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The Kennedy Center - Concert Hall
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Georg Friedrich Händel, as the composer was originally known, left his native city for Hamburg in 1703, and after three years there went to Italy, where he based himself until 1710. During those seven years he made his first visit to England, in the winter of 1707-08; although still in his early twenties, he was by then so well known that he had begun receiving invitations and recommendations for important positions all over Europe, and was able to name his own terms. He eventually accepted the post of _Kapellmeister _to the Elector of Hanover, at whose court he arrived in June 1710, and one of the conditions he made was that he be granted a twelve-month leave at once for an extended visit to London. As Winton Dean observed, in his comprehensive piece on Handel in The New Grove, London “seems to have been already his principal objective; no doubt the Elector, as heir to the British throne, knew that he was only transferring Handel from one of his pockets to the other.”

It was as a celebrated composer of Italian opera that Handel settled in London in the fall of 1712, and it was as such that he flourished there for some fifteen years. But public taste is notoriously fickle, and by the time John Gay introduced The Beggar’s Opera, in 1728, the appeal of Italian opera to London audiences had fallen off significantly. Handel poured a good deal of his energy, and his own savings, into a futile attempt to keep the genre alive, but at the same time he redirected his creative effort toward oratorio. That practical measure proved to be remarkably successful. Italian opera would enjoy a bit of a comeback in London after Handel’s death, with the arrival of Johann Christian Bach (another German who worked in Italy before settling in London), but in the meantime Handel succeeded not only in restoring his own artistic and financial fortunes but in establishing the oratorio as one of the strongest and most distinctive traditions in British music.

Handel adapted some of his existing operas as oratorios, and he composed new ones on Old Testament subjects which in some instances were selected as recognizable allegorical representations of persons and events in English life. Messiah, which brought him his grandest success, is unique among his oratorios in three respects: while the others are essentially operas minus the stage action, Messiah is a narrative work rather than a dramatic one; it is the only one based on the New Testament; and it is the only one Handel designated “a sacred oratorio,” in contradistinction to those on Biblical subjects which are not in any sense sacred works. In its three-part layout, Part I celebrates the birth of Christ, from prophecy and anticipation to jubilant fulfilment and thanksgiving. Part II deals with the Passion and its redemptive significance, culminating in the exultant Hallelujah Chorus, and Part III is a great affirmation of faith, growing from calm assurance to majestic vision.

By 1741, when Charles Jennens sent him the libretto for Messiah, Handel was living in near-seclusion. He had suffered a stroke four years earlier, and had sunk into a general depression aggravated by other ailments. Jennens was a man he held in very low esteem—he spoke of him as “a vain fool crazed by his wealth”—but the libretto apparently provided a therapeutic effect, for Handel responded to it with such enthusiasm that he composed the entire oratorio in a mere 24 days (August 22-September 14 ,1741). That feat, made possible in only a very small part by his adapting a few numbers from his earlier works, enabled him to fulfil a request he had received a few months earlier to supply a new work for the benefit of three charities in Dublin, and on March 27, 1742, the Dublin Journal announced,

    For relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick Hall on Fishamble Street Mr. Handel’s new Grand Oratorio, call’d the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedreals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handell.

The premiere actually took place a day later than indicted in that announcement, but there was a public rehearsal on April 9, and both that event and the formal premiere on the 13th were reviewed in the Journal, which printed the following on April 17:

    On Tuesday last Mr. Handel’s Sacred Grand Oratorio, the MESSIAH, was performed at the New Musick-Hall in Fishamble-street; the best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. [Ladies were asked to attend “without hoops,” and gentlemen “without swords,” so that the newly built hall could accommodate a hundred persons more than its normal capacity.] The Sublime, the Grand, the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words composed to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.

                   It is but justice to Mr. Handel that the World should know, he generously gave the Money arising from this Grand Performance to be shared by the Society for relieving Prisoners, the Charitable Infirmary, and Mercer’s Hospital, for which they will ever gratefully remember his Name.

While the Irish clearly loved the work, it fared less well when Handel presented it in Dublin again, a year later for his own benefit. He was by no means discouraged, however; Paul Henry Lang, in his splendid Handel biography, noted that the composer was “not unmindful of its original purpose, to aid charity, which was eventually what made Messiah acceptable to London.” London’s public and press at that time, and for some time afterward, were extremely uncomfortable with the idea of depicting sacred figures in the theater, with or without actual stage action. Handel understood this, and did not rush to introduce this oratorio there. When he eventually did, it was with a degree of reitcence: the work was billed simply as “A new sacred oratorio” when it was presented at the King’s Theatre in 1745, and the title Messiah was not used in London until 1749. The reception was fairly tepid there, until Handel placed the work at the service of the Foundling Hospital, where he himself conducted annual charity performances from 1750 until his final year, all of them enormously successful. The 18th-century music historian Charles Burney wrote of Messiah as a work that “fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan.” Placing it in that context made all the difference: Handel’s last public appearance, just eight days before his death, was as conductor of one of the many “festival” performances of Messiah demanded by the now irreversibly enthusiastic London public.

Since then Messiah, which did more than any other single work to establish the great English oratorio tradition, has been the most widely beloved specimen of its genre throughout the world, and it has been loved in various sizes and shapes. The score was not published in Handel’s lifetime, and the performing tradition he himself left comprised a bewilderingly broad and flexible range—not only in respect to the performing forces, but also regarding decisions on which numbers were or were not included, and to which voice or voices they were assigned. There simply is no single version of the work that may be regarded as “definitive.” The Danish musical scholar Jens Peter Larsen, who devoted a book of considerable length to the study of this single work, noted that “the question of the authentic form of Messiah is complicated to a degree that the non-specialist can scarcely imagine.”

Some of the complications have to do with exactly how much music the work contains, with the order in which the respective arias and choruses are to be performed, and by whom—and the composer himself provided no clear rulings on these or other questions. About a year after the Dublin premiere, Handel added two numbers to the work; eventually he reset one of those and an earlier one, and in his own performances individual numbers were sometimes dropped, sometimes reinstated, sometimes shifted to different positions in the musical sequence, sometimes reassigned from one voice to another.

Apart from questions of content and sequence, there has been speculation regarding the proper performing complement. The Dublin premiere was on a very intimate scale, with a chorus of about 25, from which some of the soloists were drawn, and a similarly proportioned body instrumentalists comprising only a small number of strings with two trumpets and timpani. Handel himself enlarged those proportions for some of his London performances, and the Handel Commemoration of 1784 (the 25th anniversary of his death) marked the beginning of the tradition of mammoth choral forces that was continue into our own time. Mozart reorchestrated the score, as did later the song composer Robert Franz; further alterations were made by Ebenezer Prout; Sir Thomas Beecham commissioned his fellow conductor Sir Eugene Goossens (who was also a recognized composer) to rescore the work for large modern forces, decorating the Hallelujah Chorus with skirling piccolo and enthusiastically crashing cymbals. (Some of the touches in the Goossens version are said to be Beecham’s own.)

Also, since about the middle of the last century there has been a productive focus on “authenticity,” in performances and recordings seeking to recreate what Handel presented in the work’s Dublin premiere, or its London premiere, or in some other particular performance in which the composer himself took part. The beauty and majesty of the work are such that each of these various approaches can be sustained; each continues to flourish, each has its own validity, each reaches the listener with its own kind of persuasiveness.

The present performances—the 55th annual presentation of Messiah, in a holiday tradition inaugurated in 1953—do not attempt a historical reconstruction, and do not involve “period instruments,” but do benefit from the insights gained in the last half-century through research into the performance practices of Handel’s time and the specific background of this remarkable work. Paul Goodwin is omitting seven of the 53 numbers, and has made thoughtful decisions on assignment of the various arias. The Pifa (known also as the “Pastoral Symphony”) in the middle of Part I, which is often somewhat abridged, is being given in full. Both an organ and a harpsichord are included, and in the chorus “Glory to God,” in Part I, trumpets are positioned at the rear of the hall.             Like many of his contemporaries, Handel used a good tune more than once, and, as already noted, he adapted some earlier material—actually very little—for use in Messiah. A frequently noted example is the exuberant chorus “For unto us a child is born,” in Part I: the music was originally composed for the duet “No, I will not trust you, blind Love,” in an Italian pastoral. On the other hand, some of the other choruses in this oratorio found their way, without voices, into his instrumental concertos. The origins and recycling of these individual numbers, however, cannot modify their sublime effectiveness in this unique masterwork. While Messiah may not be ranked the greatest of Handel’s oratorios, the qualities that make it unique have also made it without question the most widely beloved of all his works in any form, as well as the most consistently popular work of its genre from any period. It was primarily as the composer of Messiah that Handel was given burial at  Westminster Abbey—and enshrined in the hearts of listeners, from his time to our own.

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