G.F. HANDEL’S MESSIAH
For many, hearing a live performance of Handel’s most famous oratorio, Messiah, is a deeply rooted Advent or Christmas tradition. But did you know that Handel originally performed the piece as an Easter offering?
What is an oratorio?
Oratorio means “oratory by music.” It is a musical composition for voices and instruments which is typically sacred in nature.
Handel was motivated to write this English language oratorio as a way to educate people in significant portions of the Bible when few could afford or even read one.
Handel was approached by literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare’s plays Charles Jennens about creating a musical oratorio on the life of the Messiah. Jennens wrote the libretto for Messiah based on the Old Testament prophecies in both the King James Bible and the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer.
Handel’s Messiah first premiered at noon on April 13, 1742 at the Fishamble Street Musick Hall in Dublin, Ireland. Handel himself conducted this performance, which raised money for various local charities. The performance was wildly popular with 700 people in attendance and several hundred more rumored to have been turned away. Gentlemen were encouraged to remove their swords and ladies were encouraged to wear dresses “without hoops” in order to make enough room for all the expected patrons.
Handel’s superstar status was not the only draw for this performance. Many also attended to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, who was then embroiled in a scandalous divorce.
The piece premiered in London in 1743, but was not as well-received since, unlike other oratories at the time, Messiah had no story, the soloists had too little to do and the chorus had too much.
The full performance of Handel’s Messiah lasts approximately 137 minutes, depending on the conductor’s tempo. Because of its length, the piece is rarely performed in full.
Can You Handel These Fun Facts?
- George Frederic Handel was born in Halle, Germany within a month of Johanne Sebastian Bach (1685).
- Handel’s father, also named George, was 63, when he was born.
- Handel showed an interest in music at an early age, but his father wanted him to pursue a more practical career. With his mother’s support, Handel began taking lessons secretly.
- Handel mastered composing for the organ, the oboe and the violin by the time he was 10 years old. From the age of 11 until he was 17 years old, Handel composed church cantatas and chamber music that failed to get much attention and have since been lost.
- Despite his dedication to his music and at his father’s insistence, Handel initially agreed to study law. Not surprisingly, he did not remain enrolled in law courses for long. His first job in Hamburg after his decision to quit the study of law was as a violinist in a theater orchestra.
- Handel struggled with his weight, a problem about which critics mercilessly teased him.
- During his lifetime, Handel composed nearly 30 oratorios and close to 50 operas. At least 30 of those operas were written for the Royal Academy of Music, London’s very first Italian opera company.
- In the spring of 1737, Handel had a stroke that impaired the movement of his right hand. After only six weeks of recuperation in Aix-la-Chapelle, Handel was fully recovered.
- Handel was so inspired by the libretto written by Charles Jennens that he spent only 24 days composing the 260-page score.
- During Handel’s lifetime, oratorios were not considered church music. They were intended for performance in public theaters for paying audiences.
- In 1753, Handel became blind due to an unsuccessful operation on his cataracts. He continued to compose and conduct.
- On April 14, 1759, George Handel died in bed at his rented house at 25 Brook Street, in the Mayfair district of London. The Baroque composer and organist was 74 years old.
- Handel was known for being a generous man, even in death. His will divided his assets among his servants and several charities, including the Foundling Hospital. He even donated the money to pay for his own funeral so that none of his loved ones would bear the financial burden.