“Messiah,” George Frederic Handel’s great oratorio, has become a ubiquitous part of Christmas celebrations worldwide — and yet it was written for Easter.
Only the first third of “Messiah” is about the birth of Jesus. Part II covers the death of Christ, and the third is focused on the Resurrection. Originally conceived as a work for Easter, it premiered during the Lent season of 1742.
In its 61st “Messiah” celebration, the Vermont Philharmonic will offer something of a compromise. Vermont’s oldest community orchestra will present the entire first part, with arias and choral numbers contemplating the idea, foretelling the coming, and hailing the arrival. The program concludes with two numbers from Part II, including the “Hallelujah” chorus, and seven numbers from Part III celebrating redemption.
Assistant Conductor Lisa Jablow will conduct performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6 at St Augustine’s Catholic Church in Montpelier, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8 at the Barre Opera House. Vocal soloists are soprano Helen Lyons, countertenor Andrew Darling, tenor George Johnson III, and baritone Tim Wilfong; Arthur Zorn is assistant choral director.
At Rutland’s Grace Congregational Church, Music Minister Alastair Stout will conduct the Rutland Area Chorus, soloists and professional Festival Orchestra in Part I (Christmas) and “Hallelujah Chorus” at 3:30 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 8. Also on the program are Purcell’s “Sing Unto the Lord” and Michael Sitton’s “O Emmanuel,” the winning entry in the Grace Church Composition Competition. Soloists are soprano Allison Steinmetz, mezzo-soprano Amy Frostman, tenor Cameron Steinmetz and bass Zebulun McLellan.
If it weren’t for Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel (1685-1759) would be considered the greatest composer of the Baroque period. (He and Bach were actually born in the same year.) Yet, with “Messiah” Handel created, if not the greatest, the most successful work of the Baroque era. Even Mozart was humbled in the face of Handel’s genius.
“Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect,” Mozart said. “When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”
Beethoven said, “Handel, to him I bow the knee.”
At 27, the German-born Handel moved to London and became hugely successful, popularly and financially, writing Italian operas. (It was the language the paying aristocracy and middle class demanded.) But in the 1730s, when public interest in Italian opera flagged, he found new success in oratorios (where the stories are told rather than acted out). “Messiah” was his sixth.
In July 1741, Charles Jennens, a wealthy arts patron and writer, sent Handel a libretto for an oratorio. Jennens compiled the text from the King James Bible, the Coverdale Psalter (an earlier English version of the Bible), and the version of the Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer.
“I hope (Handel) will lay out his whole genius and skill upon it, that the composition may excel all his former compositions, as the subject excels every other subject. The subject is Messiah,” Jennens wrote a friend at the time.
Handel completed the composition of “Messiah” — when performed in its entirety, a three-hour-plus oratorio — in an unbelievable 24 days.
Of writing the “Hallelujah” chorus, Handel wrote, “I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.”
At the end of the score, Handel wrote “SDG” — “Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone the glory).”
“I think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God himself,” Handel said of composing the work.
Never intended for the church, “Messiah” was first performed April 13, 1742 at The Great Music Hall in Dublin as a benefit for charities there. It was a huge success there, but not so much at the London premiere at Covent Garden nearly a year later. Still, it soon caught on and annual performances became huge crowd-pleasers.
The popularity of “Messiah” never stopped growing, stretching in the 19th century into Romantic proportions, with huge choruses and orchestras. (The chorus in Dublin numbered only 32, with an appropriate-sized orchestra.) The 20th century saw some return to the original proportions with the interest in authentic Baroque performance styles — at least some of the time. Regardless, “Messiah” performances of all sorts flourished.
“By 1900, the ‘Messiah’ was so closely linked to Easter that people began to expect to hear the oratorio each year. A performance of the ‘Messiah’ was the surest way to fill up a church or a concert hall,” Ace Collins wrote in “Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas.”
“The ‘Messiah’s’ move to Christmas was based more on marketing than on anyone’s suddenly realizing that the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ and other parts of the oratorio would magnify the significance of the celebration of Christ’s birth,” Collins wrote. “The large crowds that turned out each Easter to hear the oratorio prompted marketers to rethink the timing of the annual presentation of Handel’s work.”
For a while, “Messiah” was part of both the Christmas and Easter holiday seasons. But by the 1960s, it had been almost completely transformed into a Christmas event.
“Now, of course, ‘Messiah’ is a fixture of the Christmas season,” Jonathan Kandell wrote in his December 2009 Smithsonian Magazine piece, “The Glorious History of Handel’s ‘Messiah’.”
“Woe to the concert hall in the United States or Britain that fails to schedule the piece around the holiday, when, as well, CD sales and Web downloads of the oratorio soar,” Kandell wrote. “For many amateur choirs, the work is the heart of their repertoire and the high point of the year. In most of Handel’s oratorios, the soloists dominate and the choir sings only brief choruses. But in ‘Messiah,’ says Laurence Cummings, director of the London Handel Orchestra, ‘the chorus propels the work forward with great emotional impact and uplifting.’”