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Messiah
(Dublin, April 13, 1742)
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Baroque Music and the Main Musical Features 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). 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.

Contents:

An Introduction to Handel's Messiah
High Baroque Style
Eighteenth-Century Opera and Oratorio
Musical Style in Opera and Oratorio
Recitatives
Arias
Choruses
Instrumental Music
Organization of Handel's Messiah

This Guide was written by Noël Bisson.


An Introduction to Handel's Messiah

Of all oratorios, in any language and from any period, Handel's Messiah is the best known and most loved. Since its first performance in Dublin in 1742 it has been performed continuously (in various forms) up to the present, and its popularity shows no sign of waning. In "First Nights" you will be focusing on the first performance of the work, but it is important to remember that Handel changed many sections of Messiah after the first performance and that any modern-day performance may reflect one or more of these changes. A number of the changes that Handel made subsequently (sometimes for artistic purposes, but often to tailor an aria to a particular performer, or to create an entirely new aria for a particularly noted singer) were liked by the public and later performers, and Handel himself in later years tended to perform a version of the oratorio that differed in several respects from the work's first performance. Christopher Hogwood's recording of Messiah with the Academy of Ancient Music (one of the recordings that has been recommended for your use in this course, and the one from which we take our examples for this web page) presents a version of the oratorio that dates from a performance in London in 1754 (April 5, in Covent Garden Theatre) and differs from the Dublin performance of April 13, 1742. The differences between the versions are noted in the Listening Guide.

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High Baroque Style

Messiah is in the high baroque style, and many of the conventions of baroque music are found in this piece. Like J. S. Bach and Vivaldi, Handel composed large works that are made up of separate pieces that have their own moods and themes and usually contrast with one another: a slow aria will be followed by a chorus moving at a faster pace, for instance, or a metrically free recitative that explores a number of ideas and emotions will precede an aria which is more formally bound by meter, affect, and melodic material. The writing is characterized by a regular and relatively fast harmonic rhythm (the harmony changes regularly and frequently), motor-like rhythms in fast sections, and clearly delineated melodic ideas, as in the B section of the Soprano II aria, "For who may abide the day of his coming." Notice the fast, steady tremolo of the violins in the accompaniment underneath the soprano's crisp delivery of the text "For He is like a refiner's fire":

(Hogwood -- Disk 1, Track 4)

Concise outlines of musical ideas (motives) are also found in the many fugal passages (a fugue is a highly sophisticated polyphonic procedure in which a theme is introduced by one voice part or instrument, and then is imitated successively by the other voices or instruments; see "Fugue chorus" below). Handel, like other high baroque composers, often used fugal writing to bring a part of a large work to a close, and several of the large choruses in Messiah are fugal.

Handel's orchestra is typical of that for any large instrumental work of this period: a large group of stringed instruments (first and second violins, violas, 'cellos, and double basses), woodwinds and brass (oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets), timpani, organ, and harpsichord. The organ, harpsichord, and lower string instruments make up the continuo group. Their part in the score is notated as a series of single notes augmented by numbers which indicate the harmony (these symbols are called figured bass). The use of the continuo is one of the most important elements that link Handel's music to earlier baroque music (such as that of Monteverdi). The trumpets and timpani are used only in special passages such as the "Hallelujah" chorus at the end of Part II. The bass aria, "The trumpet shall sound," which appears in Part III, is well known for its trumpet solo, the only instrumental solo in all of Messiah:

(Hogwood -- Disk 2, Track 17)

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Eighteenth-Century Opera and Oratorio

In many respects opera and oratorio of this period were almost identical genres. Both were vehicles for soloists to display prodigious vocal talent. In both, the recitative advanced the plot while the aria was a period of static reflection. Oratorios first came to prominence as a substitute for opera during the penitential periods of the Christian calendar when opera was not supposed to be performed.

Still, oratorios differ from opera in several important respects. One of these is the use of the chorus. The chorus is especially prominent in Handel's oratorios, and this prominence shows the degree to which Handel was influenced by English sacred music of the period, particularly that of Henry Purcell. Another obvious difference between opera and oratorio is the subject matter. Operas set secular stories, often with mythological or classical origins, while oratorios had religious subjects. Oratorios were put on without scenery or costume and were usually performed in concert halls.

In many ways Messiah is atypical of Handel's oratorios and of baroque oratorio in general. Most of Handel's oratorios set a biblical story, usually from the Old Testament, with named characters and a definite plot. Messiah, on the other hand, is a composite of texts from the Old Testament and the Book of Common Prayer (the prayer book for the Church of England); no dramatic characters are represented by the singers; and, despite its clear theme, the work has no overall plot. The story is much more broadly conceived than the more narrowly focused plots of Handel's other oratorios. The librettist was Charles Jennens.

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Musical Style in Opera and Oratorio

As in opera from this period, oratorios are made up of successions of essentially separate compositions which, altogether, fall in a logical sequence. In oratorio there are three main types of vocal piece: recitative, aria, and chorus. There are also purely instrumental movements, and two pieces of this type appear in Messiah. The prominence of the chorus sets Handel's oratorios apart from operas of the period: whereas in eighteenth-century opera the plot advances in a succession of recitative-aria pairings, in Messiah (especially in Part I), a pattern is established of groupings of three movements, usually recitative-aria-chorus. Each of these groups can be thought of as a separate scene (see "Organization of the Oratorio," below).

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Recitatives

The recitative in music of the high baroque opera and oratorio functions as a means to further the plot. The action takes place in the recitative while the aria is a place for reflection. The recitative imitates the natural inflections and rhythms of speech: extremely high and low notes are usually avoided as are rhythmic and melodic repetitions.

There are two basic styles for recitative: recitativo accompagnato and recitativo secco (Italian for "accompanied recitative" and "dry recitative"; recitativo secco is sometimes also called recitativo semplice, or "simple recitative"). Standard recitative (recitativo secco) is supported only by the continuo instruments, while accompanied recitative adds other instruments of the orchestra to provide harmonic support, and, occasionally, to play melodic material that is different from that presented in the vocal line. Generally, the more heavily accompanied the recitative, the more important the character or situation. In J. S. Bach's passions, for example, only Christ's recitatives are accompanied. Messiah begins with the most elaborate of its accompanied recitatives sung by the tenor, "Comfort ye my people":

(Hogwood -- Disk 1, Track 2)

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Arias

In the high baroque style the purpose of an aria is to explore the various ways that human beings feel by placing them in various situations. The aria provides a point of reflection upon the situation created by the previous recitative. Whether in operas, oratorios, or cantatas, arias from this period are generally in the da capo form, a form that originated in the late seventeenth century and soon became the predominant aria scheme in opera and oratorio of the period.

By the early eighteenth century da capo arias followed a common three-part scheme (ABA). The aria usually opens with an instrumental ritornello that introduces the melodic material of the piece. The ritornello often begins with a motive that will be the most important in the aria, and follows it usually with sequences and a cadence; if you pay close attention to the ritornello you will often hear most (if not all) of the musical ideas of the aria and will get a sense of its mood, even before the singer begins. Occasionally an aria's ritornello will present material that the singer does not sing (as in, for example, "Thou shalt dash them in pieces"). After the opening ritornello statement is brought to a cadence, the voice enters the texture and gives a full statement of the "A" portion of the aria, which almost always involves many repetitions of the text. The voice and the instrumental ritornello alternate now and sometimes intertwine, presenting the material in the "A" section of the aria until the final cadence is reached. The "B" portion of the aria is often more lightly scored and presents new text and melodic material that contrasts with the A section in key, mode, and overall feeling (affect). The "B" section allows the singer to express an idea, emotion, or affect that differs slightly (or quite a lot) from the overall affect expressed in the A section.

As an example of da capo form, and of the use of extreme contrast within a da capo aria, we turn to Handel's setting of "He was despised and rejected," no. 23, for the alto soloist (found in Part II). The piece opens with an instrumental ritornello, and then the voice enters with a line accompanied only by the continuo and echoed by the orchestra. The loneliness and dejection of the subject are vividly portrayed through the music in this passage. We can feel the heaviness of Christ's grief through the slow tempo, and the descending lines sung each time to the word "sorrows." The B section, in contrast, is full of extreme agitation through the relentless driving dotted sixteenth note and thirty-second notes in the strings as the singer depicts the harsh treatment to which Christ is subjected. The return of the A section, beginning with the ritornello, follows, and now in the context of what we have just heard in the B section, the A section depicts a scene all the more pitiful and wretched. Listen to examples from the A and B sections of Alto aria "He was despised and rejected":

(Hogwood -- Disk 1, Track 15)

Within the strictures of da capo form, Handel created marvelously different and distinct pieces expressing the depths of human emotion. The majority of the arias in Messiah, however, are actually not strictly in da capo form. Handel varied the form and in some instances found other ways of organizing the musical material--perhaps because he was interested in tightening the structure of the work instead of making time for a full repetition, or perhaps because the singers in Messiah do not portray real characters and conveying an affect is less of an issue most of the time in this work than it would be in an opera. Nevertheless, in all the arias in Messiah the basic principle of contrasting elements is at work, and this is the essence of da capo form.

In a da capo aria, singers were usually expected to ornament the repeat of the A section, and this was a moment to demonstrate technical prowess. The aria was thus intended to show off a singer to his or her best advantage, and composers wrote their arias accordingly. Handel certainly wrote his arias with specific singers in mind (except in the case of Messiah since Handel did not know who he would have as soloists in Dublin), and many of the changes that were made to Messiah for the premiere and in the performances immediately following reflect Handel's wish to accommodate a new soloist. At the end of the tenor soloist's first aria (which is actually not in da capo form) in Messiah, there is a wonderful place for him add an intricate ornament. The soloist on the Hogwood recording, Paul Elliott, does this with great aplomb:

(Hogwood -- Disk 1, Track 2)

Places such as this one, known as a cadenza, where a pause is marked in the score by a fermata or the word "adagio" is given, are points in the music where a singer would likely ornament the line. The orchestra knows to drop out at this point, allowing the continuo to move freely with the singer, until the singer returns to the notes on the page.

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Choruses

Perhaps the most striking and original aspect of this oratorio is Handel's writing for the chorus. Already, the prominent use of the chorus distinguished Handel's oratorios from his operas (and, indeed, from oratorios by other composers at the time) and contributed greatly to the early success of these works, but the choruses in Messiah are particularly fine, and display some of Handel's greatest genius.

There are three prominent types of chorus in Messiah: anthem chorus, duet chorus, and fugue chorus.

1) Anthem Chorus: This type of chorus combines homophonic and polyphonic textures and generally uses a distinctive musical idea and style for each phrase of the text. Listen to the opening of "And the Glory of the Lord":

(Hogwood -- Disk 1, Track 3)

2) Duet Chorus: These choruses were derived from pre-existing duets written by Handel for two solo voices and continuo. Handel re-used the musical material from these pieces for Messiah and distributed it among the four voices of the chorus. Paired voices are prominent in these choruses, and this duet texture allows for a clarity of text and transparency of line that contrasts wonderfully with fuller sections. The sections for full choir are often jubilant outbursts that Handel adds to the original duet (for example, passages such as "wonderful counsellor" in "For unto us a Child is born" and "that they may offer unto the Lord" in "And He shall purify" are not in the original duets). There are five duet choruses in Messiah, as noted in the Listening Guide. Listen to the opening of "For Unto us A Child is Born":

(Hogwood -- Disk 1, Track 8)

3) Fugue Chorus: This type of chorus has a more dense and intricate texture than the others. It is, as its name suggests, a chorus in which the voices each introduce the subject(s) of a fugue. The texture is polyphonic. Listen to the opening of the Final Chorus, "Amen":

(Hogwood -- Disk 2, Track 22)

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Instrumental Music

Handel uses two orchestral movements (no voices or text) in this work, and both are in Part I. The opening "Sinfony" functions as an overture to the work and is similar, with its contrasting sections, to overtures found in most baroque operas and oratorios of the eighteenth century. This "Sinfony" and the "Pifa," which occurs later in Part I, divide Part I of Messiah into two halves. Although there are only these two movements that are purely instrumental, you should remember that there is a great deal of instrumental music throughout Messiah in the enormous variety of ritornelli and other accompaniments found in the arias and the choruses.

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Organization of Handel's Messiah

The libretto falls into three parts, each of which can be further divided. Part I deals with prophecies about the Savior and can be divided into the following "scenes" (these are our divisions and not Handel's):

1. Isaiah's prophecy of Salvation
2. The judgment that will accompany the appearance of the Savior
3. The specific prophecy of Christ's birth
4. The Incarnation, announced the shepherds near Bethlehem
5. The redemption and healing brought by the Savior

The basic structure of each of these five sections in Part I consists of recitative and aria movements (usually for the same solo voice), followed by a large-scale chorus.

Part II of Messiah comprises a cumulative sequence of numbers representing the Passion, Resurrection, and the dissemination of the Gospel of Christ, culminating in the anthem chorus "Hallelujah." The shorter Part III concludes the oratorio with a variety of reflections on death and the Christian view of triumph over death through the Savior.

If you know about key relationships, you can see that there is a carefully conceived harmonic structure that carries through the oratorio and especially Part I. On a few occasions Handel deliberately breaks the harmonic continuity, though he almost always picks up the thread of the structure later. Why does he do this? An overall consequence of this harmonic planning is that there is a sense of a logical musical progression of movements over a longer period. This is something to listen for even without the score and Listening Guide in hand.

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