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Some Background on Handel and the Oratorio Form

George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany, on Friday, February 23, 1685, barely a month
before Bach. Though Handel’s father had high hopes for him in law, the young George stubbornly
gravitated toward music, stealing off to play the harpsichord at every opportunity. His instincts and
talents evidently won the day. He made a neame for homself as a composer quite early, writing his
first opera at age twenty. He soon secured a job in England, working first for Queen Anne and then
King George I. He wrote feverishly, producing as many as forty operas in three decades.

As the popularity of Italian operas began to dwindle, Handel and other composers cast about for a
new musical form which would be more accessible for the English-speaking public. Handel’s first
response to this need was what he billed as a “sacred opera”. It was entitled Haman and Mordecai
and was based on the Old Testament book of Esther.

This composition had all the earmarks of a sure-fire box office smash. It was to be sung in English,
and its biblical theme virtually guaranteed its popularity (remember, this was the eighteenth century).
There was just one problem which the composer did not anticipate. When the Bishop of London
learned of the production, he forbade it on the grounds that it would be a sacrelige to represent
biblical characters in a theater.

A compromise was reached. Handel had to promise that there would be “no acting upon the stage” and
that the house would be “fitted up in a decent manner for the audience”. In other words, they would
simply sing it. There would be no costumes or lavish scenery—nothing that could possibly be construed
as “sinful”.

This compromise worked, and in the end the Bishop may have done Handel a favor, since he had
inadvertently provided the financially strapped composer with a more cost-effective product. In any
event, the end result was the birth of a new musical form: the English oratorio. The form was an immediate
success. Handel went on to write a whole series of oratorios based on biblical texts and themes. Among
them were Samson, Israel in Egypt, Saul, and of course, Messiah.

Find out even more here, at gfhandel.org . . . (includes the full libretto)

Here is an alternate classic Messiah website, describing Beethoven’s reverence for the composer and this work . . . (with links and libretto)

Some Background on Messiah’s Words and Music

Handel wrote the music for Messiah in the space of twenty-four days (between Aug. 22 and
Sept. 14, 1741). Some have suggested that the most likely explanation for this incredible surge of
creativity was Handel's need for money. Other more sanguine scholars are willing to allow for
a happy combination of need, talent, and inspiration. Along the lines of the latter theory is
the story of Handel's servant happening upon his employer after the completion of the
"Hallelujah" chorus. According to the servant's report, Handel had tears streaming down
his cheeks as he exclaimed, "I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God
Himself!" Whether this tale is true or not, the profound character of the work would seem
to suggest that Handel's motives were not completely mercenary.

Handel himself was not responsible for the selection and organization of the texts used in
Messiah. The credit for this belongs to a man named Charles Jennens, a wealthy country
gentleman with an obvious flare for both music and theology. Jennens also had a reputation
for ostentation and self-importance, however, as is evident from some of his correspondence.
After hearing Messiah performed, he wrote:

“His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great hast[e], tho' he said
he would be a year about it, and make it the best of all his Compositions. I
shall put no more Sacred Works into his hands, to be thus abus' d ...”

All of the texts which Jennens used in Messiah are taken from the Bible. Most are drawn
from the King James Version of 1611, although a few of the psalm texts reflect an earlier
translation (the Great Bible of 1539). Occasionally, Jennens "smoothed out" a verse so that
it would fit the musical flow more gracefully. For instance, the text for Isaiah 40:4 was
altered slightly to accommodate a more singable rhythm. The words in brackets below are
the ones that were left on the editor's floor: "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain
and hill [shall be] made low: [and] the crooked [shall be made] straight, and the rough
places plain." For the most part, however, the libretto remains remarkably true to the biblical
text.

Jennens was not starting completely from scratch in his selection of biblical texts. The story
of the Messiah, after all, is told again and again in the passages which make up traditional
lectionaries for the church year. Jennens used many of these texts, which would have been
familiar to him through the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Parts I and II draw heavily
on those selections listed for Advent and Lent; Part III depends almost completely on the
texts included in the service for the Burial of the Dead.

This acknowledgement of Jennens' indebtedness to the lectionary is not intended in any
way to diminish the genius of his libretto. Many have commented on how beautifully one
text seems to segue into the next, so much so that we are often surprised to discover that
some of these passages do not occur side by side in the Bible. Even more remarkably, the
selections reflect a keen sensitivity to the musical need to alternate among recitatives, arias,
and choruses. It would not do, after all, to have an uninterrupted flow of wordy and relatively
monochromatic recitatives followed by a relentless onslaught of majestic choruses.
Somehow, Jennens managed to keep both the musical and the theological demands of this
work in harmony with each other. Messiah's success is surely indebted to his genius as well
as to Handel's.

This completes the BEGINNING WORDS section of the Study Guide. Jump to the page for Session 1 . . .


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