Messiah Program Notes

Charles Jennens (1700-1773) was the member of Handel’s circle who had provided the composer with librettos for the oratorios Saul (1738) and L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Modertato (1739), and he may well have assisted Handel with the text for Israel in Egypt (1738). In July 1741, Jennens delivered to Handel yet another libretto, which he hoped would inspire Handel, using Jennens’ words, “to lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it.” In other words, Jennens believed he had produced an extraordinary book. It contained selections from a variety of passages from the Old and New Testaments, “the Subject [of which] excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.” Handel laid the libretto aside until the following month, when he was approached by William Cavendish, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Duke of Devonshire, to present in Dublin a sacred work for charitable causes, as well as a concert series in that city for Handel’s own benefit. For the concert series, Handel had numerous current works which had not been presented outside London. For the sacred work, he turned to Jennens’ recent submission.

Thus, Handel came to compose Messiah for the same reasons he came to compose virtually every other work of his mature years – the promise of performance and the potential for subsequent popularity and profit. Yet, once the creative process commenced, there is no doubt that Handel became immersed in what became the miracle of Messiah. He began the masterwork on August 22, 1741, and, in its original form, completed it on September 14. This musical keystone of Western civilization, therefore, was created in a miraculous span of just twenty-four days.

By November 1741, Handel was in Dublin preparing for the series of concerts which were presented in December and February with great success. The charity event for which Messiah was reserved – “For the relief of the Prisoners of the several Gaols [jails] and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay” – did not occur until April 13, 1742, “at the New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street.” The event was, charitably and musically, a striking achievement. The debts of more than 140 prisoners were paid from the proceeds, providing for their release from debtors’ prison, and Messiah had to be repeated June 3 to another sold-out house.

Peculiarly, Handel did not present Messiah in London until 1743. The work was presented in December of that year (previous performances had been associated with Easter) for the benefit of London’s Foundling Hospital, a Yuletide event thereafter repeated in London each year well into the nineteenth century, and by which time the oratorio had become a religious landmark in the English-speaking world. For over 250 years, then, this sumptuous, ceremonious, and timeless work has captivated listeners with its compelling story of “Promise, Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection” and with its magnificent music.

The “definitive” version of the Messiah score is, however, an elusive proposition for musicologists. For Messiah’s first performance at Dublin, in April 1742, Handel had a member of his circle, John Christopher Smith (the Elder), an accountant as well as an insightful musician, prepare from the autograph a manuscript from which Handel conducted the premiere. The composer ultimately used this prepared score for no fewer than eight performances through the year 1750, and Smith presumably used it thereafter. This score contains many margin notes, revisions, and additions in Handel’s hand, which form a vast store of information concerning these initial performances under the composer’s direction. This performance score is preserved today at the library of St. Michael’s College at Tenbury, England, a gift to that Institution from the score’s last private owner, Sir Frederick Gore-Ouseley, and is usually referred to in Handelian literature as the “Tenbury” or “Ouseley” copy. The autograph and the Ouseley copy give us music that is undeniably authentic Handel. Yet, these sources leave us not one form of Messiah, but rather, no less than nine versions attributable directly to the composer.

Danish musicologist Jens Peter Larsen, in his authoritative 1957 monograph, “Handel’s Messiah: Origins, Composition, Sources,” poses the dilemma succinctly: “The basic question is whether we can talk at all correctly of an ‘authentic’ form of Messiah, understood in our later sense as a final version which, as a whole and in detail, presents the composer’s ultimate view of the form in which he wished to hand down his work to posterity. Strictly speaking, there is no such version.”

In the eight months between the autograph’s creation and the premiere performance, Handel could be expected to “correct” his composition. It was, after all, composed in an incredibly brief period. The steady stream of later revisions to the Ouseley copy evidence other considerations. The subsequent assignment of an aria originally for the soprano soloist to the contralto or bass soloist (and the associated transposition and re-writing of the number), for example, relates to the skill of the performers available to Handel at the time. Still, for all the markings in the Ouseley score, in some instances we can only guess as to what the composer would have presented at a performance devoid of artistic limitations.

Nonetheless, from a careful study of the autograph, the Ouseley copy, and other sources with contemporary origins – a process, in the words of Dr. Larsen, “complicated to a degree non-specialists can scarcely imagine” – a very few printed editions have more recently emerged that would surely satisfy Handel and accurately convey to us his art. One of the most satisfying of such editions is that of the English scholar Watkins Shaw, which appeared in 1965 after some nine years of exhaustive research of all available sources. The Shaw edition, published by Novello, has been selected by Maestro Kraemer for the present performance because, in the words of musicologist David Scott, it “scrupulously observes the performing conventions of Handel’s time and also follows the Handelian precedent of allowing the [conductor’s] performance decisions to depend on the available forces.”

Notes by Rudy Ennis, The Mozart Works © 2017


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