Oratorio — From the December 2012 issue


An economic companion to the Messiah

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1. sinfonia (overture)

Christmas is all about taxes. Or at least that is what is in the passage in Luke that is invariably read out at Christmas services: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” I normally forget the tax part of Christmas, and then I remember and feel inexplicably comforted/chastened by it. Although perhaps not so inexplicably comforted/chastened: I suspect that nearly everyone whose income is mostly 1099 (miscellaneous income, taxes not withheld) rather than W-2 (regular income, taxes usually withheld) knows of the gas-lighting of the self that comes to its cognitively dissonant head at Christmas—near the end of the tax year—and then at Easter—also known as around Tax Day—when there is a spike in the difficulty of pretending that whatever money you may have in the bank is, in fact, money in the bank. So Christmas and Easter are, for many, times for certain kinds of anxieties and also times, as it goes, for the rare church visit and, not unrelatedly, for the music of Handel, in particular Handel’s Messiah, because that’s when the piece tends to get put on, at Christmas and at Easter.

2. accompagnato

George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany, to a family that forbade him to play instruments. In 1738, a statue of him was put up in Vauxhall Gardens, in London, his adopted city, where almost all his works premiered. This was not long after theater manager Benjamin Victor wrote to violinist Matthew Dubourg: “It is the confirmed opinion that this winter will compleat your friend Handel’s destruction, as far as loss of money can destroy him.” His operas were no longer doing well. He had more than twice as many works in print as any of his contemporaries, but he received no royalties on his music. In 1737 he had a stroke. He was also said to suffer the “Persecution of those little Vermin, who, taking Advantage of their displeasure, pull down even his Bills as fast as he has them pasted up, and use a thousand other little Arts to injure and distress him.” Following his mostly failed 1740–41 musical season, he told friends that his plans for the next season were to do the very uncharacteristic thing of nothing at all.

3. air

Handel put on his Messiah in Dublin in 1742. Premiering something in Dublin in 1742 was sort of like premiering something in modern-day Baltimore.

4. chorus

You know Handel’s Messiah. It’s that eighteenth-century oratorio that even the extremely musically limited like me know—or at least we know the Hallelujah chorus, at the very end of part two. What we don’t hear, now that the song is wildly famous, is much about the piece’s accidentally aptly humble origin story. The Messiah was, according to Handel biographer Christopher Hogwood, “an offbeat venture, unsure in its rewards and probably unrepeatable.”

5. accompagnato

I perused the birth story of the Messiah in the library. It is an odd little piece; unlike the operas that made Handel famous, it has no plot, and although it is titled Messiah, there are no quotations from the man himself. The libretto is a collage of phrases adapted from the Old and New Testaments. It proceeds from Prophecy to Nativity to Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, but it is not a drama of sermons, donkey rides, or encounters at the Temple. No unusual instrumentation or extraordinary voices are required. In that sense, the music is simple.

6. air

The Palestrina boys’ choir of St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral raised €10,000 for the church with its 2011 performance of Handel’s Messiah, a speaker at the midnight mass at St. Mary’s announced. But Christmas is, as the speaker said, not just our most marketable holiday.

And the Messiah is not just for holiday concerts: when Silvio Berlusconi finally resigned as Italian prime minister, a group gathered outside the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome and sang the Hallelujah chorus.

7. chorus

The 1742 Dublin premiere, put on in a new music hall, was a big success! In London, a year later, the story was not the same. A letter was published in The Universal Spectator just before the Messiah’s London debut: “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.” Handel had already taken the word “Messiah” out of the title of the piece, likely in anticipation of just such a response, though he still advertised it as a “Sacred Oratorio,” so he merely mitigated rather than solved the problem, and, by the by, annoyed the librettist, Charles Jennens, even more than he already had. Jennens wrote of the London performance to a friend: “Messiah was perform’d last night, & will be again to morrow, notwithstanding the clamour rais’d against it, which has only occasion’d it’s being advertis’d without its Name; a Farce which gives me as much offence as any thing relating to the performance can give the Brs & other squeamish People.”

It has been noted that it was the early Methodists, a group of solidly middle-class Londoners, who both championed the demotic form that was the oratorio and led the initial opposition to the Messiah. The “Brs” in Jennens’s letter probably stands for “Brothers.”

8. recitative

I had been told by someone, who admitted he was not sure about it, that Handel, in German, means “trade.” I asked a translator of German whether this was the case. She said that Handel does mean “trade.” But Handel the composer is, in German, actually Händel, which is the plural of “trade,” in the sense of “transactions,” but that 1) she almost never hears Händel used in speech—she thinks it is archaic—and 2) when it is used, it means “quarrels.” The last time she saw it used to mean “trade,” she said, was in Schlegel’s translation of the first scene of Romeo and Juliet. But she further added that I should keep in mind that she doesn’t get out much.

9. air & chorus

Charles Jennens was known both for his opulent taste and for his religious devotion. His libretto is so densely allusive as to be nearly opaque. The music scholar Richard Luckett, one of Jennens’s more generous readers, describes the text by saying that it “disdains narrative and from its first words commands attention because of what it does not explain.”

Handel’s original score is crowded with inkblots and scratch-outs and has a few missing bits; in his drafts, one finds his reworkings of melodies, the address of a banker, and a few notes about the tune of a song he overheard in the street, sung by a “poor Irish boy.”

10. accompagnato

Handel wasn’t that into opera when he settled in England in 1712; he even avoided writing operas for five years. The nobility were really into opera. They were willing to fund a company that would put on operas. After five years of not being into operas, Handel got hired by the Royal Academy of Music and got into operas—genuinely really into them! He wrote more than forty. But the Messiah isn’t an opera; it’s an oratorio. After it, Handel wrote no more operas.

11. air

The idea of a recitative in music is, basically, that the singing follows the rhythms of ordinary speech; in a recitative, musical accompaniment is kept very simple.

An air is more or less the inverse of a recitative; it is like what we traditionally think of as song: the music dominates and directs, and the words are subservient.

An accompagnato is somewhere in between a recitative and an air.

12. chorus

“I cannot sufficiently express the kind treatment I receive here, but the Politeness of this generous Nation cannot be unknown to You, so I let you judge of the satisfaction I enjoy, passing my time with Honnour, profit, and pleasure.” This is from Handel’s letter to Jennens, who was going to be angry that their piece was premiering in Dublin.

Following the performance, the Dublin Journal wrote that the Messiah “was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard,” and later said of it, “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the adoring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.”

Was Jennens pleased?

13. pifa

One of the more common just-so stories told about the decline in England of Italian opera—which is what Handel had been making his living from—concerns the enormous success in 1728 of The Beggar’s Opera. The Beggar’s Opera was in English instead of Italian. The characters were not aristocrats, as in the Italian operas, but rather the lower and criminal classes. (The Beggar’s Opera is what Bertolt Brecht based his Threepenny Opera on.) The Beggar’s Opera was funny. And it made fun of Italian operas. After The Beggar’s Opera, Italian operas fared poorly.

The original idea for The Beggar’s Opera supposedly came from the Irishman and eventual dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Jonathan Swift, who in 1716 asked his friend Alexander Pope, “What think you of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?” Pope and Swift were members of the Scriblerus Club, a group devoted mainly to satire; John Gay, also a member, wrote The Beggar’s Opera.

14a. recitative

Proceeds from the first Messiah concert went to three charities that benefited the ill and people in debtors’ prison. The funds raised are said to have led to the release of 142 debtors.

14b. accompagnato

Dream sequence to be tolerated: I find myself thinking that the third season of Louie may now be available for streaming on Netflix. I go to the Netflix site, where there is footage of a young Liza Minnelli in a Sally Field Flying Nun sort of outfit. She is the star of a video tutorial about how to identify what material is appropriate and what is pornography. Then she is on a cruise ship and she starts to sing, something about how men get on boats and know what is what, how they make breakthroughs in their work and they close business deals because they know that brotherly love is business love. Brotherly love is business love—they don’t get confused. Then suddenly Liza is Nina Simone. She is talking about Africa. She has been receiving hate mail, packages of ashes and ships. Her job is heavy, it is not light, is what she keeps saying.

15. recitative

By the time Handel came to Dublin, Jonathan Swift, though still dean of St. Patrick’s, was said to be losing his mind. Swift seems to have agreed to allow singers from his church’s chorus to perform with Handel. Then he didn’t. He wrote: “And whereas it hath been reported that I gave licence to certain vicars to assist at a club of fiddlers in Fishamble Street, I do hereby declare that I remember no such licence to have ever been signed or sealed by me; and that if ever such pretended licence should be produced, I do hereby annul and vacate the said licence; intreating my sub-Dean and Chapter to punish such vicars as shall ever appear there, as songsters, fiddlers, pipers, trumpeters, drummers, drum-majors, or in any sonal quality, according to the flagitious aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy and ingratitude.”

It seems that Swift later went ahead and allowed his choristers to perform the Messiah. There were also singers from the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, a Catholic church. St. Patrick’s was a Protestant church.

16. accompagnato

In 1725, Jonathan Swift estimated that a third of the money spent on rent in Ireland was sent to London. In 1742, after nine months on the “Hibernian shore,” Handel stopped by to see Swift. On hearing of the musician’s arrival, Swift said, “Oh! A German and a Genius! A prodigy! Admit him.” This is said to have been Swift’s last sane utterance. He died three years later.

17. chorus

The Messiah was composed in just twenty-four days! Some feel this is related to the work having been divinely inspired, like that of the blind Milton, who would awaken from dreams and dictate long sections of Paradise Lost to his daughters. There are myths of Handel’s servants taking away untouched meals and of Handel saying, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” Members of the divine-inspiration camp note that Handel signed his score “S.D.G.”: Soli Deo gloria. Others point out that Handel often worked quickly.

18. air

The Messiah was composed in just twenty-four days! This led Jennens to write of Handel to a friend: “His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great hast, tho’ he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d.”

19. recitative

In the library I found what Jennens’s friend wrote back: “I am sorry to hear yr. friend Handel is such a jew.”

20. air (or duet)

Jennens responded to the response with, “You do him too much Honour to call him a Jew! a Jew would have paid more respect to the Prophets.”

21. chorus

Handel, just a few days after he completed the Messiah, was already at work on a new oratorio, Samson.

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is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. Her article Into the Unforeseen appeared in the June 2011 issue.

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