‘MESSIAH’: THE COMPOSITION AND AFTERLIFE OF HANDEL’S MASTERPIECE
By Jonathan Keates
Basic Books, $25, 176 pages
As many churchgoers know that the birth of Christ was likely in springtime, not December 25, many concertgoers know, Handel’s “Messiah,” the grand sacred oratorio of the Christmas season, was not originally produced for Christmas.
In fact, for years after it was first presented at the music hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742, the “Messiah” was performed “at the end of the Lent season, according to what would become Handel’s common practice.” Biographer Jonathan Keates enlightens readers to this fact and so much more in his new work, “‘Messiah’: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece.”
“Messiah” is a quick, delightful read for any season. The book is amply illustrated with portraits and presentations of historic letters, scores, settings and concert brochures. Mr. Keates deftly introduces the reader to a George Frideric Handel with whom the reader may not be familiar, a cosmopolitan man “who in his younger days once fought a duel with a fellow composer.”
Besides his obvious talent for composing appealing musical scores in such works as “Water Music,” “Judas Maccabaeus,” “Rinaldo,” “Music for the Royal Fireworks” and so many more operas and oratorios, Handel was an accomplished showman and entrepreneur, a man who recognized and nurtured musical talent in performers, a man who had a “habit of borrowing snatches of music by other masters to embellish his own,” and, yet, a man well-grounded spiritually.
Mr. Keates portrays the man as opposed to the myth behind the popular masterpiece. Shortly after Handel’s death, with a revival of spirituality apparently infused with English national exuberance, Handel and “Messiah” began to reach legendary status. The creation of Handel’s musical score was embellished with lofty tales of somewhat direct heavenly intervention and some “Messiah” public performances were more grandiloquent than eloquent.
Even the tradition of standing during the “Hallelujah Chorus” because it was “initiated by no less a figure than King George II” was probably more fiction than fact generated from zeal for Handel; although, “by the mid-nineteenth century [standing for the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’] had become standard practice.”
The libretto of the sacred oratorio — lyrics appropriated from the scriptures by Charles Jennens, Handel’s “librettist, patron, and critic” — is found in the first appendix to “Messiah.” In addition, Mr. Keates supplies a helpful delineation of Handel’s life and times, starting with Handel’s birth on Feb. 23, 1685 in Halle, Saxony (Germany), to his death on April 14, 1759 at his house in London and his burial six days later in Westminster Abbey with 3,000 people in attendance.
An appendix titled “Jennens’s Scenic Structure for Messiah” contains notations of the vision the librettist had for the message of “Messiah.” The communique is obviously scriptural and concise, yet brilliantly contemplated to convey along with the music a practically irresistible urge to embrace the wholly spiritual.
Mr. Keates informs the reader that “[f]rom several important aspects [‘Messiah’] belongs as much to its author as to its composer.” And, “[i]n terms of overall design, outline and intention, nothing like it had ever been heard before, either in Britain or in continental Europe.”
Time has been gracious to “Messiah.” As Mr. Keates writes in his introduction, “We are in a more advantageous position than our Victorian ancestors to appreciate the conceptual profundity and deftness of design entailed in Charles Jennens’s ‘scripture collection,’ and to admire the intense energy, idiomatic sophistication and imaginative focus with which Handel addressed himself to the task of setting this to music.”
After 275 years, the oratorio still delivers a clear message of hope and joy through not just an astounding musical composition but also through a much inspired scriptural collation. The words of the “Messiah” are a splendid blending of Bible passages that resolve the supposed conundrum of an Old Testament mean God with a New Testament nice God. “Messiah” declares the good news that the promise of deliverance from sin and death for all mankind in the old was gloriously fulfilled in the new.
And, as the chorus proclaims, Hallelujah!
• Anthony J. Sadar is a certified consulting meteorologist and author of “In Global Warming We Trust: Too Big to Fail” (Stairway Press, 2016).