NSCS 1999-2000 Concert Season

George Frederic Handel

Sunday - December 12, 1999 - 2:00 pm

Pick-Staiger Concert Hall
1977 South Campus Drive, Evanston, IL

Sarah Lawrence, soprano
Emily Lodine, mezzo-soprano
Kurt Hansen, tenor
Peter Van De Graaff, bass

Nothing will get you and your friends more into the spirit of the holiday season than listening to a live performance of this most contagiously happy masterpiece. Come hear us. Let us brighten your holidays.

Program Notes for the DECEMBER 12,1999 CONCERT

Don Draganski

Over 250 years have elapsed since the first performance of that most durable of musical masterpieces, Handel's Messiah, as it still continues to engage the ears and hearts of audiences and performers alike. Pious legend tells us that Handel wrote the work in a state approaching religious ecstasy, that his manservant brought him food which remained untouched as the Master stared into space, teardrops silently falling and mingling with the ink on the page. "I did think I did see all Heaven before me," Handel is supposed to have said afterward, "and the great God Himself."

Unfortunately for purveyors of pious legends, no hard documentation survives to back up any of these edifying images, and trying to determine Handel's state of mind during the work's gestation is a matter of pure conjecture. Handel was a very private person; he left few letters, confided in only a small circle of close friends, never married, and for the most part left posterity little in the way of personal details.

We do know that Handel, always the facile worker, managed to compose the whole of Messiah in the astoundingly short period of twenty-four days, from August 22 to September 14, 1741. (Evidently the task of writing one masterpiece merely primed the composer for another burst of creativity, for he went on to complete his oratorio Samson within the following month.)

We also know that Messiah was written at a low point in the composer's career. Handel's fame up until then lay in his Italian operas; during his lifetime he composed no less than forty-two operas on Italian texts. Then along came John Gay in 1728 and his enormously successful ballad opera The Beggar's Opera. Almost overnight the ever fickle London public embraced the simpler folk-derived English theater pieces spawned by Gay's work as it turned its collective back on the more florid Italian operas.

Handel at first failed to realize the impact of this upstart satire and, shrugging off the new fashion, continued to write Italian operas for a dwindling audience; his equally dwindling income finally forced him to reassess his output. With debts exceeding his modest royal pension and creditors closing in, a lesser person may well have succumbed and quietly withdrawn from public life. Handel, made of sterner stuff, continued to keep his name before the public by turning out a large body of instrumental works: organ concertos, trio sonatas and concerti grossi. By 1732 he had begun to experiment writing oratorios with English texts; within the next few years he composed Saul and Israel in Egypt, but neither found favor with the public until many years later. His last two Italian operas, written in 1741, both flopped, due largely to the actions of his rivals who systematically tore down the placards advertising the performances. More discouraged than ever, Handel seriously considered returning to Germany, and it was only a new project, proposed by Charles Jennens, that kept the composer at his desk that fall. In a letter to a friend, Jennens wrote:

"I hope I shall persuade [Handel] to set another Scripture collection I have made for him for his own Benefit in Passion Week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius and Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.

Jennen's proposal captured Handel's imagination and he began immediately to set the text to music.

About the time that Handel was working on Messiah, William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, invited the composer to visit Dublin and present a series of concerts. The Duke had money and he knew how to spend it well, and so in November Handel left for Dublin, carrying the manuscript of his newly completed oratorio. While en route, the composer was obliged to stay several days in Chester; while there, he used the opportunity to try out several of the choruses of his new work with one of the local choruses. Dr. Charles Burney, the English music historian, witnessed the following incident which he later recounted:

During this time he [wanted] to know whether there were any choirmen in the Cathedral who could sing at sight. Among them was a printer of the name of Janson, who had a good bass voice and was one of the best musicians in the choir. Alas! on [reading through] the chorus "And with His stripes we are healed," poor Janson, after repeated attempts, failed so egregiously that Handel let loose his great bear upon him, and, swearing in four or five different languages, cried out in broken English: "You scoundrel, did you not tell me that you could sing on sight?"

"Yes, Sir," says the printer, "and so I can, but not at first sight."

Leaving the hapless singer, Handel continued to Dublin and began to rehearse the musicians for the upcoming Handel-fest. Six concerts were planned, with Messiah saved for the last. Finally, placards appeared announcing that "for the Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen's Street, and for the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay," Messiah would receive its first performance on April 12, 1742, at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street. In order to accommodate the anticipated crowd, the Dublin Journal asked that ladies "come without Hoops" and "Gentlemen are desired to come without their swords."

The work was an instant success with the Dubliners, and the performance realized 400 pounds for the three charities; we are told that no less than 42 debtors were released from prison by the proceeds of that first performance. (During his lifetime, Handel insisted that Messiah be presented for philanthropic purposes only. Despite its potential earning power, the composer considered the work an act of charity, his gift to the world.)

Returning to the Capital, Handel soon realized that the Londoners were not nearly as receptive to the new work as were the Dubliners. Many of the objections were raised on religious grounds. "An Oratorio either is an Act of Religion, or it is not; if it is, I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in, or a Company of Players fit ministers of God's Word," sputtered a "Lover of Musick" in the pages of the Universal Spectator. Indeed for many years afterward the debate continued over whether Messiah is a sacred or a profane work, and whether it is more appropriate to the church or to the concert hall. Hardly anyone in London seemed to like the new oratorio; the frivolous nobility found it too dull and reverential, while the clergy condemned it as irreligious. However, one important person who did take the work to heart was King George II who was "exceedingly struck and affected by the Musick." (The story of the King rising from his chair during one of choruses came to Dr. Burney third-hand and is thus somewhat suspect.) Despite the King's support, the public at large showed little enthusiasm for the work; indeed, much of this opposition was prompted by Handel's independent ways and his desire to strike out on his own to pursue a career free of patronage and flunkeydom. The Nobs who frequented concerts found this attitude insufferable, and Handel had to endure a systematic boycott of his oratorios for many years afterward. It was not until the Foundling Hospital performance of Messiah in 1750 that Handel's oratorios finally captured the public's fancy. The composer thereafter was able to live in relative comfort despite failing eyesight. He died peacefully in April 1759 in his seventy-fifth year.


The premiere of Messiah employed a modest orchestra of about thirty-five players and a chorus of about twenty-five, while the later performance at the Foundling Hospital used only forty players and a chorus of nineteen singers. As the work grew in popularity its performing forces correspondingly expanded. In 1784, to celebrate the centennial of Handel's birth (which actually occurred one year later), a performance sanctioned by George III included 253 players and 257 singers, plus soloists, along with three auxiliary conductors employed to coordinate the musical throng. One diarist described the sound as "thunderful," complaining that his poor head ached for days afterward.

The sheer magnitude of some of the more notorious nineteenth-century performances is truly Brobdingnagian. In 1859, at the Crystal Palace in London, two thousand singers made up the chorus, accompanied by over five hundred instrumentalists and an organ of 4,500 pipes. Indeed, performances of four and five thousand voices were not uncommon in England during the years preceding the First World War.

Handel's original orchestra of strings, double reeds, trumpets, and tympani was hardly adequate to satisfy this lust for bigness, and over the years countless conductors and composers (including Mozart) have "improved" and re-orchestrated the work, adding clarinets, piccolos, trombones, tubas, and an entire battery of percussion instruments.

In our day we are witnessing a reaction against this bloated approach, and most performing organizations attempt to recapture the beauties of earlier music by employing more authentic performance practices. We now try to perform Messiah with some semblance of its original forces. But Messiah is a sturdy work, and two hundred years of tamperings have not lessened its ability to move us, regardless of venue or volume.

After its first performance in Dublin, Handel is reported to have remarked to a friend, "I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better." Anyone who has experienced the joy of participating in a performance of Messiah - whether in the chorus or in the audience, or as part of a sing-along - must feel that Handel's wish has been met countless times since that first performance in 1742.

Copyright 1992, 1995, 1999 Donald Draganski

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