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All of us have heard bits and pieces from Handel’s Messiah – the Hallelujah Chorus, if nothing else. But what makes Messiah such a popular work? And how did it come to be?
The History of Messiah.
Prior to composing Messiah, Handel had composed many other operas – several were even based on Biblical stories. However, in spite of his creativity, Handel was not in a good financial situation in the early 1740s, and when the opportunity came for him to travel from London to Dublin, he jumped at the chance.
It was there in Dublin, on April 13, 1742, that Messiah made its debut. It was immediately and loudly heralded by the Irish. But when Handel brought Messiah to London, it was received with less fervor. In fact, it was received with so little warmth, that there were several years in which it was not performed, including a four-year stretch between 1745 and 1749. During this time, Handel made changes to Messiah; he reworked several sections and found new vocalists. When Messiah reemerged in 1749, it was warmly received.
Down through the centuries Messiah has remained remarkably popular. Its sober lyrics and glorious music thrill audiences across the globe, while its place in history is confirmed. Its days of struggling are passed – the world shall never forget Messiah.
Barber writes in an irreverent humorous style (which he admits himself). His self-appointed job is to make fun of everybody – Handel, his critics, his admirers, everyone. It is hilarious to read, but removes the solemnity from the glorious work and casts Handel’s motives for composing Messiah in a purely mercenary light.
Among other things, Barber accuses Handel of stealing large parts of his manuscripts from other composers (he says that this is fact – I do not know enough about Handel to contradict him). He also makes other, more arbitrary statements like, “Handel could swear, quite colorfully, in at least four modern languages, and probably a couple of dead ones, too.” [pg. 38]
Here is a bit of Barber’s cynicism at work.
Although not much of a churchgoer in his youth and middle age, Handel in his later years could have won an award for faithful attendance. By then he was going twice a day, regular as clockwork, to the little church of St. George’s, Hanover Square, around the corner from his house on Brook Street. There’s nothing like impending death to inspire a little religious fervor.
As for the work itself, Handel once later remarked that, while composing the Hallelujah chorus, he felt “as if I saw God on his throne, and all his angels around him.”
Or maybe it was just something he ate. [pg. 3]
Here on why Handel’s Messiah became more popular after it was performed as a charity fundraiser.
Audiences like to feel that, if they were going to hear something blasphemous, at least they were doing it for a good cause. [pg. 70]
Barber says, “But even in the 19th century there were a few courageous people complaining that Messiah was becoming too bloated and reverential for its own good.” [pg. 85] Barber then goes on to quote George Bernard Shaw’s opinion on the subject.
“I have long since recognized the impossibility of obtaining justice for that work in a Christian country,” playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw wrote in a newspaper review in 1891. (Shaw, by the way, was a great admirer of Handel, and considered Messiah his favorite oratorio.) The problem, as Shaw saw it, was that everyone sang the work far too much in earnest, in the “churchgoing mood” of “pure abstract reverence.”
What the work really needs, says Shaw, is a little wild abandon. “Import a choir of heathens,” he writes, “restrained by no considerations of propriety from attacking the choruses with unembarrassed sincerity of dramatic expression, and I would hasten to the performance if only to witness the delight of the public and discomfiture of the critics.” [pgs. 85-86]
Barber addresses several licentious situations with the freedom and irreverence which he uses in other situations. Nothing is outright stated, but it is hinted around and joked about. I would probably blot out these parts if I allowed my children to read the book at all.
One illustration was drawn for the tag-line “There are those who think Messiah has been done to death”. It depicts three skeletons singing Messiah.
‘Darn’ and ‘heck’ are each used once.
Conclusion. A very informative account, but one which is inclined towards mockery. I would only recommend Getting a Handel on Messiah to older students of music who have been trained to take what they read with a mound of salt.