1742: Handel: The Messiah, age 57

The whole Messiah is over two hours long:

I’m starting with the one piece form the Messiah that the whole world knows.

King’s College

This is not necessarily unusual because boys are singing the high parts. In Handel’s time women sang solos, but they never sang in the choirs. Men also sang the women’s parts in falsetto, and in addition – big yuck – boys were castrated to keep their high voices for a lifetime. But the soprano parts were, as far as I know, almost always sung by young boys.

John Eliot Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists

Gardiner is known for sticking to things as close to the original as possible. This is lighter, but we might argue that he is breaking the rules whenever he uses women in the chorus.

The Messiah, popular for 276 years:

On April 13, 1742, Handel’s oratorio received its premiere in Dublin. German-born Handel’s name drew such a crowd that there was a fear of audience members injuring each other due to overcrowding at the Messiah’s Dublin premiere – Handel was a rock star in his time.

The premiere was nearly cancelled:

A lot of people thought it was blasphemous. Handel’s note on his original manuscript read  “To God alone the glory”, but critics didn’t think any religious music should have been heard outside a church. Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, threatened to publicly forbid singers from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to participate in the premiere of The Messiah in Ireland. He objected to the idea of making religious music popular.

Handel was not English:

Not all people know this, since England was his adopted home. He moved to England in his middle 20s. Handel was an incredibly independent man. He also got very fat and was very stingy with food, but otherwise was very generous.

His father was 63 years old when Handel was born:

So if you think that old men having children is a recent thing, it’s been going on a long time. Donald Trump was only 59 years old when his son, Barron, was born.

The Messiah was written really really REALLY fast:

The whole composition was composed by Handel in only 24 days, and the whole oratorio is extremely long. It is estimated that he wrote 15 notes per minute, on average, which is a speed I can’t match in 2018 using Finale.

Handel stole a lot of the music, from himself:

My friend, Louie, who knows way more about The Messiah than I do, told me about this. He got a lot of ideas from other music, and this was not in the least unusual for composers. He still wrote his music very fast, but by reusing his own music he got it done much faster.

Many people stand for the Hallelujah Chorus because they think the king stood:

In fact there is no evidence that the king, King George II, was even there, and it is unlikely the newspaper writers would have reported his presence. The first reference to this story was in letter written many years later. So another myth is busted.

There is no definitive version:

Leonard Bernstein once raised eyebrows by reordering sections of The Messiah for a Carnegie Hall performance.

Mozart re-orchestrated it in 1789 and gave it a more modern sound by the standards of his time. He said that any alterations he made should not be seen as an effort at improvement.

It was not written for Christmas:

It’s probably the most famous piece of music associated with Christmas, but apparently it was written with Easter in mind.

The Hallelujah Chorus, which we think of as the climax of the whole thing, is at the end of Part II. There are three parts.

How popular is it today?

In the 2014-2015 season alone, 13 out of the 22 largest American orchestras were scheduled to perform some part of this this piece 38 times.

So without any doubt, Handel belongs at the top of any list of “greatest popular composers of all time”.




2 thoughts on “1742: Handel: The Messiah, age 57

  1. I definitely prefer the second, Gardiner version. It is crisp, the voices are precise.

    Handel developed English oratorios as a new genre. He was writing opera. The Italian oratorio was “essentially an opera in a sacred subject performed in church, not on stage.” Handel added the chorus. He had learned from all kinds of people and places, so that by the time he created these oratorios he could draw on all these things. It’s a lesson on always being curious and ready to learn from everybody.

  2. I listened to both versions several times. Can’t say I prefer one more than the other.

    It’s amazing that Handel was able to complete 259 pages of music in only 24 days!

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