Monday, November 22, 2010
July 13, 1742, in Dublin, Ireland, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) performed his recently completed Messiah as one of a subscription series of six concerts with the Messiah being the final concert. He had written the composition in London, but chose to perform it for the first time before a Dublin audience.
Sunday afternoon, I saw the entire work performed at the Ohio Theater in Columbus, Ohio with a complement of 64 chorus members, the orchestra, five soloists and a large, appreciative audience. I was left breathless by the beauty and complexity of this inspirational composition.
After 268 years, performances of the Messiah are still considered an annual tradition in many communities and portions of it are sung by churches, high schools and symphony choruses all over the world, with the Hallelujah chorus being the most oft performed.
The following was written in the program notes from Sunday’s performance:
The capital of English-dominated Ireland had a fairly rich artistic scene at the time, with considerable local talent complemented by artists coming from London. Handel found a grateful and receptive audience there, packing a “Great Music Hall” on Fishamble Street that was not nearly large enough for an event of this magnitude. The most prominent members of Dublin society were there among a crowd of about 700 people. The Dublin Journal which had called the work “the finest Composition of Music that ever was heard” after the public dress rehearsal wrote after the official premiere:
“Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring 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.” (Misspellings seen here were the correct usage of those words at the time it was written.)
After reading this 1742 review, I thought to myself that it would be quite rare to read such a rapturous review of anything today. Yes, there are amazing new composers at work as we speak and brave new works being performed all around the globe, but at that time and in that place there was nothing to compare and scarce words to capture the essence of what had been seen and heard.
Most everyone has heard the Hallelujah chorus or possibly sung it with a choir. It never fails to stir. The Philadelphia Opera Company recently enlisted the help of local church choirs to stage a flash mob performance of the chorus at a mall that just happened to have a permanently installed pipe organ. I will have a link to that at the bottom.
But there are so many remarkable pieces within the Messiah with incredible lyrics and sumptuous music. The words are drawn from both the Old and New Testament and were compiled by Charles Jennens for Handel. I’m going to take a little liberty with Handel’s work and try to capture some of the layered meaning of his pieces in poetic form.
O, Prince of Peace,
Bring comfort to thy people,
Exalt every valley,
Bring your good tidings to Zion,
For your people live in darkness
And await the day of your coming,
A child is born,
And the angel said unto them,
“Glory to God, Rejoice Greatly,
For he shall feed his flock;
Come unto him
To ease thy burden.”
But the Lamb of God
He was despised,
He hath borne our grief,
For we sheep have gone astray,
But through his stripes and crucifixion we are healed,
We need no longer rage as nations,
For he dwelleth in Heaven,
I know now that my Redeemer liveth,
For the trumpet will sound
Smiting death’s dark sting,
For God is for us,
So,Thanks be to God
Worthy is the Lamb
That was slain for man.
And thank you to Handel for this masterpiece that can still raise humanity to a higher level each time his work is performed. Here is the Philadelphia Opera Company with their flash mob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus. I wish you peace.