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Messiah, HWV 56 (1741)

George Frideric Handel was born on February 23, 1685, in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg, Brandenburg-Prussia and died on April 14, 1759, in London, England. Messiah was first performed on April 13, 1742, in Dublin, conducted by the composer.

Spanning fifty-three movements in three massive parts, Handel's Messiah earns its title in sheer musical weight. The score numbers 280 pages, and a complete set of performance parts easily surpasses 75 pounds of paper. A complete performance of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth can last 140 minutes. 


With a growing demand for English oratorios in 1730, Handel had already composed many works in the English language by 1740. Charles Jennens, the author of many of the composer's Biblically informed librettos, joined Handel in telling the greatest story ever told through oratorio. Drawing heavily upon scripture from the King James Bible, Jennens compiled Messiah's scriptural text, focusing on prophecies of the coming savior in the first part, the Passion of the Christ in the second, and the events after Christ's crucifixion in the third.


Even though Handel reworked older pieces into Messiah, it was still composed with divine speed, twenty-four days, roughly a movement, or five minutes of music per day. Any composer would be lucky to produce ten seconds in a day. Scored for a modest SATB choir, soloists, and an ensemble of two oboes, two trumpets, two violins, viola, violoncello, double bass, and harpsichord, such a force seems unworthy for the anointed savior of humanity. But mirroring the unlikely place of Jesus's birth, the humble orchestration is symbolic, taking shape under the earthly "manger" of available resources for the Dublin premiere in 1742.


Since its premiere, Messiah has taken many forms. The composer treated the work as a living gospel, revising the work numerous times, adding movements, rewriting movements, expanding the orchestration, and adapting arias for specific singers and occasions. After Handel's death, composers and conductors, including Mozart (Der Messias, K. 572), attempted to magnify Messiah into the paragon of a mega-church, with massive productions of hundreds of voices, and with beefed-up orchestration; including trombones and timpani to propel the Hallelujah Chorus into the realms of glory.


Messiah marked a turning point for the composer, ultimately shifting from dramatic opera works to composing oratorios. Operatic in scale, Messiah is technically not a dramatic work. There are no assigned characters to any soloists. Instead, the oratorio is replete with symbolic musical sacraments, from liturgical text painting to recurring figures interpreted as the name of God. 


With so many movements, the work is highly adaptable for various occasions, performing forces, time restrictions, and different denomination requirements.  If there is any work in the repertoire to receive divine agency, this work is anointed with everlasting life, finding home globally on yearly Christmas and Easter programs.


This performance curates several new perspectives on Messiah, retaining a three-part form in twelve movements. Bookmarked with secular instrumental works, the combination of sacred and secular expression personifies the Messiah, made man. With the absence of choral forces, the focus is on the individual, the singular voice of the prophet, the Angel, and the apostle, "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" (John 1:23). All three parts are represented in a revised order, framing a narrative time before and after Christ. Worlds joined in communion with the absence of the Messiah's physical body, epochs of divine physical absence and eternal anticipation.


1. Overture (Sinfony)

In the beginning, there was E-minor. Part One of Messiah draws heavily on prophecies of the coming salvation from the Book of Isaiah. Scored for strings, oboes, and harpsichord, the Overture is a dichotomy, a two-part instrumental sermon fashioned into a French overture. Dotted rhythms set the stage for a Baroque perspective of time without Christ, and it is grave, heavy with a gravitas equally regal and dark. If there is a vision here, it is a glimpse of the coming Passion, all in twelve measures. The second part of the Overture brings good news in a swift Allegro Moderato, the coming Messiah. With the tune of a rejoicing fugue, the news starts in the violins, and it spreads infectiously, by word-of-mouth, as one-by-one the strings enter imitating prophetic portents. 


10. For behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth

11. The People That Walked in Darkness

Mysterious undulating music in the strings paints an Earth covered in shadow, its people meandering, lost without salvation. Isaiah 60:2–3 speaks through the Basso solo, the prophet, and the accompanying orchestra, the people, listen in doubt. It is the first incarnation of One that will lead many towards the light. "But the Lord shall arise," and at that moment, darkness ceases. The strings unify in a congregation of rhythmic unison, following the prophet in the rising glory of the coming Messiah.


Darkness, chromatic meandering steps, and uneven phrasing in unison strings illustrate the perilous and winding path to salvation. A prophetic aria on Isaiah 9:2, the Basso re-affirms the weary wanderer that light is nearest to those who walk through the valley of death, harkening Psalm 23. With the daybreak of a new glorious day imminent, light shines in moments of homophony before returning to the darkness of unison.


13. Pifa (Pastorale Symphony)

The second instrumental "sinfony" residing in Part One is the Pifa, an evocatively lush and tender depiction of pastoral fields. Prefacing the annunciation of the shepherds, Pifa comes from the music of the shepherd bagpipers. Lullaby-like, the music defines the sound of the Baroque Nativity. The warm string melody in 12/8 time moves up and down, cradle-like in contour as the Earth and the shepherds prepare to receive a child.


14a. There Were Shepherds Abiding in the Field

14b. And Suddenly, the Angel of the Lord

16. Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion

Following the Pifa, a brief recitative introduces shepherds, and the solo soprano gives voice to the Angel of the Lord. Violins sweep in with winged-shaped arpeggiations as the angelic being appears. Finally, the Angel announces to Jerusalem with melismatic celebration, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, thy king cometh unto thee" (Zechariah 9:9–10).

36. How Beautiful are the Feet

Following Christ's Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, the preaching of the Gospels begins with a liturgical transference from the Old to New Testaments. Soprano gives voice to Isaiah 52:7 by way of the apostle Paul and his Epistle to the Romans. The liturgy of the old made new, the aria in 12/8 time in G-minor is prayer-like, repeating the opening verse many times in devotion. It is an adoration of the foundation, Christ's teaching, and the feet of those spreading the Word.


46. The Trumpet Shall Sound

Trumpet figures prominently in the Bible as the harbinger of things to come. The Trumpet Shall Sound is Messiah's only movement to feature a solo instrument, the trumpet. The trumpet combines with solo basso to form a revelation, "for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:52). The aria begins with a rising D-major triad, the resurrection, preparing the way for the Day of Judgement.


43. I Know My Redeemer Liveth

The promise of eternal life begins Messiah's Part Three with an aria for soprano. Drawing upon the Book of Job and Paul's teaching in Corinthians, the larghetto in 3/4 time is scored for an intimate blend of violins, cellos, and bassoon. If Biblical characters could be assigned today, I Know My Redeemer Liveth might be interpreted as the voice of Mary Magdalene, "Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (John 20:17)


4. Thus Saith the Lord

5. But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming

Mirroring the opening rising harmony (now in minor) in The Trumpet Shall Sound, Basso solo pontificates the prophet Haggai, the Lord "will shake the heavens, and the Earth, and the sea, and the dry land” (Haggai 2:6). When the world shakes, the music shakes in strands of ornamented passages of coloratura. Taken from much earlier in the Messiah, placement of Thus Saith the Lord near the end connects the world-after to the world-before the Messiah, "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." (Revelations 22:12)


The prophecy of the coming day of judgment continues with Malachi 2:2, asking who will accept the day of His coming? Who shall stand when He appears? The orchestra answers in brief responses. Then, a fiery blaze of strings quickens the urgency of Malachi's question, for when the Messiah appears, He is like a refiner's fire. The music ignites in a furnace of vocal melismas. The music cycles through the larghetto and prestissimo sections once more, cleansing and purifying. 


As in the beginning, this perspective of Messiah returns to the voice of one calling into the world. Though the call resounds once more into a world in the absence of the physical body of Jesus, the Word crosses the threshold of the anointed time, the "after," awaiting and preparing the Messiah's second coming. © MTF


(Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai)


Rejoice! From Handel’s Baroque epic comes the greatest story ever told, a Messiah of our time. Journey with Jesus of Nazareth, abiding in voices of prophecy, seraphic declaration, and apostolic revelation. The sacred and secular come together, forging a trinity of the divine-human experience. Temptation and betrayal slither in the Passacaglia from Rodrigo, Bach’s beloved Air from the Orchestral Suite No.3, is a vision of the earthly and eternal. Finally, divine design offers a final parable in the resurrection of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.


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