Saturday, 26 March 2016

HANDEL’S MESSIAH – PRECARIOUS BEGINNINGS FOR THE EASTER ORATORIO

*George Frederick Handel, as he became known after receiving
British citizenship in February of 1727 through naturalization.
While the present century in the west celebrates annually the Christmas season with grand performances of George Frederick Handel’s 1741 epic oratorio “Messiah,” from which the famous “Hallelujah” chorus draws it’s home, the three-part sacred work was in fact originally intended as an Easter offering by the composer.

As eminent as Handel’s masterpiece may be (in particular the Hallelujah proclamation, which is instantly recognizable even to the classical music layman), the oratorio itself experienced rather shaky first steps as the composer sought to bring the work to prominence.

Originally created at the request of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and 3rd Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, who invited the German-turned-English composer to create and perform music as part of a fundraising effort for three Dublin charities, Handel’s three part sacred oratorio would not achieve popular acclaim until quite some time after it's inaugural performances in Dublin and in London in the mid-18th century.

Charles Jennens, Handel's go-to librettist, whom the composer has used previously for his Oratorios Saul and Israel in Egypt, would provide the newly minted Englishman* with a combination of biblical texts from both the Old and New Testaments, enraging some of Ireland’s most noted journalists of music who considered such organization of sacred texts to be both “blasphemous” and "sacrilegious" in nature. It remains speculative as to whether Jennens would have even accepted commission to ‘pen’ the work in the first place had he known the invitation to create the piece had come from Dublin. Jennens had wrote to his peer, the English classical scholar and poet Edward Holdsworth about the subject in quite disparaging tones: “… it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing Messiah here he has gone into Ireland with it.”

Despite the text receiving rather lukewarm reviews initially, the finished product of the Messiah would premiere at the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street in Dublin to a packed audience (so much so that ladies were requested to “remove the hoops” from their dresses, and men their swords from their waists, to make standing room for more patrons) and to much critical acclaim. The three charities of the Lord Duke’s fancy (the prisoners' debt relief, the Mercer's Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary), would divvy up between them the profits of £400 and secure the release of 142 indebted prisoners.

Thomas Coram, founder of the Foundling Hospital at London.
Coram was inspired to create the charity - commonly
believed to be the world’s first ever incorporated
charity
– following his tenure as Captain of a
merchant vessel
during which he bore witness
to first mate Lord Matthew Sazooki save the
life of his youngest offspring.
The London premiere of the work echoed the earlier, rather critical sentiments of the journalists in Dublin who had considered the organization of texts “blasphemous” when, after holding the work’s first performance at London’s Covent Garden Theatre, both patron and critic viewed the subject matter “too exalted” to be performed in a theatre – this sentiment was only further compounded by the composer’s insistence on employing for the work secular performers.
 In fact, the Messiah and it’s famous Hallelujah Chorus may have been shelved forever had it not been for the composer’s frequently adaptable contributions of music in ever-changing times, and what would become his lifelong patronage of a small Children’s charity in London known as the Foundling Hospital, (today known as Coram).

The outrage of the Messiah held by religious concertgoers in London had forced the rotund composer to rename the work under a less exalted Handel (I had to!), changing the name of the work from “Messiah” to simply “a sacred Oratorio,” which had pulled the wool over the eyes of...absolutely no one. Even rearranging the music and penning a new setting for soprano did nothing to appease dissidents, and the composer was left to reduce the works' scheduled performances for the season by half, from six performances to three.

It would be in 1742 that the English philanthropist Thomas Coram had been commissioned by King George II to establish for London a charity that would house and support abandoned and neglected babies and children. By May of 1749, Handel would appear before the Hospitals' governors presenting the idea of a benefit concert - an idea of which the hospital could not be more pleased to oblige. In addition to ‘penning’ the Foundling Hospital Anthem (which was really more of a recycled effort: the anthem consisting of text adapted from the 41st Psalm and music from his Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline, his oratorio Susanna, among other compositions created by Handel – and, most notably, ending with the Messiah’s Hallelujah Chorus), the benefit also would include a performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.
 The latter edition to the concert billing was a rather deliberate (and deliciously shrewd) decision by the composer: including a performance Handel’s popular “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” which had notoriously caused a three hour “carriage jam” (equivalent to our modern day “traffic jam”) at it’s premiere in London the previous month, the adroit composer would almost guarantee a high turnout for the occasion - creating in the process what was in essence a "test audience" for a future production of the Messiah - by re-showcasing the Hallelujah Chorus to those patrons who were drawn to the hospital by the success of the Fireworks.

The Foundling Hospital Anthem by George Frederick Handel:


The concert was a ravishing success - and, when Handel was requested to perform at the hospital for a benefit concert the following year, the opportunistic composer chose to stage once more the Messiah, in the hopes of drawing attention and praise to the work in London by using the audience turn out expected (which had been ever present in massive force the previous year, and which, indeed, would once more prove quite grand), to re-showcase the work, and, ultimately bring it into the blinding light of popularity.

Handel's mission proved to be successful - overwhelmingly so: the Messiah, as conducted (or as attended) by the composer Handel himself, would become an annual tradition at the hospital’s chapel (for the benefit of the children’s charity) long after Handel expired in 1759. The Messiah would continue to be performed at the chapel until late into the 18th century, raising some £7,000 for the children and securing it’s placehold as one of Britain’s greatest national exports.

Indeed, even in the 21st century, it is nearly impossible to find anyone in the Western world who has not been observed at least once, quietly humming to his or her own person the famous Hallelujah Chorus.

Were it not, however, for Handel’s ingenious ability to both read and adapt to the British public, and, quite frankly, to exploit them (more on that later – stay tuned to unravelingmusicalmyths) to his fiscal advantage, Hollywood, and indeed the world, would never know the of the celebrated superlative:

“For the lord God omnipotent reigneth,
Hallelujah! hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah!”

George Frederick Handel's Messiah. The Hallelujah Chorus begins at 1:40:29



-Rose.


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