Friday December 09, 2016

Messiah Revealed

Portrait of George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner, 1726 - 1728.

Portrait of George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner, 1726 - 1728.

Handel's Messiah is possibly the most famous and popular piece of classical music of all time. Yet it's full of secrets and surprises -- it wasn't actually meant for Christmas and its words are largely drawn from the Old Testament, not the New. And the Crucifixion isn't central. Ivars Taurins is the founding director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, and has conducted Messiah over 200 times. Robert Harris is a veteran CBC Radio producer. In nine movements, they reveal the hidden treasures of this celebrated piece. **This episode originally aired December 8, 2015.



6 Surprising Facts About Handel's Messiah


1. Messiah wasn't originally intended for Christmas

The work premiered in Dublin in 1742 — at Easter time. In fact, Messiah was always intended for Lent. It was the Victorians who moved it to Christmas, to revive interest in that then-neglected holiday.

Incidentally, the first London performance was a disaster. The fact that a religious work was being performed in a theatre, not a church, scandalized London audiences. Eventually, when Handel gave all the proceedings from Messiah to charity, London came around, but only then.


2. Handel wrote Messiah for a fairly small ensemble

Handel's orchestra and choir was pretty small, maybe 20 musicians and 15 singers. It was the Imperial-mad Victorians in the late nineteenth century who filled the Crystal Palace with thousands of singers and hundreds of musicians, completely distorting everything Handel had written — and making for a long evening.

At the lugubrious pace you had to take to get 5,000 singers to navigate Handel's choruses, a single performance could take five hours (complete with a dinner break).


3. Handel wrote the entire three-hour work in 18 days

Handel composed the piece in a white-hot frenzy of creativity in July and August of 1741 (and then wrote his oratorio Samson in the following three weeks).

However, he did help himself to parts of earlier compositions he had written years before. The choruses "And He Shall Purify," "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" and "His Yoke Is Easy" were all lifted from little Italian love arias Handel had composed 20 years earlier.
 

4. Handel wept while he composed the Hallelujah Chorus and claimed he saw visions of angels while he worked on the piece.

Was Handel a religious man? We haven't the faintest idea. We know almost nothing about Handel's personal and private life – which is surprising given he was one of the most famous men in England during his lifetime. But we do know that the compositional process moved him deeply.


5. Almost all the words for Messiah were taken from the Old Testament.

Even though Messiah tells the story of Jesus — from birth to death to Resurrection and beyond, almost all the texts were taken from the Old Testament — not the New. A neat trick, to tell Jesus's life using texts written long before he lived.

The reason Old Testament texts were chosen for Messiah is that the guy who compiled them, Charles Jennens, was using Messiah to fight a battle with a religious sect of the time called the Deists, who denied the reality of prophecy in the Bible. Jennens wanted to prove that the story of Jesus was completely prefigured in the Old Testament.

Thus, the text for Messiah. So, for example, the aria "He was despised, and rejected of men," one of Messiah's most famous, was not written about Jesus. It comes from Isaiah, chapter 53, verse three – written 700 years before Jesus was born.


6. Messiah is most popular with English speakers.

Yes, there are performances of Messiah everywhere, but the preponderance of performances are in the English-speaking world, and those places on the globe where British imperialism spread its tentacles.

Messiah is popular in England, of course, as well as in Canada, Australia and the United States, but also in places such as Nigeria, Kenya, Trinidad and South Africa (as a YouTube search will confirm).


Messiah Flash Mob

In the middle of November 2010, shoppers at a food court in Welland, Ontario were taking a lunch break during their pre-Christmas shopping. And then, unexpectedly, a young woman stood up at her table, cell phone to her ear, and started singing.

Beginning one of the most famous flash mobs in history – the YouTube video of this encounter has been seen over 47 million times. The choir is singing what may be the most famous piece of classical music of all time, the Hallelujah Chorus by George Frederic Handel.


Watch the video


The Hallelujah Chorus is the high point of Handel's 1741 oratorio, Messiah, now a musical staple all over the world. At Christmas, it'll be performed hundreds of times in Canada alone, by professional orchestras, amateur choirs, and small church groups, in performances big and small, polished and rough. But what is it about the Messiah that has made it so popular?  How is it that this 18th century piece still resonates so powerfully in the 21st? What is the mystery of Handel's Messiah?


Music featured in the program:

Hallelujah Chorus, from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 

Sinfonia, from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 

Sinfonia from the CD Handel Messiah by the Huddersfield Chorus.

O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 

And He Shall Purify from the CD Handel Messiah. by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 

Pifa from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 

Glory to God from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 

Rejoice Greatly from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 

Behold the Lamb of God from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 

He Was Despised from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir.

Thy Rebuke Has Broken His Heart from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 

Thou Shalt Break Them from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 

Hallelujah Chorus from the CD Handel Messiah by the London Philharmonic, Sir Thomas Beecham.

I Know That My Redeemer Liveth from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. 

Amen from the CD Handel Messiah by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir.