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Messiah
(Dublin, April 13, 1742)
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Listening Guide for Part I of Handel's Messiah

Note: This guide corresponds to the performance on the recording that is used most often in this course (Christopher Hogwood and The Academy of Ancient Music). In those places where the recording differs from the performance that was given on the opening night, we have made note. Throughout the guide we use the designation "Soprano 1" and "Soprano 2" since the version of the oratorio that Hogwood recorded makes use of a second soprano soloist. The disk and track numbers given here correspond to those given in the CD booklet for the Hogwood recording and will differ, therefore, from the numbers of other versions of the oratorio.

This Listening Guide was written by Noël Bisson; some entries were adapted from notes written by David Kidger.

Jump to the Listening Guide for Part II or Part III of Handel's Messiah.

Within Part I, jump to Section 1, Section 2, Section 3, Section 4, or Section 5.


1.) Disk 1, Track 1. Sinfony (Orchestra), E minor
This opening orchestral movement serves as an overture to the oratorio as a whole. Though musically not connected directly with the following vocal sections, there is a sense in which Handel establishes a musical and dramatic curtain at the outset. It is in two sections, the first in a slow tempo (Grave) with dotted rhythms dominating the melodic line, the second much faster, in fugal style with intricate passagework and much imitation between the instrumental parts. Identify the textures that Handel uses in these two sections. Listening to the performance on the Hogwood recording, you may notice that the dotted rhythms of the first section sound somewhat exaggerated, almost double dotted. This feature is characteristic of modern historically-informed performance practice; here the performers play on instruments using eighteenth-century techniques, and the instruments used in the recording are quite different from their modern counterparts.

 

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2.) Disk 1, Track 2. Recitative (Tenor): Comfort ye my people, E major, Isaiah 40, 1-3
In his score, Handel used the word Accompagnato for this piece, thus signifying that this is a solo vocal movement in the style of recitativo accompagnato. Here there is an instrumental accompaniment in addition to the simple keyboard and continuo instruments found in simple recitative--recitativo secco. In accompanied recitative the vocal line does not present a melody or thematic material of the sort one would expect to find in an aria, but there is much musical expression, reflecting the text, that is built into the vocal line. The accompaniment intensifies this expression. This movement is one of the most elaborate of the accompanied recitatives in Messiah. The slow moving strings immediately create an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity for the opening tenor entry "Comfort ye." What is the relationship between the vocal melody and the material presented by the orchestra? Do they share any musical material? Notice the embellishment that the singer adds in the measure marked "ad libitum"; this is one of the things that makes this number a particularly elaborate accompanied recitative and quite unlike what you would hear in recitativo secco. Consider how this movement functions as the first vocal number of the work as a whole. Are there extra considerations for the composer in presenting this first vocal number to the audience?

3.) Disk 1, Track 2. Aria (Tenor): Ev'ry valley shall be exalted, E major, Isaiah 40, 4
In English works of this period composers often used the words "air", "song", and "aria" interchangeably--all designate a movement for solo voice and are distinct from recitative. (For reasons of consistency we are using the designation "aria" here, but you will notice that this piece is called and "air" in the table of contents of the score in your sourcebook, and it is called a "song" in your the booklet that comes with the Hogwood recording.) The writing in this aria is much different from that in the preceding recitative, and there is much more pronounced contrast between recitative and aria styles than we found in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. Yet you may have noticed that nos. 2, 3, and 4 have as their text an extract from Isaiah, and further that Handel uses the recitative, aria, and choral style for consecutive verses. What does this imply about the composer's approach to the text? There are two formal aspects to the music here (no. 3) that are common to many of the arias in Messiah. The first is the use of a ritornello, an instrumental section, to open and close the movement. We have already heard the ritornello technique in a somewhat different guise in L'Orfeo. But here the ritornello has a second function, for it often introduces the thematic material that is to be sung by the soloist. The second formal aspect is the use of a two-part musical structure AA', that is, a single section which is then repeated in varied form. Each of these sections presents the text in its entirety, and contains two distinct musical ideas. The first idea presents text from "Ev'ry valley," the second text from "The crooked straight." Note the difference in the way each section moves from the first idea to the second. This piece is also full of word painting, with the words "crooked," "straight," "exalted," and "plain" all cleverly depicted through the music. Finally, notice the elaborate ornamental line that the singer adds at the end of the piece on this recording. This is called a cadenza; it is a flourish that the singer can add at will, making it up as he goes along if he so chooses. Listen here as the tenor is performing a cadenza that appeared in pencil in Handel's conducting score.


4.) Disk 1, Track 3. Chorus: And the glory of the Lord, A major, Isaiah, 40, 5
Handel uses a four-part chorus in Messiah, with the standard combination of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. The chorus opens with an instrumental ritornello in the strings, with the first alto entry picking up the ritornello theme. As the movement progresses, trace how Handel introduces each new phrase of text. Listen for the first entries on the following text phrases "Shall be revealed," "And all flesh shall see it together," and "For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it." How does Handel melodically differentiate the second and third phrases of text?

Note: There is a handout for this number here.

 

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SECTION 2

5.) Disk 1, Track 4. Recitative (Bass): Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, D minor, Haggai 2. 6-7
Again, Handel uses recitativo accompagnato. Another characteristic of accompanied recitative (and of recitative in general) is the variety of changing moods that can be depicted very quickly in the course of a short piece of music. "Thus saith the Lord" provides an excellent example, for the string accompaniment not only reflects the general mood of the text, but also directly represents the text (on words such as "shake"). The singer's depiction of the text here is even more graphic. In some movements, Handel elects to use this technique of word painting, through which the music is made to represent an aspect of the text in a fairly literal manner, while in others he is clearly not concerned with it. As you listen, try to identify other examples in which Handel uses this technique, and also places in the libretto where he could introduce such representation but does not. Is Handel systematic in this regard?

6.) Disk 1, Track 4. Aria (Soprano 2): But who may abide, A minor, Malachai 3, 2
This aria is another example of a deviation from da capo form, although, as in a da capo aria, it capitalizes on alternations between two highly contrasting sections of music. It begins with a slow string ritornello (Largetto), and continues with the solo voice singing the words "But who may abide...". This is interrupted dramatically by a section marked Prestissimo (as fast as possible), in the relative major key (on our recording this is C major), with a tremolo strings accompaniment, strikingly depicting the text "For he is like a refiner's fire...". The aria continues with a return to the Larghetto section, a second Prestissimo, closing with an instrumental ritornello taking the opening of the fast section as its subject and finishing in the original key (A minor in this version). Thus the form might be represented as ABA'B'. The musical palette of this aria is seemingly much more varied and dramatic than no. 3. One could easily imagine a singer on stage, mood vacillating from one of peace to one of fury and back again. This type of musical contrast was well established in arias of the time written for Italian opera, and even though this is not a da capo aria, Handel has achieved the same goal of artful contrast here as he does in his strict da capo arias.

You will notice in your score that three versions of this aria exist, one for bass, one for alto and one for soprano. Today we almost always hear an alto sing this piece, but on our recording you will notice that a soprano sings it. In fact, Handel scored this aria in two different keys for soprano. The first scoring was in fact for alto, however, and this is the version that would have been heard at the first performance.

7.) Disk 1, Track 5. Chorus, And he shall purify, G minor, Malachai, 3,3
This is an example of an ensemble chorus, often referred to as a "duet chorus." We have several examples of this type that Handel adapted from works he had previously written in Italian for two soloists. And he shall purify begins with an imitative duet texture pairing first soprano and bass, and then alto and tenor. Each part contains technically demanding passagework (long lines of sixteenth notes) first, but, as is typical in much of Handel's writing of this type, he then changes to a homophonic texture (listen to how the texture changes for the words "...that they may offer unto the Lord...". The words are set simultaneously in the choral parts with the long strings of sixteenth notes now transferred to the first and second violins. by using this technique of alternating textures (which you can hear as the movement continues), Handel is able to maintain musical interest. Another point to notice is in the opening melody. Compare the first two phrases setting the words "And He shall purify." For the second of these (see measures 2-4 in the score) Handel jumps from D up to G, rather than descending from D to G as he had in the opening phrase (measures 1-2); in this second phrase he then holds the high G for four eighth notes and then uses a sequence of sixteenth notes to extend the phrase. Superficially this may seem unimportant, yet it is the type of compositional technique that characterizes Handel's music in this work.

 

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8.) Disk 1, Track 6. Recitative (Alto), Behold a virgin shall conceive, D major, Isaiah, 7, 14; Matthew 1, 23
This is an example of recitativo secco or standard recitative. The voice is accompanied by a keyboard and bass instruments, providing, for the most part, a relatively simple chordal underpinning. The vocal style is direct, and the closest that we have comes so far to the recitative of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, reflecting the natural speech rhythms of the text and the inflections of the spoken voice. Compare this with nos. 2 and 5 in Messiah--why did Handel choose accompanied recitative for those numbers but standard recitative for this one?

Note: The "Playthrough" and "Interactive Analysis" sections of this website present this number in detail.

9.) Disk 1, Track 6. Aria (Alto) and Chorus, O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, D major, Isaiah 40, 9
Opening and closing string ritornello sections frame this movement. Here the alto aria leads directly and unexpectedly to a choral section, and this is another example of Handel's wish to find different approaches to the aria than using the da capo formula. The chorus has a homophonic texture developed around the melody presented by the solo alto in the aria. The joining of the aria and chorus in this way seems to depart from the basic formal plan established in the previous two sections (recitative--aria--chorus), but in so doing it heightens the contrast that follows since this section is substantially longer than the previous two.

Note: The "Playthrough" and "Interactive Analysis" sections of this website present this number in detail.

10.) Disk 1, Track 7. Recitative (Bass), For behold darkness shall cover the earth, B minor, Isaiah 60, 2-3
This is an accompanied recitative. Do you notice any word painting here?

11.) Disk 1, Track 7. Aria (Bass), The people that walked in darkness, B minor, Isaiah 9, 2
Is this a da capo aria? Again, do you notice any word painting? This aria is mostly in unison (the voice, continuo, and higher string instruments play the same notes at the same time with no harmony), except in specific places. Where (what are the words?) does the orchestra begin to play chords? The unison playing and singing in this piece is a feature of a certain kind of aria for bass at this time.

12.) Disk 1, Track 8. Chorus, For unto us a child is born, G major, Isaiah 9, 6
This is another example of a duet chorus, and again the source for the music is one of Handel's Italian duet cantatas. The original text for this cantata was "No, di voi non vo'fidarmi" which calls for a strong stress on the first syllable. Putting the text "For unto us a child is born" to the same music thus results in a strong accent on a word that is less important than the rest of the phrase. Such oddities of word accent are found elsewhere in Messiah too.

 

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13.) Disk 1, Track 9. Pifa (Orchestra), C major
This movement serves to divide Part I into two distinct sections. Often this movement is performed with mutes, providing a distinct instrumental color. The string parts move in parallel motion and in octaves, above a droning bass, with long held pedal tones. The title "Pifa" surely comes from the Italian piffaro, a woodwind instrument, and pifferi, shepherd's bagpipes. Yet Handel uses only stringed instruments here. How does the composer establish a pastoral mood for the following without using woodwinds? Notice how the character of this movement contrasts with the opening Sinfony.

14a.) Disk 1, Track 10. Recitative (Soprano 1), There were shepherds abiding in the field, C major, Luke 2, 8
This is the first of four recitatives (nos. 14a to 16) sung by the soprano soloist (the first soprano in the version presented on this recording). The first and third are secco recitatives while the second and fourth are accompagnato. Note the contrast between the accompanied and secco recitatives. The accompaniment in the violins in the second and fourth recitatives suggests the beating of the angel wings and gives a marvelous sense of urgency to the message.

14b.) Disk 1, Track 10. Recitative (Soprano 1), And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, F major, Luke 2, 9

15.) Disk 1, Track 10. Recitative (Soprano 1), And the angel of the Lord said unto them, modulating to F sharp, Luke 2, 10-11.

16.) Disk 1, Track 10. Recitative (Soprano 1), And suddenly there was with the angel, A major, Luke 2, 13

17.) Disk 1, Track 10. Chorus, Glory to God in the highest, D major, Luke 2, 14
The tension and anticipation that built up in the previous four recitatives sung by the soprano is released in this chorus. We hear the trumpets for the first time in the work, and their shimmering sound adds to the sense of arrival and affirmation in this movement. Notice Handel's word painting as he uses the high voices and strings to depict the heavenly voices as they cry "Glory to God" and the lower voices to depict "peace on earth." The trumpets sound distant in this chorus and they appear without their usual (earthly) counterpart, the timpani: this is a heavenly chorus heard from earth. Note how Handel has the angels disappear at the end, as the strings and the continuo reach the final cadence alone.

This is an example of an anthem chorus, a type that usually contains a mixture of both homophonic and polyphonic textures, which alternate or contrast with each other throughout the movement. There may be a contrasting section or sections in which the voices divide and then recombine in different ways. Identify the contrasting sections in this movement. What is the texture of each section? And how does the instrumental music relate to the vocal parts?

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SECTION 5

18.) Disk 1, Track 11. Aria (Soprano 1), Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, B flat major, Zechariah 9, 9-10
This aria is unusual in Messiah in that it is a true da capo, but this is the case only for the first version of the aria (version A in your score); in version B, which is in common time as opposed to the compound time of the first version, Handel recomposes the return of the opening section of the aria. Notice the high baroque style of the writing for the voice seen in the intricate, ornamental lines with their long strings of eighth notes (in version A, sixteenth notes in version B). Notice too the word painting for the word "rejoice" in jubilant, long ornamented lines.

19.) Disk 1, Track 12. Recitative (Soprano 1), Then shall the eyes of the blind, D major, Zechariah 35, 5-6
This recitativo secco is often given to the alto soloist but in this version is sung by the first soprano.

20.) Disk 1, Track 12. Aria (Soprano 1), He shall feed his flock, B flat, Isaiah 40, 11
In other versions this aria is often shared between the alto and soprano soloists, but here we have the original version of the piece and the one that was heard in the opening night. The opening ritornello strongly recalls the music and atmosphere of the Pifa (no. 13).

21.) Disk 1, Track 13. Chorus, His yoke is easy, and his burthen is light, B flat major, Matthew 11, 30
Another example of a duet chorus. The source for the musical material is the same cantata that provided the inspiration for the earlier chorus "And he shall purify."


End of Part I.

Jump to the Listening Guide for Part II, Part III or Back to the Top of Part I.