It’s that time of year when music lovers the world over turn to Handel’s Messiah for their big concert experience. As a dedicated Handelian of more than half a century, I have never ceased to be amazed at the pull this one work exercises over people of all ages and nationalities.
At one time I used to wonder just why Messiah and not the rest of Handel’s wonderful output got all the attention. But that was in the days when most of the great man’s work could not be heard. Now, since the Handel renaissance has been underway for more than 30 years, and most of his oeuvre is recorded and performed, one returns to the work with fresh ears, to be amazed all over again at its impact.
The only one of Handel’s many oratorios with a New Testament text, it is set scriptural passages compiled by Charles Jennens (1700 – 1773), from the King James Bible, and from the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer worded slightly differently than their King James counterparts.
Almost incredibly, Handel composed the entire 250 page score of Messiah, in just three weeks. He began writing it at his Brook Street home in London on 22 August 1741. The original autograph was completed by 14 September.
Something of a creative miracle, this nonetheless accorded with the composer’s legendary facility for working a lightening speed, a gift he shared with Mozart, but not with Beethoven, who idolized the older composer, famously proclaiming in 1824: “Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.”
Despite the speed of its composition, the supreme musical craftsmanship and white hot inspiration of Messiah ensured it immediately gained a devoted following at the first public rehearsal preceding its premier in Dublin on 13 April 1742. This was attended by a “most Grand, Polite and crouded Audience” in the New Musick Hall, Fishamble Street.
Such was the buzz surrounding this preview event that the charity organisers published a request in the press that for the first performance ladies in the audience should not wear hooped skirts, more men carry dress swords, so as to create more space in the venue. The premiere attracted an audience of more than 700 which crowded into the hall, described by Handel himself described as “a room of 600 persons.”
Inevitably, a repeat performance had to be given. It received its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception the oratorio gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music, performed annually in countries across the globe, in venues ranging from the world’s great concert halls to community centres during provincial tours by amateur choral societies.
With the possible exception of the Water Music and Royal Fireworks Suites, Messiah remains Handel's most famous creation. It is widely regarded as a pinnacle of Western choral literature, indeed by many as one of the most sublime examples of human creation, to be set alongside works such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling.
Over the past six decades more than 200 recordings of the work have been available to enthusiasts. Local music lovers are urged to seize the opportunity of seeing and hearing the great work performed live in our city this Easter when the Playhouse Company reprises its big-stage presentation of the work under the stage direction of Themi Venturas, with Naum Rousine on the podium leading soloists, massed choirs and KZN Philharmonic Orchestra.
Booking for Messiah in the Playhouse Opera on Sunday April 8 at 3pm is through Computicket 0861 915 8000 or online at www.computicket.com . Tickets are Tickets are R85 and R100.
On another note, Haydn’s St. Cecilia Mass will be performed at St Joseph’s Cathedral Mariannhill this Sunday (April 1) at 3pm. Naum Rousine conducts the Durban Symphonic Choir and KZN Philharmonic with Bronwen Forbay among the vocal soloists. Tickets available at the door are R80 each (R40 children under 12). Seating is unreserved.
William Charlton-Perkins, Durban, 27 March 2012