Interesting Facts about Handel’s Messiah

While we can’t perform Handel’s Messiah this year, we are able to feature a few highlights from this holiday classic. We’re joined by Casey Peden, Lisa Hornung, and Spencer McKnight who will perform arias from Part 1 of Messiah (distanced and protocols).

We’re missing our colleagues in the Saskatoon Symphony Chorus and can’t wait to return to this more than century old tradition here in Saskatoon! But here’s a few intriguing facts about Messiah while we wait.

Messiah wasn’t originally intended for Christmas

The work premiered in Dublin in 1742 — at Easter time. In fact, Messiah was always intended for Lent. It was the Victorians who moved it to Christmas, to revive interest in that then-neglected holiday.

Incidentally, the first London performance was a disaster. The fact that a religious work was being performed in a theatre, not a church, scandalized London audiences. Eventually, when Handel gave all the proceedings from Messiah to charity, London came around, but only then.

Handel wrote Messiah for a fairly small ensemble

Handel’s orchestra and choir was pretty small, maybe 20 musicians and 15 singers. It was the Imperial-mad Victorians in the late nineteenth century who filled the Crystal Palace with thousands of singers and hundreds of musicians, completely distorting everything Handel had written — and making for a long evening.

At the lugubrious pace you had to take to get 5,000 singers to navigate Handel’s choruses, a single performance could take five hours (complete with a dinner break).

Handel wrote the entire three-hour work in 18 days

Handel supposedly composed the piece in a white-hot frenzy of creativity in July and August of 1741 (and then wrote his oratorio Samson in the following three weeks). Though…he was taken to exageration…

He did help himself to parts of earlier compositions he had written years before. The choruses “And He Shall Purify,” “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and “His Yoke Is Easy” were all lifted from little Italian love arias Handel had composed 20 years earlier.

Handel wept while he composed the Hallelujah Chorus and claimed he saw visions of angels while he worked on the piece.

Was Handel a religious man? We haven’t the faintest idea. We know almost nothing about Handel’s personal and private life — which is surprising given he was one of the most famous men in England during his lifetime. But we do know that the compositional process moved him deeply.

Almost all the words for Messiah were taken from the Old Testament.

Even though Messiah tells the story of Jesus — from birth to death to Resurrection and beyond, almost all the texts were taken from the Old Testament — not the New. A neat trick, to tell Jesus’s life using texts written long before he lived.

The reason Old Testament texts were chosen for Messiah is that the guy who compiled them, Charles Jennens, was using Messiah to fight a battle with a religious sect of the time called the Deists, who denied the reality of prophecy in the Bible. Jennens wanted to prove that the story of Jesus was completely prefigured in the Old Testament.

Thus, the text for Messiah. So, for example, the aria “He was despised, and rejected of men,” one of Messiah’s most famous, was not written about Jesus. It comes from Isaiah, chapter 53, verse three – written 700 years before Jesus was born.

Messiah is most popular with English speakers.

Yes, there are performances of Messiah everywhere, but the preponderance of performances are in the English-speaking world, and those places on the globe where British imperialism spread its tentacles.

Messiah is popular in England, of course, as well as in Canada, Australia and the United States, but also in places such as Nigeria, Kenya, Trinidad and South Africa (as a YouTube search will confirm).

 

The arias featured in our Candlelight Christmas are Comfort Ye / Every Valley, O Thou that Tellest Good Tidings to Zion, and Rejoice Greatly!

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