2009 marks 250th anniversary of death of Baroque giant, George Frideric Handel. Handel can be considered the first commercial composer – he wrote music mostly as per market demand but this certainly does not diminish the quality of his music (otherwise he would be long dead and forgotten like many of his contemporaries). Handel left over 600 various compositions but is primarily known as composer of operas and oratorios. Among these, Messiah stands tall as (probably) the most popular and frequently performed oratorio in the history of oratorio as a musical form.
The world heard this music for the first time in Dublin in 1742 in the New Music Hall. During the subsequent years Handel frequently changed the score: in order to highlight new vocal soloist, or to put more emphasis on the choir etc and there is not a single “standard” version of this piece.
As Thomas Forrest Kelly notes, and I think many would agree with him, “nothing about the music of Messiah was revolutionary.” Thus it is not the piece that changed the musical scene (that role would probably play his concerti grossi). But it was “principally … an exceptionally good example of a known type”, as again Kelly states. Some contemporary critics have said of the piece: “He [Handel] seems to have excell’d himself”; “it is an exquisite delight… (for which) the words are wanting”… and indeed they are. Several parts of the oratorio’s music still shake the audiences to this day! There was one novelty for Handel’s time: setting the text form Scripture into more secular environment of oratorio was a bit politically risky… hence the premiere was in Dublin not in London.
Now, take a plunge into this celestial (if the words can describe it!) music in this YouTube highlights!
For a listing of Handel’s works click here.
T.F. Kelly quotations are form his interesting book: “Five Nights: Five Musical Premieres” in which Kelly covers, with Messiah, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique and probably the most (in)famous ‘first night’ in the history of music Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.