Program Notes: Handel's Messiah

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

Friday, December 7, 2018, 8:00pm

Saturday, December 8, 2018, 8:00pm

Sunday, December 9, 2018, 3:00pm

Matthew Halls, conductor

Karina Gauvin, soprano

Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano

Nicholas Phan, tenor

William Berger, baritone St. Louis Symphony Chorus, Amy Kaiser, director

By Tim Munro

A leap into the unknown

Handel was at a crossroads. He was the most fashionable composer of London’s most fashionable genre, Italian opera. He was lauded, feted, taken into the homes of the rich and famous.

George Frideric Handel

But, thirty years after Handel had arrived in London, the city’s opera madness was fading. This situation was perilous for Handel, a freelance composer. He had bills to pay, and opera was no longer paying them.

Then, a spark. Around this time, Handel dusted off two works in a genre unknown in London. These “oratorios” looked and sounded like operas, but told religious stories. He performed them in London to enthusiastic acclaim. Perhaps, thought Handel, this “new” genre would show the way forward.

Sacred opera

Oratorio was born at almost the same time as opera, around 1600. It grew out of a religious order that prized ecstatic experience, and oratorio’s blend of music and sacred texts conjured the state of rapture they sought.

The genre had grown and changed as it spread across Europe. And Handel, sniffing the air for new success, brought it to London.

Messiah was composed in just three weeks. Handel often wrote at this speed, in the tiny breathing space between opera seasons. Three weeks: barely enough time for the physical act of composition, let alone time to imbue the notes with life and love.

Handel moulded the oratorio form in his image: nothing should stop the momentum of his storytelling; virtuosity for its own sake was forbidden; variety in form, shape, sound, and character was crucial; and the chorus became central.


Messiah is missing an important element: its central hero.

Handel’s oratorios typically give singing roles to their main characters. In Saul andBelshazzar, written around the time of Messiah, Saul and Belshazzar tell of their dizzying highs and terrifying falls.

But in Messiah our hero never speaks or sings. Jesus is born without mention of his mother or any wise men. Jesus’s specific good works don’t appear, and the disciples are entirely absent. And Jesus dies, but there is no Pilate, no real mention of a crucifixion.

The text

Charles Jennens, librettist of the Messiah, was something of a mystic. He believed in the transcendental divinity of Christ, and in an increasingly rationalist society this marked him as an outsider.

He called this text for Messiah “a meditation of our Lord.” On the title page, Jennens quotes one of Paul’s epistles, celebrating “the Mystery of Godliness.” Jennens’s central character is Jesus as idea, as “mystery,” rather than Jesus as flesh- and-blood human.

The music

Handel took Jennens’s non-narrative texts and made concrete, human drama. First, Handel keeps the “operatic” drama moving, connecting isolated movements into long scenes. But he varies the pacing, stopping the action for the calm of the “Pastoral Symphony,” for the despair of “He was despised.”

Second, Handel’s word-painting is everywhere here, from the flickering of vocal flames in “And He shall purify,” to the misty strings of “For behold,” and the cackling laughter of “All they that see Him.”

Finally, Handel helps this abstract text speak to audiences of all times and places. Jennens wrote for an audience that knew its Bible, knew what would unfold, knew how it would end. But Handel’s gripping and passionate music drags us into the emotion of his Messiah.

In recitatives, choruses, and arias, it is us lowly humans who worry, hope, predict, lament, and celebrate. Maybe we are thinking of Jesus, but maybe we are thinking of the people we love, the places we live, the good that we want to do.

Messiah did not connect with contemporary audiences. They may have found it blasphemous, been put off by the strangeness of its libretto. It would take ten years for kindling to catch, and when it did, it caught fire, blazing around the globe, across cultures, across centuries.

First Performance: April 13, 1742, Dublin, Handel conducting with Christina Maria Avoglio, Susanna Maria Cibber, Mr. and Mrs. Maclaine (a London organist and his wife), and various singers from the Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral choirs as soloists

First SLSO Performance: December 6, 1881, Joseph Otten conducting

Most Recent SLSO Performance: December 6, 2015, Bernard Labadie conducting with Lydia Teuscher, Kyle Ketelsen, Allyson McHardy, Jeremy Ovenden, and the St. Louis Symphony Chorus as soloists

Scoring: 4 vocal soloists, chorus, 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, portative organ, and strings

Performance Time: approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes

Listening guide

Messiah’s text is strange for several reasons: every word comes directly from the Bible; the oratorio doesn’t tell a linear story; and this New Testament hero is mostly reffered to in verses from the Old Testament. This guide is intended to give a little context: the division into “scenes” is adapted from Jennens’s own approach. My commentary is in italics.

PART ONE: Prophecy of the birth of Jesus; the nativity

Scene 1: The opening scene is a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of the whole Messiah, setting the scene, laying out the stakes. Jennens covers: a prophecy of salvation; a prophecy of Jesus’s coming; the effect of this coming on humans. The text is mostly drawn from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah.

1. Overture. Orchestra. Handel’s Overture may capture the pain of a people in exile.2. “Comfort ye.” Recitative (Tenor). Handel chooses the plaintive sound of a tenor voice for this lone voice “in the wilderness.” 3. “Ev’ry valley.” Aria (Tenor). Flurries of notes express excitement, while repeated notes in the strings might capture the echoes of a large valley.

4. “And the glory of the Lord.” Chorus. 5. “Thus saith the Lord.” Aria (Bass). Handel shifts to terror, choosing a bass voice to announce the “voice of God.” 6. “But who may abide.” Aria (Alto). An ancient reference: metals were purified with fire (e.g. silver and lead have different boiling points). 7. “AndHeshallpurify.”Chorus.Voiceshereflickerlikeflames.

Scene 2: Here Jesus is named for the first time in Messiah. He is called Emmanuel(“God with us”). A path is then traced from darkness to light, ending with the chorus’s anticipation of Jesus’s birth.

8. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.” Recitative (Alto). 9. “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.” Aria (Alto)—Chorus. The alto voice (in conversation with the violins) asks us to spread the good news. The chorus replies, spreading the news with its many voices. 10. “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth.” Recitative (Bass). String mists introduce a voice of “darkness,” which “shall arise,” singing higher and higher. 11. “The people that walked in darkness.” Aria (Bass). Handel gives this “walking” music a purposeful, striding tempo. 12. “For unto us a Child is born.” We thrill, in preparation for...

Scene 3: Jesus is born. We shift from Old Testament to New Testament texts for the nativity. This section is the only narrative “story” in Messiah.

13. Pifa (“Pastoral Symphony”). Orchestra. Our nativity scene is set in rolling, pastoral hills. The title refers to pifferari, bands of roving bagpipers, mimicked with a drone and simple folk-tinged melodies. 14. “There were shepherds abiding in the field.” Recitative (Soprano). Handel chooses the “angelic” soprano voice to narrate the angel’s appearance. Strings palpitate with anticipation.

15. “Glory to God.” Chorus. “A multitude of heavenly host” (i.e. the chorus) praises God. Trumpets blaze for the first time. 16. “Rejoice greatly.” Aria (Soprano). 17. “Then shall the eyes of the blind be open’d.” Recitative (Alto). The remainder of Part One talks of Jesus’s good works.

18. “He shall feed His flock.” Aria (Soprano). 19. “His yoke is easy.” Chorus. We head to intermission with optimism: Jesus can carry our sins, our suffering. But this chorus may hint at what is to come: this “easy” and “light” movement is in fact very difficult to perform.

PART TWO: The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Scene 1: Unlike Part One’s “light” conclusion, the first scene of Part Two carries a heavy

burden. Much of Handel’s music is slow. The text is mostly drawn from the Book of Isaiah.

20. “Behold the Lamb of God.” Chorus. Jesus’s heavy burden is symbolized by sustained use of low bass notes. 21. “He was despised.” Aria (Alto). The longest aria in Messiah is also one of the saddest pieces ever composed in a major key. Short and lonely wisps eventually give way to the pounding of “smiting” blows.

22. “Surely, He hath borne our griefs.” Chorus. 23. “And with His stripes we are healed.” Chorus. 24. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Chorus. The jauntiness of this chorus is jarring. “We” are pictured as partying it up “like sheep” while our savior suffers. 25. “All they that see Him, laugh Him to scorn.” Recitative (Tenor). Violins cackle.26. “He trusted in God.” Chorus. The rules of this quite “academic”-sounding chorus might hint at the rules of trust that Jesus placed, that God “would deliver him.” 27. “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart.” Recitative (Tenor). 28. “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow.” Aria (Tenor).

Scene 2: This scene covers a lot of ground: Jesus is resurrected, evangelism spreads, humans reject God, God punishes humanity.

29. “He was cut off out of the land of the living.” Recitative (Soprano). 30. “But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell.” Aria (Soprano). 31. “The Lord gave the word.” This chorus of “preachers” is sent out to evangelize, spreading the word of Jesus. 32. “How beautiful are the feet of them.” Aria (Soprano). 33. “Why do the nations so furiously rage together.” Aria (Bass). A “furious” comment on the vanity of politicians and leaders. 34. “Let us break their bonds asunder.” Chorus. 35. “He that dwelleth in heaven.” Recitative (Tenor). 36. “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.” Aria (Tenor). 37. “Hallelujah.” Chorus. Before this famous chorus, humans have been laughed at, broken with a rod, dashed into pieces. After those struggles, does the exaggerated celebration of “Hallelujah” feel somehow forced?

PART THREE: Judgement Day; a hymn of thanksgiving

38. “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Aria (Soprano). Handel’s lilting music and use of the soprano voice lends openhearted innocence and optimism to this aria. 39. “Since by man came death.” Chorus. 40. “Behold, I tell you a mystery.” Recitative (Bass).

41. “The trumpet shall sound.” Aria (Bass). Handel’s Judgement Day is a celebratory occasion. 42. “If God be for us who can be against.” Aria (Soprano and Alto). 43. “Worthy is the Lamb.” Chorus. A majestic final chorus. Handel’s final surprise is a meditative, appropriately mystical “Amen.”

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Creative Partner.

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