(Dublin, April 13, 1742)
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.
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 dottedrhythms dominating the melodicline, 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
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 solovocalmovement in the style of recitativo accompagnato.
Here there is an instrumentalaccompaniment 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 solovoice 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
ornamentalline 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 instrumentalritornello 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
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 stringaccompaniment 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 solovoice singing the words "But who may abide...".
This is interrupted dramatically by a section marked Prestissimo (as fast as possible), in the relative majorkey (on our recording this is C major), with a tremolostrings 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
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
duettexture 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.
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?
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 stringritornello 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 homophonictexture 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.
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.
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.
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 polyphonictextures, 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?
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, ornamentallines 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.
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."