A tradition for 158 years! Harry Christophers conducts the Chorus, Period Instrument Orchestra, and internationally acclaimed soloists in Handel’s dramatic masterwork. Messiah was presented to sold out audiences in 2010, and this season features a stellar collection of North American talent.
Media Partner: The Boston Globe
- Handel: Messiah
Students Caroling in Symphony Hall
Prior to each performance of Messiah, students from the Educational Outreach Program will be caroling throughout Symphony Hall.
Orchestra & Chorus
Christina Day Martinson
Krista Buckland Reisner
Kristin Brown Huggins
The genesis of Messiah
In a letter to a friend dated July 10, 1741, Charles Jennens, who had supplied Handel with the texts for other oratorios, explains that he sent this collection of scripture passages to Handel in the hope that the composer would set it. Jennens’ assembled text, from the Old and New Testaments, is not dramatic; rather the text refers to the prophesy and birth of Christ (part 1), his death and resurrection (part 2), and the redemption and response of the believer (part 3).
Although Italy was the birthplace of the oratorio, Messiah and other Handel oratorios ensured the genre’s place in the history of music. The term oratorio originally referred to the building in Rome in which the faithful observed spiritual devotions. Handel composed his first oratorio, La Resurrezione, while in Rome in 1708. In England, Handel returned to oratorio composition in the 1730s and 1740s; this time, however, he did not write in the Italian style, but fused the dramatic writing he had perfected in his operas with the English tradition of choral anthems.
In London in the early 1740s, Handel’s popularity as an opera composer was waning. It was during this time that two fortuitous events occurred: Jennens sent Handel the word book for Messiah and William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, invited Handel to Dublin to participate in a season of oratorio concerts to benefit local charities. Handel seized the opportunity to present his works and set Jennens’ text in just 24 days. Dublin was a major cultural center at this time and received Handel with open arms. Anticipation for Handel’s new oratorio ran so high that an announcement in the Dublin Journal requested that ladies “would be pleased to come without hoops [in their skirts] … making room for more company.”
Handel returned to London and, in 1743, gave that city’s premiere of A Sacred Oratorio; he refrained from titling the work Messiah due to objections among certain London clergymen. This and other early performances were not as successful as those in Ireland; however, beginning with the 1750 performance to benefit the Foundling Hospital, Messiah became an annual event in London. Soon its fame spread throughout the Old and New Worlds.
The enduring appeal of Messiah lies in the sum of its parts; each solo or chorus is beautiful on its own, but together the numbers create a whole that speaks to each individual. Although Jennens expressed disappointment with Handel’s setting of his Scripture collection, posterity has determined that Handel did indeed fulfill Jennens’ wish that the composer “lay his whole Genius and Skill upon it, … as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”
Changing the shape of the oratorio
For the 1742 premiere of Messiah in Dublin, it is estimated that Handel had a combined ensemble of approximately 50 performers, with almost the same number of vocalists as instrumentalists. Experienced singers from the better church choirs made up the chorus; two different soloists shared the roles for each voice part. While the chorus had no female singers, the soprano and alto solo parts were sung by women. For this performance, Handel rewrote three soprano arias for alto solo. Handel may have reworked the solo numbers for Mrs. Susanna Cibber, a well-known actress and alto. One story relates that Mrs. Cibber’s performance of “He was despised” was so moving that one person in the audience shouted “For this thy sins be forgiven!”
For the London performances, Handel had a few more singers available to him; he continued to divide the solo numbers between two soloists, who would have sung the choruses as well. After Handel’s death, Messiah performances generally had similar performing forces. In 1771, at one of the regular performances to benefit the Foundling Hospital, the professional chorus of 30 was augmented by 26 volunteer singers. This is the first known performance of Messiah with a volunteer chorus and the first time the chorus was significantly larger than the orchestra.
The trend of larger choruses, and eventually a larger orchestra to match it, reached new heights with a Westminster Abbey performance of Messiah in 1784. The organizers of this Handel tribute, a five-day festival, wanted to mount performances “on such a scale of magnificence, as could not be equaled in any part of the world.” They achieved this goal by assembling some 250 singers plus 250 instrumentalists. The accuracy of playing impressed music chronicler Charles Burney, who wrote: “When all the wheels of that huge machine, the Orchestra, were in motion, the effect resembled a clock-work in everything, but want of feeling and expression.”
In 1857, the Sacred Harmonic Society of London mounted a festival performance of Messiah, Judas Maccabaeus, and Israel in Egypt with 2,000 voices and 500 instrumentalists in the Crystal Palace. Two years later a similar festival was held in the same venue; there were 2,765 singers and 460 instrumentalists. The triennial Handel Festival reached new heights in performing forces in 1883 with 4,000 singers and 500 instrumentalists. Compared to these massive numbers, the early 20th-century performances of Messiah seem somewhat small. In 1902, Ebenezer Prout conducted his own arrangement of Messiah using an orchestra of 65 and a chorus of 300. Sir Thomas Beecham continued this trend by performing Prout’s edition of the oratorio annually in London and throughout England. These performances, however, are still substantially larger than those conducted by Handel. The growing number of performers, now largely volunteer or amateur, is an indication not only of the appropriation of Messiah as a symbol of English nationalism, but also the oratorio’s wide-spread appeal on multiple levels. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the popularity of the Messiah “sing-in” begun in the 1960s.
In the 20th century, there was a renewed interest in reconstructing performances using Handel’s original performing forces. Today’s performance reflects the historical awareness of using smaller ensembles and period instruments blended with the devotion and passion that has characterized this oratorio from its inception.
Program notes prepared by Teresa M. Neff, PhD
2011–2012 Historically Informed Performance Fellow
Artists, dates, and programming are subject to change.
“Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah