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'THE MESSIAH'

One of Handel’s most often quoted sayings relates to the first production of 1 ’File Messiah.’ Someone congratulated him upon having given the town a fine entertainment, whereupon ho replied: “My lord, I wish not only to entertain them, but to make them better.” This was a very natural and proper observation to make, but unfortunately this obiter dictum has been gradually twisted into meaning that hp wrote -with a definitely evangelistic Imrpose, and in consequence the average 'higlishmoi holds him up as an example •if a composer who had consecrated his genius to the service of religion. So widely was this view disseminated that in time even bis secular works were claimed by the Church. In the year 1862 wo find Bean Ramsay declaring in a lecture on Handel that ‘ Lancia Chio Piunga ’ was, “like all Handel’s fine Italian airs, essentially of a sacred character." But even in those, days there wore a few who recognised the real Handel beneath the black gown and white tie in which his ecclesiastical friends had disguised him. Handel was nt heart a dramatist. His interest was wholly absorbed by the opera until, having sacrificed a fortune in his operatic ventures, and being reduced to the necessity of recouping his losses in somo way, ho was compelled, to turn to the composition of oratorios. In 1863 Edward Fitzgerald wrote: “ Handel was a good old Pagan at heart, and till ho had to yield to the fashionable piety of England, stuck to opera and cantatas, whore ho could revel and plunge and frolic without being tied down to orthodoxy.” Twenty years later Samuel Butler, the author of ‘ Erewhon,’ comparing Handel to vShokespearc, in the opening words of his ‘Alps and Sanctuaries,’ said:—“ It is as a poet, a sympathiser with and rendercr of all estates and conditions, whether of men or things, rather than as a mere musician, that Handel reigns supreme. There has been no ono to touch Handel as un observer of all that was observable, a lover of all that was Ibvable, a hater of all that was hateable, and therefore as a poet. Shakespeare loved not wisely, but too well. Handel loved as well as Shakespeare, but more wisely. He is as much above Shakespeare as Shakespeare is above all others except Handel himself. He is no less lofty, impassioned, tender, and full alike of fire and love of play; he is no less universal in the range of his sympathies, no less a master of illustration and expression than Shakespeare; and at the same time he is of a robuster, stronger fibre, more easy, less introspective.” The year after Birtler published his ‘ Alps and Sanctuaries ’ Rockstro’s biography of Handel appeared, in which the then traditional view of the composer was exaggerated to the verge of caricature. There is no doubt that Eockstro'.s book dealt the death-blow to the Christian Handel. From that time forward a certain impatience of the patronal Handel worship began to manifest itself, which, growing stronger year by year, has ended in practically dethroning Handel from the jwjsition that he occupied for so many years. The Handel of our forefathers is dead. Handel the preacher is laid for ever in the tomb, but Handel the artist, with his all-embracing sympathy for human things, and his delight in the world around him, lives for evermore. Nothing is so dilhcuJt to criticise as the familiar, and to English musicians, who have known every note of ‘Tho Messiah.’ from their childhood, it is especially difficult to get, as it were, outside tho work, to banish the sentimental associations that have clustered round it, and to regard it as a work of art pure and simple. ‘The Messiah’ is to them a tiling above criticism, occupying a place apart from all other music whatsoever. There are many thousands of Englishmen who habitually attend performances-of ‘The Messiah’ as a religious exercise, and if you tell them that it is a work of art you cither amuse them or shock them. ‘The Messiah’ is not only a, very groat, work of art. but it is actually the first instance in the history of music of an attempt to view the mighty drama of human redemption from an artistic standpoint. Wo have only got to mm pare it with such a work ns Bach’s ‘Matthew Passion’ to see how entirely its point of view differs from that of a work written under the wing of the church. Bach’s ‘Passion* is a church service, ITandelV. ‘ Messiah ’ is a poem. Bach deals with facts, Handel with ideas. Tho aim of tho work is purely artistic It is not a sermon, but a song—a magnificent effort of tho human imagination, exercised upon the greatest of conceivable subjects. Thomas Jenrens, tho compiler of the text, took special pains to steer clear, as far as possible, of a mere statement of Christ’s life, emphasising rather tho ideas that underlie them, and using tho prophetic language of the Old Testament in preference to the narrative of the New. Tliis alone did much towards raising tho work from the earthly region of prose to tho ethereal heights of poetry. Bub tho libretto alone is, of course, nothing but a. string of texts, however skilfully put together. It was Handel’s genius that welded them into a sublime work of art. ‘ Tho Messiah ’ tells tho story of man’s redemption. It is divided into three sections, tho first of which sets forth tho promise of the Redeemer, tho birth of Christ, and His mission of healing and comfort; tho second is devoted to His passion, resurrection, and ascension, tho preaching of tho gospel, the discomfiture of the heathen, and the establishment of the kingdom of f!od upon earth ; tho third part deals with the Christian belief in tho resurrection of tho body, and ends with the triumph of tho redeemed and tho glory of heaven. Tho overture, gloomy and aisstero in tone, presents a picture of the world plunged in sin and despair, before tho promise of a Messiah had kindled the hope of everlasting life. On this scene of doubt and darkness tho voice of the Comforter strikes with magical effect. The change from minor to major at tho opening ox tho accompanied recitative. ‘ Comfort Ye My People,’ is ono of those effects, all the mono thrilling from their very simplicity, of which Handel held tho secret. The following air, ‘ Ev'ry Valley,’ is on a distinctly lower level. Like so many songs of the 18th century composers, it is defaced by tho interminable divisions expressive of joy and gladness. Nor is the chorus ‘And the fllory of tho Lord’ in any sense one of Handel’s greatest achievements. There is a certain~straigh tfonvard vigor about it with which Handel’s music is lardy deficient, but its rhythm sad.lv lacks dignity, and its development is" longwinded. Far more thrilling is tho great scena for tho bass. The opening recitative ‘Thus Saitii the Lord’ is extraordinarily impressive. Tho following air, ‘ But Who May Abide,’ is ono of Handel's most startling and original productions. Tho contract between the terrible desolation of the opening largetto, and the rushing, flickering flames of the refiner’s fire in the succeeding prestissimo is astonishingly fine. This Is one of the passages in the 'Messiah ’ that has gained most by the recent return to Handel’s original accompaniment. Mozart, if tho additions usually attributed to him aro actually his, seems, as in many other instances, to have totally misapprehended Handel’s meaning. His graceful embroideries completely obscure the carefully-designed contrast between guilty man standing defenceless upon the bare earth and the advent of tho terrible Judge in flames and tempest. The recitative, ’Behold a virgin shall conceive,’ short as it is, is one of the most wonderful things in the * Messiah.’ It la full of tender exaltation and sacred awe. The same note of solemnity sounds through the rapture of ' 0 thou that tellesb good tidings to Zion,’ and lifts it above mere jubilation. The baas recitative and air, ‘ For behold darkness ehall cover the earth,’ is extraordinarily impressive, and the unison passages for strings to the accompaniment of ‘The people that walked in darkness’ give a picture of a people jpoping its way through the blackness of night, to which music affords no parallel for force and intensity, ‘ Tho people that walked in darkness* affords a particularly good instance of tho advantage gained by performing ‘The Messiah ’ as Handel wrote it. Mozart’s wind Darts, so beautiful in themselves and #q.

utterly inappropriate to the subject, do not, as Rockstro truly observed, “suggest darkness at ajl, but rather an enchanted atmosphere o£ soft golden light." ‘ For Unto Us a Child is Bora ’ was nob originally written fer ‘ The Messiah,’ but owes its birth to a set of Italian duets, and Handel adapted the music to these words. ‘For Unto Ua’ is the climax of the prophetic section, but it is still prophecy, not fulfilment. Here the trombones are heard for the first time in the skilfully-contrived climax: Wonderful.” "Counsellor.” In the pastoral symphony and the following numbers we come to the most dramatic part of ‘The Messiah.’ The birth of Christ is not described, but wo are taken to the fields where the shepherds abode by night, and wo listen with them to the a’ngclic communication. The lovely pastoral symphony paints the tranquil scene in colors the most delicate and subtle. The entry cf the soprano voice, so long delayed, strikes on the car with a clarion note of exaltation, and through the chain of recitatives that follow the excitement grows with each bar, until the angelic choir burets in with its jubilant cry of “Glory to God.” The glitter and sparkle of this chorus is astonishing. The thrilling notes of the trumpets and the rushing passages for the violins seem to throw open the skies and give wondrous glimpses cl celestial radiance beyond. Mozart’s treatment of this chorus is so incredible as to raise a serious doubt whether the accompaniments traditionally ascribed to him can be possibly by hia hand. He cut out Handel’s trumpet parts and wrote others of his own, leaving the voices in the opening bars supported |Ouly by strings and wood, and reserving the trumpets until the words “and peace on earth,” whereas Handel accompanied this last passage with the beautiful mellow tones of the horns. The close of the chorus, with its exauisite diminuendo, as the angels gradually disappear, is one of those characteristically Haudeliau passages showing his extraordinary command of picturesque effect. The flashing soprano solo ‘Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Sion,’ is a fine example of legitimate coloratura, in which the serene loveliness of the passage “ Ho. shall speak peace ” forms a perfect contrast. In the succeeding air, ‘He Shall Feed His Flock,’ Christ’s earthly mission of comfort and consolation is painted in music whoso infinite tenderness expresses, as only the greatest of all musicians could express it, the wonderful secret of Christianity. The Good Shepherd gathering tho lambs with His arms and carrying them in His bosom. Tho first part is brought to a close with the chorus ‘His Yoke is Easy,’ another adaptation from the Italian duets. Tho second part of ‘ The Messiah ’ brings us to the passion of Christ. The solemn opening chorus, •Behold, tiro Lamb of God,’ breathing the tragedy of infinite loneliness in its austere beauty, leads into the famous ‘Ho was Despised,’ in which the note of utter desolation is still further emphasised. ‘All We Like Sheep’ is a picture painted in Handel’s broadest manner. The sheep wandering without a shepherd seem to have tho whole world for their pasture, and the tremendous coda, in which the. promise of atonement is thundered forth, seems to be written upon tho skies for ail the nations to read. Wo now exchange tho general for the particular and tho libretto, leaving the purely epical treatment of the atonement, leads us, as it were, to the foot of the Cross. Yet hero tho physical side of Christ’s passion is left out of sight. It is tho contrast with His mental agony and the scoffs of the crowd of unbelievers that forms the subject ot the picture (‘Thy Rebuke Hath Broken His Heart’). Similarly, tho actual facts ot the Resurrection 'and Ascension are barely hinted at tho triumph of the Saviour over death and the grave and Uis ascent to Heaven amidst throngs of chorusing angels being siicrr-rested rathor than described in. the air'“ But Thou Didst Xot Leave Hie Soul in Hell,’ and the accompanying chorus •Lift Up Your Hoads.’ . We now come to tho evangelisation ot the world by the Apostles and turn- follower. The opening number of this section,’ ‘The Lord Gave tho Word. Great was the Company of the Treachers, followed bv the air ‘How Beautiful arc the T^t’—one of the most beautilul anu simple numbers in the oratono. ‘TTieir Sound is Gone Out Into All Lands, the long, sweeping phrases that paint tic tliaht of “good tidings” over land and sea. have a soaring ficcdom of utteranre that gives a character to llie choius distineb from anything else in ‘ Ihe a • But now comes a picture ot the um wrath of the heathen who flout its message, in the turbulent energy- nt the bass air ‘ Whv do the nations so tnnously rage together?’ Bub the divine vengeance follows closely. The impotent strivings of pagan insolence are crushed in the splendidly vigorous ‘Thou shall break them in pieces; and the whole earth joins m a paean of triumph over the final victory of Christianity in tho world-famous Hall--IU S; ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus is essentially fit the earth earthy. Its place in ino Messiah’ shows that it is a human song of rejoicing. “The kingdom ot this world,” it cries, “is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. _Vie> must wait until the close of the oratono to hear tho anthem of those which have come out of great tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood Ot tho L Tho third part of tho oratorio deals ■vvitfe the resurrection of tho body and tno rife of the world to come. -\ f tor the multitudinous thunders of tno Halleiuiah’ Chorus a marvellous effect ot contrust is gained by the austere simplicity of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth, in which tho chaste purity of tho soprano voice, supported by a studiously unadorned accompaniment, suggests a cry ot faith and hope rising from a _ world ot donbt and darkness. Tho ntv is one ot Handel’s profoundcst _ inspirations, but those who only know it when choked oy additional accompaniments can never have grasped its true meaning. In the chain of brief choruses that follows, fimeo by men came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead,’ Handel contrasts tho old and now dispensations with startling force, borrowing harmonics and cadences from tho music of old time to emphasise tho archaic dogmas ot tho Law and leaving the unaccompanied voices ot tho chorus to tell of the old Adam_ and his death, while the sudden blaze_oi the orchestra illuminates the new Christ and His resurrection. But before the promised life is won the mysteries of death and judgment must be faced, and the trumpet call of doom sounds in the stately recitative and air ‘ Behold I tell you a mystery’ and ‘The trumpet shall sound.’ The laib note of triumphant faith sounds in the rarely-heard air ‘lf God _bo with us.’ and in the final chorus ‘ H orthy i.-> the Lamb’ the Christian is at last in the presence of his Maker. The ‘ Hallelujah Chorus is an earthlv song of praise, in which the thousand throats of humanity unite to hymn tho triumph of their Lord, but in ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ we hear the voices of the redeemed. In ‘The Messiah’ Handel gives us an all-embracing sympathy for everv manifestation of human energy that lifts the work far above sects and dogmas, and makes it tho common property of all mankind.

The first performance of this great work was given in Dublin on April 12, 1742, and realised £4OO. ‘The whole of this amount was handed over by Handel to charity. ‘ Faulkner’s Journal ’of April 13 has the following ;—“ It is but justice to Mr Handel that the world should know he generously gave tho money arising from this grant! performance to bo equally shared by the Society for Believing Prisoners, the Charitable Infirmary, aim Mercers’ Hospital.” Tho Dunedin Choral Society (reorganised) arc giving their first perlormanca of this glorious wortt on tho 15th inst., and will try and reneat history by raising a similar amount, which will he divided between the Red Cross fund, the Belgian relief fund, and the local distress fund. The admission of 2» and Is, if the Garrison Hall be crowded, will bring in only £IBO, but to augment this fund there will be a souvenir programme of the performance, which will bo sold at Is, and will contain a complete history of the work and many items of interest to all musicians. Other means will also be need to make the sum worthy of the objects ia view.

Surely i£ a patriotic concert or the (‘ale of flowora will bring in large minis, this great oratorio, which appeals to all manhind, will open tho hearts of tho-m who wish for “Peace on earth ami good-will towards men.”

Mr Sidney Wolf is the conductor. lie has given his time freely to the rehearsals bv tiio singers. 110 has al&e devoted special attention to the work of the orchestra, so as to have Handel's ayuupaniments right, including the original trumpet parts. Tho leader of the orchestra of 50 is Mr J. Wallace. The chorus number 120. They are picked voices. The soloists are. Miss Mary Mitchell, Mrs Harold Browning (her first appearance). Mr Ernest Brake, and Mr Harold Browning.

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Permanent link to this item

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Bibliographic details

'THE MESSIAH', Evening Star, Issue 15668, 5 December 1914

Word Count
2,988

'THE MESSIAH' Evening Star, Issue 15668, 5 December 1914

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