort ye, My people - 2. Air: Ev'ry Valley shall be exalted
3. Chorus: And the glory of the Lord
Recit: Thus saith the Lord...Aria: But who may abide
6. Chorus: And He shall purify the sons of Levi
7. Recit: Behold, a Virgin shall conceive 8. Aria:O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion 9. Coro
10. Accompagnato: For behold, darkness shall cover the earth 11. Aria: The people that walked in darkness
12. Chorus: "For unto us a Child is born"
13. Pifa (Pastoral Symphony)
Recit: There were shepherds...Chorus: Glory to God
Rejoice greatly, o daughter of Zion
Then shall the eyes....He shall feed his flock good tidings that tellest
19. Chorus: His yoke is easy
20. Chorus: Behold the Lamb of God
Air: He was despised...Chorus: Surely he hath borne...
Chorus: And with his stripes...All we like sheep
Chorus: All they that see him...Recit: He trusted..
Recit: Thy rebuke...Air:But thou didst not leave
Chorus: Lift up your heads...Recit:Unto which...Chorus
34a. Air: "Thou art gone up on high"
35. Chorus: The Lord gave the word
Air: How beautiful are the feet..Chorus:Their sound
Air: Why do the nations...Air: Thou shalt break them them...
42. Chorus: "Hallelujah"
I Know That My Redeemer Liveth
44. Chorus: Since by man came death
Behold, I tell you......The Trumpet shall sound
Recitativo: Then shall be brought - Duet: O death were is thy sting - Chorus: But thanks be to God
50. Air: If God be for us
51. Worthy is the Lamb - Blessing and honour -
About This Work
With the arguable exception of the Water Music, the oratorio Messiah is the one work of Handel's which is universally known. Yet it was composed at a time when Handel's fortunes were at a low ebb. His final attempt to return to opera with ImeneoRead more
(1740) and Deidamia (1741) had proved a failure, and rumor even had it that, having despaired of the London public, he was preparing to leave England. Fortuitously, the clergyman and writer Charles Jennens, Handel's collaborator in Saul, lured Handel back to the idea of English oratorio; at much the same time, the composer received an offer from William Cavendish, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to take part in the following season of oratorio performances in Dublin. The libretto offered to Handel by Jennens was based around the birth and Passion of Christ. It was called Messiah. Handel set to work on the libretto on August 22, 1741, completing the score just over three weeks later on September 12.
The resulting sacred, non-dramatic oratorio was a first for Handel, and, although it heralded the composer's final great phase of oratorio composition, he never wrote one like it again. Messiah is therefore completely atypical within the context of Handel's oratorios, the majority of which relate to Old Testament or Apocryphal stories in dramatized form. As a statement of Christian faith it moves the worldly Handel closer to Bach than any other work of his, although not sufficiently to prevent contemporary accusations of operatic influences. It is also worth recalling that during Handel's day Messiah was more frequently performed in theaters than in churches.
Jennens divided his text into three parts, the first of which deals with the Prophecy of the Messiah and its fulfillment. The second takes us from the Passion to the triumph of the Resurrection, while the final part deals with the role of the Messiah in life after death. Handel's setting consists of the usual juxtaposition of recitative, arias, and choruses. Jennens' libretto draws across a wide spectrum of both Old and New Testament sources, but uniquely among Handel's oratorios there are no named characters. The drama is thus articulated purely through the textual message, most powerfully through the overwhelming choruses that have ensured the enduring popularity of the oratorio. The first performance took place at the New Music Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. It was received with huge acclaim, the Dublin Journal proclaiming that "Messiah was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard." The following year the triumph was repeated at Covent Garden, when Handel added two more solos. Further revisions took place in 1745 at the famous Foundling Hospital performances, leaving all subsequent conductors with editorial problems as to Handel's "final" intentions. By the time of the composer's death in 1758 Messiah had already attained an iconic status it has never relinquished.
Alongside its immensely popular choruses -- of which the "Hallelujah" is king -- Messiah's primary allure is its effective arias and recitatives for solo voices. The opening "Every Valley," sung by tenor, sets the tone for tunefulness and expressive charm, and is well-matched by the soprano's "Rejoice Greatly," the alto's "He was Despised" and the bass' "The Trumpet Shall Sound."
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