Friday, April 14, 2006


"I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” . . . Thus reads the tombstone of George Friderick Handel.

Handels Messiah[1] is often heard at Christmas; however, it was originally associated with Easter, and many of us will be hearing it this Sunday.

Don’t forget to stand for the Hallelujah chorus. Notice how I wrote that? Technically, the name of this section is Hallelujah, and it happens to be a chorus, but you can’t really call it that (except everyone does).

Standing for the Hallelujah chorus is exactly what you feel like doing, and so did King George II of England, at least as the story goes. He was so in awe when he heard the words, “the kingdom of this world,” he rose to his feet and remained standing. And, as you know, if the king stands, so must we all. So that’s how that tradition got started.

Click here to hear And the glory … (or copy and paste into your browser: )

Later when Haydn heard it in Westminster Abbey, he stood, exclaiming with tears in his eyes, “He is the master of us all.”

Beyond doubt the most highly esteemed and popular work of Handel, if has become a mainstay of English sacred music, and is “the most performed music and message in all history” according to one source. It was Handel’s favorite, and of it he said, “I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself.” Many of us feel that way when we hear it.

At a low point in a previously successful career, he was approached in 1741 by his friend Charles Jennens, who was a literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare, suggested to him that he compose an oratorio based on some Scriptures he had arranged.

Handel agreed, and incredibly, he completed the entire work in about 20 days, between August 22 and September 14. It does seem “divinely inspired,”
doesn’t it?

A huge man in stature, his servants said of him that summer: "He was praying, or he was weeping, or he was staring into eternity."

You may be surprised to know that The Messiah has been tampered with – first by Mozart, in 1788. Mozart had been commissioned by Baron van Swieten to arrange several of Handel’s oratorios into a private performance for himself and friends. Originally the oratorio was associated with Easter, and was sung by a group of thirty men and boys.

Later, locals were added to the professional singers to form huge performing forces up to 300 in number; imagine the power! Other changes were made as new instruments, or types of instruments were invented. By 1834, when it was presented at the Royal Music Festival at Westminster Abbey, there were 644 performers.

This idea of huge performances kept growing until eventually gigantic festivals were held, like the one at the Crystal Palace[2] where 3,000 might perform, and 10s of 1000s might attend.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, there was an effort to bring music to the masses, including oratorios, and this included teaching The Messiah to children in school.

Then came the purist movement and in 1883, Sir George Grove pleaded that it be performed as written and intended by Handel. It was performed this way in December 1885, without the Mozart additions or any other modifications and with its orchestra back.

Since we might think of it these days as for the aficionado, it’s interesting that its greatest contribution is considered “the movement of music away from a pastime of the elite to a significant part of life for people of all classes."[3]

Here are some of the words of the Hallelujah chorus:

Hallelujah[4]; for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of King, and Lord of Lords, Hallelujah[5]

At the time he wrote it, Handel was suffering from insomnia, depression and rheumatism. He was also beleaguered churchmen who denounced his opears as profane and unseemly.

When he arrived in Dublin to have the first performance at the New Musick Theatre in Fishamble Street, the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dr. Jonathan Swift[6] protested, writing the following:

…wheras it hath been reported that I gave a licence to certain vicars to assist at a club of fiddlers in Fishamble Street, I do hereby annul and vacate the said licence, intreating my said Sub-Dean and chapter to punch such vicars as shall ever appear there, as songsters, fiddlers, pipers. trumpeters, drummers, drum-majors, or in any Sonal quality, according to the flagitious aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy and ingratitude.

It did occur, however, with 26 boys and 5 men singing and was a great success raising money for a debtors’ prison, a hospital, and several other charities. It has often been used as a fund-raiser since.

Handel’s fame grew after his death, along with love of his oratorio. During the period 1784-1791, when another George (III) held the throne, who was just as appreciative of Handel, there were commemorations held at Westminster Abbey involving over 500 professional musicians.

The USA premiere took place in 1818 – in Boston, of course – given by a volunteer singing group.

Establishing its tradition as a fund-raiser in perpetuum, Handel bequeathed The Messiah in his will to a charity for the relief of poverty.

[1]Messiah” is Hebrew for “the anointed” just as “Christ” is Greek for “the anointed”

[2] Sound like a modern day arena? Similar. The Crystal Palace,built in 1985 for the Great Exhibition, was a huge, magnificent structure with over a million square feet of glass. After the Exhibition it was transported to Sydenham Hill in south London and rebuilt as a huge theme park. It was destroyed by fire in 1936, but the district is still known to Londoners as Crystal Palace, as is its football club.

[3] Smither, p. 347

[4] This is Hebrew for "praise ye the Lord"

[5] The text is taken from the New Testament Book of Revelation, 19:6, 11:15, 19:16.

[6] Author of “Gulliver’s Travels”
WE INVITE YOU to join Club Vivo Per Lei/I Live for Music, Dedicated to Dr. John J. Alifano, Jr.

The club is FR**. You'll receive an ezine each Sunday. We're a like-minded community who live for music, and learn together. Sign up HERE.

No comments: