April 2, 2015

Handel's Messiah - Christ's Passion portrayed through Music

For several years, I have been a great lover of Handel's Messiah a classical oratorio, based on scriptures concerning Christ's passion.  I have several CD's of the Messiah, and a couple of books about this magnificent work of musical genius.

Interestingly, it wasn't until 2007, when my brother Joel gave me Messiah: The Workbook for the Oratorio, that I found out that the Messiah was originally written to be sung and performed during Holy Week.  "Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade [sic] him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own benefit in Passion week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell [sic] all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells [sic] every other Subject.  The Subject is Messiah...."

"In Messiah he [Handel] reused a number of his own secular compositions, especially a recently written set of Italian secular vocal duets.  From this source comes most of the music of "And He shall purify," "His Yoke is easy," "All we, like Sheep," and other choral numbers." 

The reason for this has to do with the haste in which Messiah was written:

"The dates on the original manuscript that conclude each part show that, beginning on August 22, 1741, it took seven, nine, and six days for the three parts, respectively, with a further two days for filing out the instrumentation; it was finished by September 14." 

It premiered in the "Musick-Hall in Fishamble Street (Dublin) on April 13...." 

"In number of performers, Handel's demands in Messiah were more modest than most twentieth-century performances would lead the listener to suppose.  He called for an orchestra of strings and continuo (usually harpsichord and organ), with oboes and bassoons doubling the strings and very occasional use of trumpets and drums.  The surviving accounts from the 1754 show that a typical orchestral disposition would have consisted of the following instruments: eight first violins, six second violins, five violas, three cellos, two double basses, four oboes, four bassoons, two trumpets, timpani, and keyboard continuo (harpsichord and organ).  The number of soloists might be the typical four but could also be expanded with a second soprano, a boy treble, and a choice of male and female altos.  For chorus Handel always used male voices - treble voices on the top line, countertenors for the alto - and assumed that the soloists would also sing in the choral numbers." 

"Time has proved Messiah to be immortal...." 

And I would definitely agree with that sentiment.  It is a cherished piece, not only for the musical aspects, which are stunning in variation, but more so for the depth and preciousness of the message conveyed.  It is literally Scripture put to music, and that is powerful.

Now I will list what Scriptures are used in the Messiah.  It is an abundance of texts quoted.

Isaiah 40:1-3, 4, 5; Haggai 2:6-7; Malachi 3:1, 2, 3; Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 40:9; Isaiah 60:1, 2-3; Isaiah 9:2, 6; Luke 2: 8, 9, 10-11, 13, 14; Zechariah 9:9-10; Isaiah 35: 5-6; Isaiah 40:11; Matthew 11:28, 29, 30; John 1:29; Isaiah 53:3; Isaiah 50:6; Isaiah 53:4-6; Psalm 22:7, 8; Psalm 69:20
Lamentations 1:12; Isaiah 53:8; Psalm 16:10; Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 1:5, 6; Psalm 68:18, 11; Romans 10:15, 18; Psalm 2:1-2, 3; Psalm 2:4, 9; Revelation 19:6; 11:15; 19:16; Job 19:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:20, 21-22; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, 53, 54, 55-56, 57; Romans 8:31, 33-34; Revelation 5:9, 12-14  

Source: Messiah The Workbook for the Oratorio George Frederic Handel - Charles Jennens (Introduction by Christopher Hogwood) 

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