George Frederic Handel, who wrote the score, was born in Germany and lived in Italy before moving to England for the majority of his life, where he was known for his operas and oratorios. The Messiah was written in 1741 after Charles Jennens, a literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare’s plays, hired Handel to put text he compiled to music. Jennen’s text, or libretto, is comprised of passages from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and portrays the story of Christ. Handel composed the piece in less than a month, which seems like whirlwind speed writing to us, but he usually composed just as quickly.
The Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1752 to raise money for several charities. The oratorio was performed in a theater, which to some seemed to be an inappropriate mingling of the secular and sacred. Prominent leaders, including Handel himself and Jonathon Swift (who wrote Gulliver’s Travels), thought people might expect a secular performance if it was held in a theater, since the theatre was considered by some to be profane and subversive. Swift even sought to thwart the concert until it was advertised as “A Sacred Oratorio,” dispelling thoughts that the piece might be blasphemous. Although the advertisement cleared up the problem, Jennens wrote the wordbook, a kind of program, and his division of the piece into three acts and further into scenes is reminiscent of opera format.
After its initial controversy, The Messiah was a success. According to (http://www.gfhandel.org), the English “made Handel their poster child,” identifying with the Christian message and proud of the quality of music. Its most famous performance was for an audience that is said to have included King George II. Documentation of the concert wasn’t written until 40 years after that 1743 performance, but it is said that the king was so moved during “The Hallelujah Chorus” that he rose to his feet. During Victorian times, thousands of performers and spectators packed huge cathedrals, sometimes adding parts for new instruments. In fact, Handel, Mozart, and other composers revised parts of the piece to adapt to the needs of specific performances. The Messiah eventually spread to Europe and the Western hemisphere, where it became the yearly tradition it is for us in the Quad Cities about 260 years later.
As I watched the performance of The Messiah December 12, I tried to figure out why I still get goose bumps when I hear its opening strains. The concert was performed by the Augustana Symphony Orchestra and the Handel Oratorio Society Choir, both featuring Augustana faculty. The choir, with more than 200 vocalists, delivered a powerful performance that was sensitive during pieces such as “Behold the Lamb of God” and forceful during others such as “The Hallelujah Chorus.” During “Worthy is the Lamb,” the choir shook the hall, and not a soul moved during the pregnant pause before the final round of amens commenced. Soprano soloist Jing Yang’s clear voice just hinted of a charming accent and, with her bright rose-colored sparkly dress, was the visual center of attention on stage.
I enjoyed the instrumentation, which, in addition to violins and other orchestral strings, included a harpsichord, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, and, during climaxes, timpani. Alto Jessye Wright had a full, resonant sound but neglected articulation during several pieces. Tenor Eric Ashcraft performed professionally, articulately, and emotionally. Bass Scott Uddenberg completed the foursome, performing especially well with trumpet obbligato James Lambrecht during “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” Director Jon Hurty drove the pace of the music, so much, in fact, that the vocalists and orchestra fought a bit over the tempo before settling in at a quick pace.
The unique aspects of the concert made the performance enjoyable; however, the experience of one concert can’t explain how people continue to make the performance a tradition. Maybe others, as I do, like to anticipate what the soloists will sound like. Possibly it’s the fact that millions of people worldwide have heard the same notes being performed over the years and have had a similar reaction. Maybe I’m excited that Christmas is around the corner and hearing The Messiah is an important part of my holiday tradition.
As always, I come back to the music itself. The powerful depiction of the anticipation, passion, and victory of Christ touches me unlike most other messages. The thought that one man can have qualities of a warrior and complete the mission of a conqueror and king through pain, suffering, and humility is an amazing juxtaposition. The Christ Jennens portrays embodies compassion and triumph mixed to create a view of God that is both personal and majestic. Handel’s music amplifies and complements the message with a score that follows the content of the libretto with cutting and pleasing recitatives and arias.
Maybe my enjoyment of The Messiah stems from all of this. All I know is that as I sat listening to the opening performance of the 123rd season of the Handel Oratorio Society, nothing could dilute the overwhelming beauty of the age-old oratorio.