December 2-4, 2022
Laurence Cummings, conductor
Amanda Forsythe, soprano
Key’mon Murrah, countertenor
John Matthew Myers, tenor
Jonathon Adams, baritone
Members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Patrick Dupré Quigley, guest director
George Frideric Handel
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people
Ev’ry valley shall be exalted
And the glory, the glory of the Lord
Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts
But who may abide the day of His coming
And He shall purify
Behold, a virgin shall conceive
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth
The people that walked in darkness
For unto us a Child is born
There were shepherds abiding in the field
And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them
And the angel said unto them
And suddenly there was with the angel
Glory to God in the highest
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion
Then shall the eyes of the blind be open’d
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd
His yoke is easy, His burthen is light
Behold the Lamb of God
He was despised
Surely, He hath borne our griefs and carried
And with His stripes we are healed
All we like sheep have gone astray
All they that see Him, laugh Him to scorn
He trusted in God
Thy rebuke hath broken His heart
Behold, and see if there be any sorrow
He was cut off out of the land of the living
But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell
The Lord gave the word
How beautiful are the feet of Him/them
Why do the nations so furiously rage together
Let us break their bonds asunder
He that dwelleth in heaven
Though shalt break them with a rod of iron
I know that my Redeemer liveth
Since by man came death
Behold, I tell you a mystery
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall
If God be for us who can be against
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
by Tim Munro
George Frideric Handel
Born February 23, 1685, Halle, Germany
Died April 14, 1759, London, England
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.
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.
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 molded 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 and Belshazzar, 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’ 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.
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.
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, in Dublin, Ireland, the composer conducting
First SLSO performance: December 6, 1881, Joseph Otten conducting
Most recent SLSO performance: December 9, 2018, Matthew Halls conducting
Instrumentation: soprano, countertenor (originally alto), tenor, baritone, chorus, 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, portative organ, strings
Approximate duration: 2 hours
Tim Munro served as the SLSO’s Creative Partner from 2018-2022. In 2023, he becomes Associate Professor of Music at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University in Australia.
Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.