It’s been a Christmas tradition for so long – at least since the early 1800s – that it’s not often remembered that Messiah was originally conceived as a celebration of Easter.
The debut performance took place at noon on April 13 in 1742 at Dublin’s Music Hall, Fishamble Street, conducted by the composer, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), himself.
By the time of the last performance he witnessed at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in his adopted hometown of London – just six days before his death, at age 75 – the German-born composer could be sure that Messiah was already considered an enduring classic.
But even he could not have predicted its ascendance as a Christmas tradition, which has been attributed to a mid-18th century plenitude of works celebrating the Lenten season, but a dearth, at the time, of inspiring Christmas music.
Some 280 years after the Dublin debut, the South Surrey-based Handel Society Choir will be hewing to latter-day tradition by performing the composer’s masterwork just before Christmas – on Dec. 23 at 7.30 p.m. at Peninsula United Church (2756-127 St.) .
With orchestra and soloists Melanie Krueger (soprano), Julia Morgan (mezzo-soprano), Adam Dyjach (tenor) and Willy Miles-Grenzberg (bass) – under the baton of the society’s long-time artistic director, Johan Louwersheimer – it promises to be a suitably inspirational seasonal treat.
As well received as the South Surrey performance is likely to be, it will be hard put to equal the excitement that greeted the work – composed by Handel in only 24 days to a text prepared by now-forgotten librettist Charles Jennens – at its original debut.
Some 700 people of then-bustling, cosmopolitan Dublin attended that performance, far exceeding Handel’s expectations (the crowd might have been considerably smaller had they not heeded the promoters’ warning for ladies to dispense with skirt hoops and for gentlemen to leave aisle-clogging swords and scabbards at home).
Formerly an aficionado and eminent practitioner of the Italian opera form (which, between imported performers and elaborate production, had become prohibitively costly to stage) the composer had pioneered the English language oratorio – a kind of concert-style opera requiring neither special costuming or scenery.
The famously irritable Handel was also hedging his bets by premiering Messiah in Ireland. His most recent works had had only a lukewarm reception in London the previous season, and as part-composer, part-impresario, he could ill-afford a flop.
But Dublin’s dilettantes were drawn to the event in droves, not only by the august person of Handel himself, and the idea of an oratorio version of Christ’s prophesied birth, Passion and Resurrection, but also by an 18th century version of tabloid celebrity – the soprano soloist, Sarah Cibber, was currently at the centre of a messy divorce scandal.
Reportedly she achieved some form of instant redemption when, after she delivered a moving performance of her solo He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief a churchman, Rev. Patrick Delany, rose and declared “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
The general response, while a little less dramatic, was equally enthusiastic – enthralled listeners were drawn along through the narrative by the alternating solo and choral statements of Handel’s score, building to the still crowd-pleasing Hallelujah and Amen choruses.
And Handel needn’t have worried about his usual audience – the subsequent London reception of the piece was just as warm, ensuring Messiah’s future as the most popular and well-remembered of the oratorio repertoire both in Britain and internationally.
It was even the object of that rarest form of accolade, earnest praise from such later giants of classical composition as Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who wrote his own orchestration of the piece, as a tribute to the composer, in 1788).
But one tradition associated with Messiah – the audience standing during the Hallelujah chorus – has no good reason behind it. Handel and Jennens didn’t call for it, and neither, as far as can be determined, did any of the clergy of the day.
The fact is that King George II, when first hearing Messiah, stood at that point – and everyone else, as loyal subjects, followed suit for this and every subsequent performance.
Some historians have opined that either the King, or his foot, had gone to sleep, prompting him to rise for a stretch.
It’s also just possible that the monarch mistook something in the orchestration for the opening flourish of the national anthem – an impression that may have only been reinforced by the choir’s repetition of “and he shall reign for ever and ever….” !
Tickets for the Handel Society performance ($25 general admission, $20 seniors and students, free for those 16 and under) are available at the door, online at www.handelsociety.ca, by phone at 604-591-2632, orbat Tapestry Music, White Rock or Christopher’s Gift Gallery in Ocean Park.