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ClassicsOnline Home » HANDEL: Messiah
"David van Asch is especially superb in his bass solos."
The Irish Catholic
"This version of the Messiah must rank among the finest"
George Frideric Handel
(An Oratario: first performed in Dublin an 13th April 1742)
George Frideric Handel was born in Hallé in 1685. His elderly father, barber-surgeon to the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, entertained natural prejudices
against the choice of music as a profession for his young son, the second child of his
second wife, and Handel enjoyed an education that led him, after his father's death, to a
brief period of study at the University of Hallé in 1702. The following year he moved to
Hamburg, joining the opera there, at first as a string-player, then as harpsichordist and
composer. Success in Italian opera in Hamburg coupled with the doubtful musical prospects
the city offered, persuaded Handel to try his fortune in Italy, where he spent the years
between 1706 and 1710, confirming his generally Italianate style of composition in works
for the theatre, the church and private entertainment.
In 1710, rejecting an otter from the ruler of Innsbruck, Handel
accepted the position of Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, the future King George I
of England, and immediately took leave of absence for the staging of his opera Rinaldo in
London, where Italian opera was gradually gaining a place. Two years later he was back in
London for good, concerned in particular with the composition, management and presentation
of Italian opera. During the following thirty years he wrote nearly forty Italian operas
for the London stage, to which he devoted a considerable part of his working life.
Early oratorio may be seen as a by-product of opera as it
developed at the turn of the 16th century in Italy. England was late in its grudging
acceptance of opera and had shown little interest in oratorio, as it had developed in
other countries during the 17th century. Handel had written Italian oratorio in Rome. His
first attempt at he new form of English oratorio came in 1732 with his setting of an
adaptation of Racine's biblical drama Esther, described by one hostile critic as a
"Religious Farce", and certainly a very profitable one to its composer. English
oratorio combined the musical delights of Italian opera, with a text in English and a
religious subject that might appeal to the Protestant conscience. Since oratorio was not
staged, there was also a considerable saving in the cost of production.
Of all English oratorios Handel's Messiah has always been the most overwhelmingly popular. It is the least theatrical of all
his oratorios and the most purely sacred in its choice of subject, the Messiah, a
compendious version of the coming of Christ, His death and resurrection. The text,
by Charles Jennens, drew extensively on the Authorized Version of the Bible, and an
additional attraction has always been the large number of choruses included, a larger
number than in any other of Handel's oratorios.
Messiah was written with Handel's usual speed in 1741 for
performance in Dublin, some of it rehearsed briefly by inadequate singers in Chester, as
he made his way to Holyhead to embark for the voyage. The first performance was given at
the New Music Hall in Fish-amble Street, Dublin, on 13th April, 1742, in aid of charity.
The first London performance took place in Lent 1743 at Covent Garden, but the work failed
to please, in part because of reservations that some held about the suitability of such a
sacred subject for a theatre. Messiah only achieved its lasting success after performances
in 1750 in aid of the Foundling Hospital, established ten years earlier by Captain Thomas
Coram. At his death in 1759 Handel left a fair copy of the score and all parts to the
Hospital, an institution that continued to benefit from annual performances of the work.
Handel's Messiah: The First Performance
Handel's Messiah, first performed 250 years ago, is undoubtedly
one of the great musical masterpieces of all time. Composed in only 24 days, it is the
work of a genius which holds an extraordinary place both among the composer's works and in
the history of music. No other work of its time has seen a continuous sequence of
performances from 1742 to the present day.
In the course of these 250 years the Messiah has been performed
in many different ways. The wish to adhere closely to the composer's own practice was
followed by gestures of conscious departure, particularly in the 19th and early 20th
centuries, when the availability of piano scores spawned the practice of performing the
work with large (usually amateur) choirs accompanied by a single instrument, an organ or
even a piano, resulting in versions which not only distorted the Handelian score, but also
ignored the composer's intentions. Recently, however, there has been a general awareness
of the argument of authenticity in modern performances. Much research has been done and
many articles and books have been published, particularly in 1985, the Handel anniversary
year, all of which have led up to a greater understanding of the work. Nevertheless,
despite the frequent use of original instruments, large scale performances are still very
much the norm.
It is therefore perhaps surprising to many to discover that
Handel, when composing the work, was guided by an unusual wish for economy. Uncertain of
what forces he would find in Dublin, he had written for a small string ensemble with
trumpets and timpani. Nor was there a complete distinction between soloists and
choristers. Some of the soloists were drawn from the Dublin Cathedral choirs used by
Handel and the other soloists also sang in the chorus. The modern practice of performing
the work with four soloists and a separate choir was not Handel's intention. In fact, he
rarely used less than six soloists and they almost always sang in the choruses as well.
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble's version of the Messiah
is an attempt to be faithful to Handel's original intentions and provides an opportunity
to hear the work as first performed on 13th April 1742.
Handel himself made several changes during the seventeen years
of performances before he died, so The Scholars Baroque Ensemble make no claim that their
version to celebrate 250 years since the first performance is the definitive one. The
following notes will be of interest to those who are familiar with the work:
Instrumentation: There were no oboes or bassoons in the first
performance, only a small string band with 2 trumpets and timpani. (There are, for
example, no con or senza ripieno marks in the original score, these being added later for
larger-scale performances in London.) Oboes were also added for later performances, but
only served to double the voices. Although there are no separate parts for a double bass,
there are clear indications in the score of its use by changes of clef in the part.
Singers: Handel had sixteen singers including both female and
boy sopranos. The soloists formed part of the choir and Handel used both contralto and
counter tenor soloists as well as more than one soprano, tenor and bass. For later
performances in London he also revised two bass arias for a castrato soloist.
"But who may abide", known nowadays as an aria for
alto, was originally written for bass and entirely in 3/8. The version for alto was
probably re-written by Handel in 1750, some eight years after the first performance, and
often was performed by a castrato.
Pifa suggests by its title shepherds' music played
traditionally at Christmas by the Italian pifferari (pipers, shepherds). The familiar
middle section was added later by Handel but eventually rejected.
"Rejoice greatly" The original shows Handel's
notation in two different time signatures. The bass continuo part is in 4/4 whereas the
violin and solo soprano part, both containing triplet patterns throughout, are marked
12/8. The final version, with the entire score in 4/4, probably did not appear until 1749.
The aria in its original version was written for the only Italian opera soloist amongst
"He shall feed his flock". The Recitative and entire
aria were originally written for soprano.
"Thou art gone up on high" was originally written for
bass. The commonly-heard versions for alto date from 1750 and were written for a castrato.
"How beautiful are the feet" The now famous aria for
soprano was marked as "A Song ommitted in the performance" and was probably
reinstated in 1749 to precede immediately the chorus "Their sound is gone out",
which was written in 1749 and therefore not part of the earlier performances (this chorus
is the only one with separate oboe parts which gives added support to the fact that oboes
were not used until about 1749). The original version was for alto duet leading straight
into the chorus "Break forth into joy".
"If God be for us" The aria (these days normally sung
by a soprano soloist accompanied by solo violin) was sung in the first performance by the
famous contralto Mrs Cibber who sang it transposed down to C minor accompanied by tutti
David van Asch
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
Sopranos: KYM AMPS*, Helen Parker*, Diane Atherton, Jan Coxwell
Altos: ANGUS DAVIDSON*, Frances Jellard*, David Gould
Tenors: ROBIN DOVETON*, John Bowen*, James Oxley, Gerald
Basses: DAVID VAN ASCH*, Adrian Peacock*, Charles Gibbs
Violins: Pauline Nobes (leader), William Thorp, Richard
Marie Knight, Lucy Howard, Frances Turner, Maurice Whitaker
Violas: Susan Bicknall, Martin Kelly
Cello: Pal Banda
Violone: Jan Spencer
Trumpets: Crispian Steele-Perkins*, David Blackadder
Timpani: Robert Howes
Organo/Harpsichord: Terence Charlston
Artistic Director: David van Asch
* = soloist
Organ made by Bernhardt Junghänel
Harpsichord made by Alan Gotto
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble was founded in 1987 by David van
Asch with the idea of complementing the "a capella" work of the vocal quartet
The Scholars. This group, consisting also of Robin Doveton (tenor), Angus Davidson
(counter tenor) and Kym Amps (soprano), has had an extraordinary success throughout the
world in the last twenty years. The members of The Scholars Baroque Ensemble are all
specialists in the field of Baroque music and play original instruments (or copies), using
contemporary techniques. Singers and players work together without a director to produce
their own versions of great baroque masterworks such as the St. John Passion by Bach, the 1610 Vespers by Monteverdi, The Fairy Queen by Purcell, and The Messiah and Acis
and Galatea by Handel, all of which are being released by Naxos.
Performances by The Scholars Baroque Ensemble have been
acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, perhaps because "authenticity" is not
their only purpose. More important is the clarity and vitality obtained by the use of a
minimum number of players and singers to a part (often only one), common practice in the
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