“It is difficult in no common degree to write anew concerning The Messiah,”1 said the music writer Henry F Chorley in 1859. The piece was, of course, 117 years old at the time, and there has only been more written on this landmark composition since. Handel’s Messiah is not just a popular classic, after all: it’s also a hugely important work. As musicologist Richard Taruskin has pointed out, it is the first musical composition (apart from plainchant) to have enjoyed continual, regular performances since its première – it is “the first ‘classic’ in our contemporary repertoire, and Handel is therefore the earliest of all ‘perpetually-in-the-repertory’ (‘classical’) composers”.2 And it shows no signs of budging either, enjoying a yearly Christmas slot in concert halls, town halls and churches around the world. It’s a little ironic, given the piece’s title, but a resurrection has never been necessary.
Far be it from me to suggest quite why the work has such enormous staying power, but clearly something about it is malleable enough to have fit the spirit of each age since its composition. It inspired and sometimes shocked its mid-18th-century audience. The 19th century cast it in a grander, louder, bigger form. And, heralding today’s economic changes, austerity Messiahs have been going on for some time now. But although its image – its sound, in fact – has changed, its value has seldom been in doubt.
Right from its remarkable Dublin debut in 1742, the accolades have poured in thick and fast, as Donald Burrows’ account of its reception history makes very clear.3 The Dublin News Letter proclaimed on 10 April (after only the rehearsal) that this “new sacred Oratorio... in the opinion of the best Judges, far surpasses anything of that Nature, which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom”, while The Dublin Journal declared it to be “the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard” (and also asked women concertgoers to forego hoop-framed skirts in order to make more room in the hall). But perhaps most remarkable is the evaluation of Dr Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin:
The whole is beyond any thing I had a notion of till I Read and heard it. It Seems to be a Species of Musick different from any other...4
The London première of the following year was a touch more problematic, with it drawing criticism for taking place in a secular venue. But it soon found its place in the hearts of Londoners, and especially it found a charitable function as well, with regular performances from 1749 at the newly established Foundling Hospital (which now holds the manuscript, a gift of Handel’s in his will).
Its renown spread internationally, too, in the later 18th century. George Burns’s Music Room in New York City Tavern was home to a partial performance in 1770, and it reached as far afield as Calcutta and Jamaica in the 1780s. No less a figure than Ralph Waldo Emerson heard it in Boston in 1843 – a “wonderful piece of music”, he said, although he did question its relevance to a secular society.5 Its greatness, though, was beyond question, to the point where comparisons to Shakespeare poured in: Chorley makes this connection several times in his 1859 volume on Messiah, and German writer Georg Gottfried Gervinus wrote an entire book in 1868 entitled Haendel und Shakespeare.
In the UK, both Messiah and Handel more generally were sufficiently venerated as early as 1784 (Britain not having enjoyed any comparable compositional talent since his time) to be made the subject of a major “Commemoration” event approximating the hundredth anniversary of his birth. A Westminster Abbey performance which crammed 513 players and singers into the piece might sound rather crass to modern tastes, but there’s little doubt about its contemporary success. Mary Hamilton, a royal governess and diarist, wrote: “I was so delighted that I thought myself in the heavenly regions... The Spectacle... was sublime, So universal a silence, So great a number of People.”6
This precedent being set, the 19th century’s treatment of Messiah saw adulation for the work rise in accordance with the size of the forces used, and presumably a belief that expanding its instrumentation and scale would increase its musical worth. And a universalist aspect to the piece was perhaps added by the rise of the amateur choir, which meant that ever-increasing numbers could take part in performance. This is a tradition which still thrives, of course – there are “Come and Sing” Messiahs all over the place, which celebrate the potential of the work to bring people together in music, at least as much as they celebrate the quality of the piece itself. It’s more than the sum of its parts, these days – no matter how huge those parts are.
The alternative trend, however, is towards “authentic” performances of Messiah, and indeed of “early” music in general, which aim to recreate the sound of the time of composition. But – perhaps because of the huge reverence always given to this piece – this restorative crusade began earlier with Messiah than elsewhere in the Baroque repertoire. Cambridge musician Arthur Henry Mann attempted to recreate the spirit of Handel’s time as early as 1894 with a performance in King’s College Chapel using – as best was possible – the original forces available in 1742. And even though this was swimming somewhat against the tide (Sir Thomas Beecham’s extravagant, expanded version was yet to come, as one example), some interest in the original circumstances of the work seems to have remained. Another influential reinterpreter of Messiah was John Tobin, who made his own historically sensitive edition of Messiah and conducted it at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1950, prompting critic Robert Donnington to claim that “Messiah has been cleaned like the pictures in the National Gallery and with equally startling results. Shorn of subsequent accretions, and still better of the overgrown choir and orchestra which usually stifles it... it glows in fresh colours and moves us anew”.7
The historically-informed movement in Baroque performance has only really gained momentum since around the 1970s, and Messiah continues to glow freshly in its light. But the continuing popularity of large-scale, “inauthentic” performance is no Spanish-fresco-style botched restoration job. It’s not a restoration at all, in fact: rather, such performances are part of their own continuing performance tradition, celebrating a remarkable and worthy piece of music with affection and warmth. What better piece to sing at Christmas?
Paul Kilbey 1 October 2012
Further reading Donald Burrows, Handel: Messiah (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) Henry F. Chorley, Handel Studies, no. 1: The Messiah (London: Augener and Co., 1859) Georg Gottfried Gervinus, Handel und Shakespeare: Zur Asthetik der Tunkunst (1868, reprinted in Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) J. Elise Gordon, Handel Writes a Masterpiece: A Story of how the “Messiah” Came into Being (London: Stainer & Bell, 1935) Richard Luckett, Handel’s Messiah: A Celebration (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1992) Robert Manson Myers, Handel’s Messiah, a Touchstone of Taste (New York: Octagon Books, 1971) Calvin R. Stapert, Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010) Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music (Oxford: Oxfurd University Press, 2009), vol. 2: “Music in The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries”
Notes 1Chorley, p. 13. 2Taruskin, p. 326. 3See especially pp. 17–54. 4Burrows, p. 20. 5Luckett, p. 212. 6Luckett, p. 204. 7Quoted in Luckett, p. 232.