George Frideric Handel
Utrecht Te Deum, Alcina, Messiah, and Solomon
Born: 23 February 1685, in Halle (Saxony)
Died: 14 April 1759, in London
Handel was not born George Frideric Handel, but rather Georg Friederich Händel. With the umlaut over the “a,” his last name is pronounced “Hendel,” and it is sometimes spelled this way in English documents. But Handel obviously realized that life would be easier without an umlaut (at least while living in London, which he did for most of his life), and he anglicized the rest of his name as well, becoming a good English “George.”
In contrast to Bach, who came from a musical family of many generations, Handel came from an unpromising environment. His barber/surgeon father wanted him to be a lawyer and supposedly forbad him the use of musical instruments. Handel accordingly sneaked off to the attic to practice the clavichord anyway (an extremely soft instrument); somehow the local duke heard the nine-year-old Handel play the organ and convinced his father to support a musical education. Handel then studied organ, harpsichord, and composition with local organist Friedrich Zachow. The death of Handel’s father shortly before his twelfth birthday meant that Handel, like Bach, lost a parent at an early age (though both of Bach’s parents had died by the time he was ten). Some research suggests that the death of a parent at an early age is a powerful stimulant towards success—a kind of silver lining for a terrible loss.
By 1702 Handel was organist at the local Calvinist church and was briefly enrolled at the University of Halle. He may have visited Berlin the same year and tasted opera for the first time. And as Halle was not exactly an artistic center, then or now (though still worth a visit for the Handel House and Museum), in 1703 he left home for the big city—Hamburg.
Hamburg was an important opera center in Germany, and the only one not connected with a court. The main opera composer in Hamburg was Reinhard Keiser, who had a significant influence on Handel. Also in Hamburg and soon Handel’s friend was Johann Mattheson, a singer and composer best known today for his theoretical writings. In Hamburg Handel played second violin in the opera orchestra, and later harpsichord; more importantly, he wrote his first two operas: Almira (a success) and Nero (not very successful, and now lost). He was all of 19 years old.
By late 1706 Handel had moved on to Italy, where he remained until early 1710, with stays in Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. Here he composed more operas (and probably returned briefly to Hamburg to direct some of them); two Italian oratorios; many, many cantatas (attractive works that are only now receiving attention; most are secular chamber works for one or two voices); and three substantial settings of Vespers psalms: Dixit dominus (the best known), Laudate pueri, and Nisi dominus. In Italy Handel met his famous contemporaries Arcangelo Corelli and Domenico Scarlatti, supposedly competing with the latter on harpsichord (inconclusive outcome) and organ (Handel won). He may also have met Alessandro Scarlatti.
Handel started a new job in June 1710: Kapellmeister for the Elector of Hanover. The position came with some freedom to travel, and almost immediately Handel was off for a visit to Dusseldorf followed by a trip to London that fall. The latter visit was to produce his opera Rinaldo to a city that was fast becoming enamored of Italian opera. The work was a success, and Handel did not go back to Hanover until the following summer.
Having tasted life in one of the greatest cities of the world, Handel planned to return, and studied English to this end. By late 1712 he asked for, and received, a second leave of absence for a London visit, with the stipulation that he return to Hanover after a reasonable time. So Handel left again, but this time for good. London was to be his home for the remainder of his life.
The first years in London saw the composition of several operas, the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, his Brockes Passion setting, and his Eternal Source of Light Divine (a birthday ode for Queen Anne). In June 1713 Handel was fired from his position in Hanover (but probably not because he overstayed his leave; more on that below). In December, however, he was granted a nice annual pension from the Queen.
On 1 August 1714 Queen Anne died. Hers is one of the sadder stories in the British monarchy. Pregnant 17 times (17!), she was plagued by miscarriages and stillbirths. Of her five live births, only a single child lived past the age of two, and that son (William) died at the age of 11. (For an interesting take on Anne, see the film The Favourite, for which Olivia Colman, as Anne, won the Oscar for best actress. You will never look at bunnies the same way again).
That Anne had been Queen at all was owing to various complicated seventeenth-century monarchical maneuvers to Keep England Protestant. When she died without an heir, the next in line to the throne (or next Protestant) was....Handel’s previous employer, George, Elector of Hanover!
The excellent story is that George (now King George I) came to England still angry at Handel, and that Handel, to get back in George’s good graces, hired a barge, filled it with musicians playing his wonderful Water Music, and positioned it near the Royal Barge on the Thames. George, overcome by the gorgeousness of the music, asked who the composer was, etc. etc.
Alas, as with so many great tales, this one is untrue. Water Music postdates George’s arrival in England by several years (it’s from 1717, to be exact), George likely fired Handel because of his role in the Utrecht celebrations (really, we will get to that soon!), once in London George gave Handel his back pay from Hanover and increased his pension, and so on. But it is nonetheless a nice story.
Beginning in 1717 Handel enjoyed a brief but productive professional relationship with James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and then Duke of Chandos. Brydges employed a good number of musicians, and for them Handel wrote a series of important works: the eleven “Chandos” anthems, a Te Deum, the masque Acis and Galatea (not related to his earlier cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo), and the initial version of his first English oratorio, Esther.
In 1719 Handel was one of the organizers of the Royal Academy of Music, a business venture supported by the wealthy and dedicated to the production of Italian opera. This was the main focus of Handel’s activity for the next decade and beyond. He wrote more than a dozen operas for the Academy; composers Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti were also involved formally with the RAM. As one might perhaps expect from a theatrical venture, the RAM had its ups and downs, rivalries (including an on-stage fight between two leading ladies), and plenty of internal drama. External factors creating problems included negative criticism from two important English writers, Addison and Steele, and (perhaps more significantly) the success of John Gay’s English-language Beggar’s Opera in 1728, which satirized both Italian opera in general and the RAM in particular. If you know Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, you know (more or less) the Beggar’s Opera, with its emphasis on low-life characters rather than the gods, goddesses, and mythological heroes favored in opera librettos. All of these problems meant that the Royal Academy wound up its business in early 1729, though Handel was given permission to continue putting on operas in their venue for the next five years.
Meanwhile England had another change of monarch. George II ascended the throne in June 1727. Prior to this, in February 1723, Handel was made “Composer of Music for His Majesty’s Chapel Royal,” and four years later became a British citizen. Thus, for George’s coronation in October 1727 Handel was the one to provide the music. The result was the set of his four famous “Coronation Anthems,” of which the excellent Zadok the Priest has been sung at every coronation ever since. Handel also became music master to George’s daughters at this time. And in 1733 he turned down an honorary doctorate from Oxford.
Handel continued to produce operas, but now, in addition to fading English interest in Italian-language productions, he had to contend with a rival opera company, the Opera of the Nobility, because doesn’t it make good economic sense to begin a new venture just as the market is disappearing? As an added insult, when Handel’s five-year Royal Academy agreement ended in 1734, the Opera of the Nobility took over the King’s Theatre that the Academy and Handel had used for their productions. Fortunately Handel was able to use the new theater at Covent Garden. All of this stress took its toll, and even though the Opera of the Nobility folded, removing one problem, Handel fell ill in the spring of 1737 and went to the continent to recover.
Shortly after Handel’s return to London, Queen Caroline died; Handel honored her passing with the funeral anthem The Ways of Zion Do Mourn. He then returned to composing operas, with his last one appearing in 1741. But the long decline in the fortunes of Italian opera in London had been accompanied by Handel’s increasing attention to the English oratorio, a genre that he essentially created, and that remained his primary focus for the remainder of his creative life after he ceased his opera composition. Handel’s operas and oratorios, in fact, had much in common stylistically with their mutual use of recitatives and arias, the latter normally in da capo form. But the two genres differed as well, and not just in their choice of language. Although an oratorio (usually) told a story, just as opera did, the subjects were typically sacred and drawn from the Old Testament, in contrast to opera’s preference for secular historical or mythological subjects. Oratorios were not usually staged (though exceptions occurred). And a huge difference was the use of chorus. In Handel’s operas, the “coro” is normally just all the soloists singing together, typically only at the very end. By contrast, in oratorio the chorus is the star, especially when it represented the Israelites. Their choruses, as Chester Alwes has observed, were typically more elaborate and with richer orchestration than those of their enemies, which makes sense given that the English public likely identified with the Israelites as a “chosen people.”
In 1751 Handel lost the sight in one eye, and by 1753 he was blind in the other eye as well. His final years were thus marked by curtailed activity, although he was able to continue organizing performances of his oratorios as well as playing his own organ concertos as entr’actes during oratorio concerts. He died eight days after one final Messiah performance, and received the honor of burial in Westminster Abbey; supposedly 3000 mourners flocked to the funeral. Three years later a statue of him was erected in the Abbey, twenty-four years after an earlier one was placed in the Vauxhall Gardens—an astonishing tribute to a living composer.
A biography of Handel (by Mainwaring) appeared just a year after his death; it was the first stand-alone biography of a musician. Not long afterwards a “collected works” edition was begun; though incomplete, it was likewise the first time such a thing had been attempted for a composer. A second collected edition was started by the English Handel Society in 1843, but it too was left incomplete. An edition complete except for a single volume was issued between 1858 and 1902 (largely the work of Chrysander), and yet one more edition (this time a very scholarly critical edition, based in Halle) is underway.
Thanks to Messiah, Handel’s music has never stopped being performed, something we can say about few other composers. His music was highlighted in a series of commemorative celebrations beginning in 1784 (the 25th anniversary of his death, and erroneously believed to be the centennial of his birth), with the oratorios more than anything else keeping Handel in front of the public. In addition to the ode Alexander’s Feast, oratorios Messiah, Judas Maccabaeus, Samson, and Israel in Egypt were the stalwarts in performance for many decades; they inspired Haydn and Mendelssohn to write oratorios of their own, and they were mainstays of the English choral festivals that date back to the 18th century. They played a major role in Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society as well. The works rapidly ballooned in terms of performing forces, though, moving from the chamber orchestras and choirs that performed them during Handel’s lifetime to 250 singers for the 1784 commemoration to 4000 at a Crystal Palace performance in 1906.
Utrecht Te Deum
Handel’s Te Deum is in English, but the original Latin text dates back to the very early Middle Ages. The story behind it connects it to St. Augustine. For those of you not familiar with the saint, he was from Numidia (now Algeria) and led the fourth-century equivalent of a life of sex, drugs, and rock & roll until he moved to Milan, realized the error of his ways, and was baptized. He went on to write two famous works, The City of God and The Confessions. Each year I have my students read a famous passage from the latter where he states frankly that sometimes he is so beguiled by the music of a sacred work that it assumes more importance than the words, and he is bothered by that. That summarizes in a nutshell the issue that has concerned many religions for many centuries: does music (art) distract from worship or enhance it? While I’m quite certain it’s the latter, that view is not universally shared.
Augustine was baptized on 24 April 387 by the Bishop of Milan, who happened to be St. Ambrose. The story (widespread in the Middle Ages) is that during the baptism, Augustine and Ambrose improvised the Te Deum (a prayer “to God” praising him and all his glory) on the spot. Nice story, probably not true.
The Te Deum went on to assume a position in the Divine Office, an important component of medieval religious life. Many men and women in the Middle Ages (and at other times as well) lived in monastic seclusion, where they participated in two kinds of work during the day: the Opus Mundi (work of the world), which included all the tasks we need for living, such as cooking, cleaning, growing crops, sewing, making candles, and so on, and the more important work, the Opus Dei (work of God). In fact, the Opus Dei was so important for some communities that the actual dirty work (Opus Mundi) was done by lay brothers and sisters, those who lived in the community but had not taken the monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Just so you know, the Divine Office was also sometimes observed in the world outside the monastery.
The Opus Dei, also known as the Divine Office, or the Offices, or the Office Hours, consisted of eight services spread across the day where the brothers or sisters would come together for prayer. The “Little Hours” took place during daylight hours and lasted about 15 or 20 minutes; these four offices were Prime, Terce, Sext, and None, and took place (roughly) at 6:00 a.m., 9:00, noon, and 3:00. They were short because, supposedly, people had to get back to work.
The other four hours took longer, since the focus could be on the service. Matins began around 2 or 3 in the morning and could last for two or three hours; it was followed by Lauds (about 45 minutes) around daybreak. Vespers also took around 45 minutes, as evening fell, and was followed immediately by the last office of the day, Compline, which lasted about half an hour.
“2:00 in the morning? and lasting for three hours?” you are screaming silently to yourself. Yes, but remember that this is a world “lit only by fire,” and that (unless you wanted to make more candles), one would go to bed when the sun set. Obviously the time of sunset varies, but if it were, say, 7:00 p.m., by 2:00 a.m. you would have had seven hours of sleep—quite possibly more than you are getting now. In other words, midnight really used to mean “the middle of the night,” not the time at which (as I joke to my students) undergraduates are thinking “maybe I should get started on that paper due tomorrow” and “shall we order a pizza?” (at least, I hope I’m joking).
What most people don’t know, however (unless you were a music major), is that the offices were sung throughout. That’s right, no spoken text. Nonstop singing, adding up to about five or six hours per day (actually more, since they would also sing mass every day), which is why plainchant (everything was plainchant) is pretty easy on the voice: most of it falls in the range of an octave or so, and stepwise motion predominates.
The offices contained many different sorts of pieces: psalms (all 150 were chanted over the course of a week), antiphons, hymns, responsories, canticles (the Vespers canticle is the Magnificat), and so on. On Sundays and feast days the Te Deum assumed an honored position at the conclusion of Matins, musically the most important of the offices. It also showed up in other places as well, being used in processions, at bishops’ consecrations, to celebrate victories on the battlefield, and so on.
As the centuries rolled by, composers created polyphonic settings of the text, including famous ones by Berlioz, Verdi, Bruckner, Dvorák, and Kodaly. The text, in translation, became part of some Protestant traditions as well, and it is included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Purcell has a notable setting, and it is to Purcell that Handel looked when he began creating his own renditions.
Handel set the Te Deum text five times: the Utrecht Te Deum of l713 (paired with a Jubilate); the “Caroline” Te Deum of 1714, probably performed for the recently-arrived George I and Queen Caroline; the “Chandos” Te Deum of ca. 1718, for James Brydges, future Duke of Chandos; another Te Deum of a few years later, based on the previous one, and probably performed in the Chapel Royal; and the Dettingham Te Deum of 1743 celebrating the British victory at Dettingham; this last one was the one that was performed most widely in the nineteenth century.
The Utrecht Te Deum was thus the first time Handel set the Te Deum text; he was invited to do so for a thanksgiving service to mark the Peace of Utrecht, a treaty that helped conclude the War of the Spanish Succession (briefly, the King of Spain had died in 1700 without an heir, and France and Austria, each supported by various European powers, squabbled over who should ascend the Spanish throne). Not everyone in England was happy with the treaty, nor was the Elector of Hanover. Handel’s preparation to participate in celebrating the treaty was, more than his absence from Hanover, probably the reason that his Hanover appointment was terminated (at least according to the New Grove Handel article). The termination was troubling to some Hanoverians, though, for Handel, through his friendship with Queen Anne’s physician, had evidently been passing what should have been private information about the state of her health back to the court in Hanover.
Handel completed the work on 14 January 1713 (borrowing some of his own music from his earlier Dixit Dominus psalm setting); a public rehearsal took place in March; and the actual celebration itself was on 7 July 1713 at St. Paul’s cathedral, with an ensemble of about 20 singers—very likely all male—and 30 instrumentalists. It was very well received and was performed regularly on ceremonial occasions until the Dettingham Te Deum replaced it.
The Utrecht Te Deum was one of the very first pieces Handel set to English words, but you would not guess this by listening to it or performing it. And musically it foreshadows many future choral works, including Messiah. It is a terrific work, a joy to sing, and a very impressive accomplishment for someone who wrote it when he was just 27 years old.
Handel is one of the major opera composers of the eighteenth century, and opera was arguably the primary focus of his compositional efforts for more than three decades, until the market for Italian opera in London disappeared and he turned his attention to oratorios. Of Handel’s 42 operas from 1705 to 1741, Alcina was No. 34 (according to The New Grove), premiering at Covent Garden on 16 April 1735. Handel had completed the score a mere eight days before; yes, things worked differently then. The initial run of 18 performances was followed by London revivals the following year and the year after. Alcina was thus one of Handel’s most popular operas during his lifetime, and none of the operas he wrote in the next six years equaled its success. Alcina was presented in Germany in 1738 and then disappeared for the next 190 years until a Leipzig production in 1928.
The opera takes as its plot a section from an early sixteenth-century epic poem written by Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), Orlando furioso. Most of us think of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid when we think of epic poetry, but the tradition was strong throughout the Middle Ages, when one of the favorite subjects for epic poems was the story of Charlemagne’s knight Roland (Orlando). Ariosto’s massive work, which began as a continuation of Orlando innamorato by Matteo Maria Boiardo (published 1483), is part of that tradition, although his poem can also be read as a commentary on contemporary politics (e.g., parallels between Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Charlemagne—the original Holy Roman Emperor—each of whom ruled more territory than any other rulers since the days of the original Roman Empire).
Way back in 1983 I girded my loins (figuratively, of course) and picked up the first volume of Barbara Reynolds’s excellent English translation of Orlando furioso (Ariosto wrote in Italian) in the deliciously flexible Penguin edition (I hate stiff bindings). Volume 1 ($9.95 in 1983) clocks in at 827 pages; Volume 2 ($14.95) is 792 pages; presumably the publishers thought fewer people would make it to the second volume and priced accordingly. I began the work from a sense of obligation; I was writing a dissertation on Renaissance music and I thought I should be familiar with the major literary works of the Renaissance. But I finished it because I really liked it (the one comment I wrote in the back of the first volume was “superb!”). The story is massive and sprawling, with dozens of characters (both “real” and magical/supernatural) and multiple plots and sub-plots, telling of love, war, rivalry, treachery, enchantment, heroism, jealousy, madness, etc. etc. The list of “Characters and Devices” for Book I takes up eleven pages and includes sections for Horses, Chief Weapons and Items of Armor, and Magic Devices.
I’m not the only one who liked it; it’s been popular since it first appeared in 1516 and English translations (of portions, not the whole) were already appearing in the late 16th century. It’s inspired other creations as well; David Lodge’s amusing academic novel Small World is based on one of the main plots of Orlando furioso. But the poem has had the biggest influence in music, in fact, with numerous madrigal settings based on its texts. More significantly, it has been an extremely rich source of opera plots, especially during the Baroque. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera provides an incomplete list of operas based on plots from the epic; the list numbers more than 100. Handel himself wrote three Orlando furioso-based operas: Orlando, Ariodante, and Alcina.
Alcina qualifies as a type of opera known as opera seria, “serious opera.” Opera seria arose in the early eighteenth century as a reaction against the mixture of comic and serious in earlier Italian opera. This new kind of opera was organized according to a set of “rules” by which librettists (the most famous of which were Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio) structured their plots. The stories were often drawn from history; love stories were often complicated by “love vs. duty” dilemmas. After an overture, three acts consisted almost entirely of recitatives followed by arias, with a brief chorus (performed by the soloists, not a real chorus) concluding everything. Ensembles were rare, and chorus and dance were usually nonexistent. The action and plot were conveyed via recitative, while the arias expressed a singer’s emotions and reaction to the events of the story. In recitative, singers performed largely syllabic text in a rhythmically free manner approximating speech; it could be either secco (dry), where the accompaniment was simple chordal realization by the harpsichord, or accompagnato (accompanied), with strings in addition to harpsichord, now playing more precisely notated music. Accompagnato recitative was limited to the scenes of greatest emotional depth.
Arias were usually in da capo form, with a short text divided into an A section and a B section. The two sections typically contrasted in various ways, e.g. harmony, rhythm, meter, emotional focus, and so on. After the B section, the A section was repeated (da capo means “from the head”), this time with the singer adding unwritten vocal embellishments. Normally the singer would then exit once the aria was finished (thus, “exit arias” characterize opera seria).
The number of characters was quite small—five or six—and they existed in a rigid hierarchy, with the two most important being the prima donna (first lady) and primo uomo (first man). These two got the most arias, each of which was supposed to contrast with the others they sang (e.g. rage aria). The other characters received fewer arias, the number diminishing with the importance (or lack thereof) of the character.
A brief Italian lesson for behavior at the opera: if the (male) singer does a spectacular job, you may wish to shout “bravo” (masculine singular) while you are madly applauding. If the singer is female, however, you will modify your acclaim to “brava” (feminine singular). If two women sing a gorgeous duet (such as the Lakmé/Mallika duet “Dôme épais” in Lakmé by Délibes), you will cry “brave” (feminine plural, pronounced as two syllables), while a stunning male/male duet (such as “Au fond du temple saint” by Zurga and Nadir in Bizet’s Pearl Fishers—Les Pêcheurs de perles) will generate “bravi” (masculine plural). I am sorry to say that in any mixed gender interaction, the male plural “bravi” trumps everything else.
Back to opera seria. All of these works have what is known as a “lieto fine,” a happy ending, with the concluding chorus sung not by a real chorus (since they don’t normally play a role in opera seria) but rather by all of the soloists singing together, as noted above. So, not much of a chorus.
You will probably not be surprised to hear that Handel tended not to follow generic expectations too strictly when he was writing opera, so even though Alcina consists mostly of solo recitatives followed by exit arias, it has much greater variety than most opera seria in that it includes a real chorus as well as dance. This is because Handel had both of these resources available through Covent Garden, which was still rather new and up-to-date when Alcina was performed there. Both chorus and dance reflect modern influence from France. Handel also wrote for seven characters—again, a departure from expectations.
Alcina sets an anonymous libretto that was adapted from the libretto for Riccardo Broschi’s opera L’isola di Alcina (1728; Broschi, incidentally, was the brother of the famous castrato Farinelli). The plot of Alcina is the sort of nicely complicated farrago of tangled romantic relationships and disguises beloved of Baroque opera composers. Here are the bare bones. The opera takes place on a magic island ruled by the sorceress Alcina. Men lured to the island are transformed into beasts, rocks, streams, and so on. Alcina is currently in love with Ruggiero, a pagan African prince (originally sung by an alto castrato), who is engaged to Bradamante, a Christian warrior. Alcina has enchanted Ruggiero, who has forgotten the existence of Bradamante. Along with her tutor, Melisso, Bradamante (disguised as her brother Ricciardo) travels to the island to try to rescue Ruggiero. (In the original poem, “Melisso” is instead the good sorceress Melissa. But Handel needed a bass).
Alcina’s attendant Morgana falls in love with Bradamante/Ricciardo. Alcina’s servant Oronte is in love with Morgana. Jealous of Bradamante/Ricciardo, Oronte tells Ruggiero that Alcina loves B/R. To show that Oronte is wrong, Alcina decides to transform Bradamante/Ricciardo, but Morgana warns B/R of the plot.
In Act II, Melisso frees Ruggiero from his enchantment, but Ruggiero pretends to love Alcina still. Morgana protects B/R from Alcina. Alcina then learns that Ruggiero will leave the island and is heartbroken.
Act III shows Morgana trying to win back Oronte now that she has learned who “Ricciardo” really is; Oronte plays hard to get. Alcina begs Ruggiero to stay but he refuses. The power of Alcina’s magic is broken and the enchanted heroes turn back into their former selves.
The chorus shows up towards the beginning and then has three choruses again towards the end. By the standards of, say, an opera such as Boris Godunov this is a minuscule role, but for opera seria this is huge. The final chorus is the standard rejoicing at the happy ending (but now sung by a real chorus, not just the assembled soloists); shortly before that there’s a chorus of the men who have been released from their enchantment, plus there’s a brief chorus sung before the menagerie whose beasts will be turned back into men.
For our concert we are singing two versions of the initial chorus; we singers represent the women and men who form the entourage of Alcina, and we are basically saying what a swell place this is! (obviously we’ve all been duped ourselves). Handel’s first version was a snappy number in F major, cut time, with an extended orchestral introduction that includes parts for two horns. Before the premiere, however, he decided the presto tempo and lively melodic writing did not really convey the mood he wanted, so he replaced it with a very different setting of the text, now in G major, 3/4 time, larghetto tempo, languorous lilting melodies, and a much reduced orchestral part, minus the horns. Given that we’re all sort of drugged on Alcina’s magic, this version probably makes more dramatic sense. The brisker version did not go to waste, however. Handel rewrote it as the first movement of his organ concerto Op. 4 #4.
“Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him...I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”
Thus wrote librettist Charles Jennens in a letter to a friend. Messiah (not “The Messiah,” as the work is sometimes called) was the idea of Jennens, not Handel, and the complete libretto was created by the end of 1739 without any input (or even knowledge of what Jennens was doing) from Handel. Jennens had provided material for Handel before; he wrote the librettos for Saul,; L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato; and probably Israel in Egypt. But he learned that Handel had decided to set the text only after the music was finished.
Handel whipped through the score, creating and orchestrating the entire work between 22 August and 14 September 1741. It is tempting to view the rapidity with which this divine work was created as being guided by correspondingly divine hand, but in fact Handel wrote all of his music quickly, and it was completely normal for him to toss off an entire oratorio in a month or less.
Jennens had hoped that the work would first be performed in London during Passion Week, when all the theaters were closed. Although the term “Passion Week” is often used for Holy Week (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter), more properly it is one week earlier, between Passion Sunday (two Sundays before Easter) and Palm Sunday. Handel had other ideas about the premiere, however, and the work was first heard in public in Dublin in April 1742. By that time Handel had been in Dublin since November, and he was to remain there into June, enjoying a successful series of subscription concerts. Messiah was heard three times in Dublin, on April 9 in public rehearsal, on April 13 (the premiere) and again on June 3. The concerts, which were for charity, took place in the New Music Hall (also referred to in the literature as Neale’s Music Hall), with a small orchestra, a group of soloists, and the combined choirs (men and boys) of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral. Because a large crowd was expected for the premiere, women were specifically requested not to wear hoop skirts, or men to wear their swords, in order that more people could fit into the venue. The performance was a huge success, and Susanna Cibber, who was divorced and thus under a cloud, supposedly sang “He was despised” so beautifully that the rector of St. Anthony exclaimed, “Woman, for this, all thy sins be forgiven thee!” (this story may be apocryphal).
Messiah appeared thereafter in London, but at first it did not enjoy the same success, possibly because music on a sacred topic was being performed in theatrical surroundings. The first round of London performances were as follows:
- 1743, Covent Garden, three performances beginning March 23
- 1745, Haymarket Theater, two performances beginning April 9
- 1749, Covent Garden, March 23
Finally, in 1750 the work was sung at both Covent Garden and in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital. The two benefit performances in the latter venue were what finally spurred London’s embrace of the work; they started an annual series in the same place for the remainder of Handel’s lifetime and beyond. Handel’s appearance at the performance of 3 April 1759 was, in fact, the last time he was seen in public. He took to his bed thereafter and died eight days later.
Messiah is an atypical oratorio in many respects. Although the subject matter is sacred (which is normal for an oratorio), it lacks a plot per se as well as named characters. Rather than telling a story, with the conflict a normal drama requires, it is “contemplative and abstract,” as one writer describes it. Jennens selected and arranged the texts, all biblical, with minor changes to the wording. The work is divided into three parts (not acts) that are unnamed but deal respectively with Christmas, Easter, and Resurrection/Redemption. Prophetic texts and allusions to Christ’s life abound.
The work is set for SATB soloists, SATB chorus (except for “Lift up ye heads,” which is SSATB), and orchestra. Handel made revisions to the work up to 1754 (by which point his blindness put an end to further changes), but for practical rather than artistic reasons, e.g. transposing a work for a different singer. The changes were sometimes dramatic—for example, the chorus “Their sound is gone out” was originally a tenor aria. All of this essentially means that there is no definitive version, since Handel kept changing it (this was normal operatic practice as well). The remarks belong are based on the Novello vocal score, prepared by Watkins Shaw, which is very widely used by choruses today. This edition provides the alternative versions that were either clearly, or at least possibly, connected to Handel. Shaw based his edition on Handel’s autograph score, which is now in the British Library but was formerly owned by the Queen, who gave Shaw permission to consult it. It is delicious to think of the Queen curling up in front of the fire to listen to a broadcast of Messiah, Handel’s manuscript in front of her and hot chocolate (or a cup of wassail, or a rum toddy, or whatever) beside her, but that scenario is unlikely. The manuscript was simply part of the Royal Music Library, whose entire collection she gave to the British Library in 1958 so that scholars could have ready access to it. Long live the Queen!
The parts of the work are not evenly balanced; in Shaw’s numbering (different editors number the pieces differently) the division is 21, 23, and 9 numbers respectively in the three parts (with the choral distribution also unbalanced: 6, 11, and 3 per part). The first two sections are about an hour each, with the third lasting thirty to forty minutes. This makes for a long evening, and a great many performances drop one or more pieces to keep things moving along.
The work consists of recitatives and arias for the soloists, choruses, and orchestral pieces. The recitatives are both “secco” and “accompagnato,” Italian terms for “dry” and “accompanied.” In secco recitative, the soloist is supported by the continuo player(s) only; in accompanied recitative, the orchestra plays along. Think of the difference between “Comfort ye” (accompanied) and “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” (secco)—very different in character! But the point of any recitative is to get the text across clearly, which means that the text-setting is normally syllabic, and sometimes with a fair amount of repeated notes (which again makes things easy to understand).
Handel called the arias “airs,” and in contrast to his operas, they are not normally in da capo form. A da capo aria consists of two musical sections, an A section and a B section, which typically contrast strongly in character. For instance, a lyrical, slow-moving A section in major might be followed by a rapid, stormy B section in minor. At the conclusion of the B section, the singer would go back to the beginning of the A section (da capo means “from the head,”) and repeat it, but this time adding improvised ornamentation to the melodic line. In Messiah, only two of the arias are strict da capos: “He was despised,” and “The trumpet shall sound.” In addition, “Rejoice greatly” is essentially a written out da capo, with an A, a B, and an A’ section.
Here, and in the choruses, Handel frequently paints the text musically. Just think of “Ev’ry valley”: the rising motion for “exalted,” the disjunct line for “crooked,” the repeated pitch for “the rough places plain.” “The trumpet shall sound” arpeggiates the melodic line in a trumpet call, and “Why do the nations rage” is a classic operatic “rage” aria.
The instrumental numbers are just two, but they are both wonderful. The opening Sinfonia (the overture) follows the formal structure of a French overture, so-called because French operas from Lully onwards used this layout. A slow homorhythmic section with dotted rhythms (usually double-dotted) is followed by a contrasting section that is fast and imitative. The second section typically ends with a return to the material or character of the first section. In Messiah this happens in m. 95, where, after the general pause, the tempo would return to the opening Grave, even though it is not indicated in the score (there would be no need for that, because Handel was the one in charge of the performances; plus everyone knew that you’d slow down at that point anyway). The relatively somber key of E minor may surprise some listeners, but (although you would never know it from 21st-century America), the Advent season—the time leading up to Christmas—is (liturgically at least) a time of penitence and reflection. It’s the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 through January 5) that are supposed to be party time.
The other instrumental section is the short Pifa. More usually called a pastoral, this is a kind of instrumental or vocal piece played on Christmas Eve in Italian churches. It represents the shepherds watching their flocks; “pifa” refers to shepherd’s pipes (panpipes). Handel spent four Christmases in Italy and would have known the genre well. His piece is a classic example. For strings only, and in a strict ABA form, it is in a lilting 12/8 meter, soft and slow with much stepwise motion in parallel thirds for the symmetrical phrasing. Peaceful and beautiful.
And how about the glorious choruses! Twenty of these, less than half of Messiah in terms of sheer number, but wonderfully expressive throughout, rich in imitation (the exception being the homorhythmic “Since by man came death”). Given that the music of the choruses seems perfectly wedded to their texts, it’s astonishing to learn that four of them were taken over from two secular Italian duets that Handel had recently written (when the composer self-borrowed, it was typically from a recently composed piece). “For unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep” come from No, di voi non vo’ fidarmi, while “His yoke is easy” and “And he shall purify” originated in Quel fior che all’ alba ride.
And then there’s the Hallelujah Chorus, which is easily the most famous choral work in the entire world, and, in fact, one of the most famous pieces of all classical music. The tradition of having the audience stand when it is performed supposedly dates back to King George II, who was so moved by the music (the stunning conclusion to Part II) that he stood. Since no one can remain seated when the sovereign is standing, the rest of the audience stood as well. It’s tempting to dismiss this story, since it was first reported a full 37 years after it purportedly took place, but on the other hand—if it isn’t true, why are we standing at all? Anyway, I love the communal practice, and the fact that it continues to be handed down from experienced audience member to first-time attendee.
Here’s another bit of useless information connected to the monarchy. If you wear a waistcoat (not that anyone does anymore), you are supposed to leave the bottom button unbuttoned. Why? Well, Edward VII was so portly (five meals a day, some of them ten or more courses, 48” waist) that he was unable to button that last button, so everyone else left theirs unbuttoned as well. It would never do to upstage the King.
Okay, enough tangents. Back to Messiah.
The original performing forces were small. The orchestra at first consisted of strings, continuo (one or more players), two trumpets, and timpani, with the trumpets and timpani used only for selected numbers, e.g. the Hallelujah chorus, “The trumpet shall sound,” “Worthy is the lamb.” In London, oboes, bassoons, and horns were added in pairs, and then oboes and bassoons increased to four (parts were doubled). The orchestra seems to have ranged from around 26 players up to 38. For the time, this was a biggish orchestra, which was not unusual for Handel.
In contrast to today’s performances, soloists and chorus were not distinct groups; rather, all soloists sang the chorus parts as well. Further, instead of having one soprano soloist, one alto soloist, and so on, more than one singer could take the arias allotted for the voice part, and the number could fluctuate from one performance to the next. In Dublin, for example, there were seven soloists. Finally, the type of voice that sang the solo part varied across Handel’s lifetime. Solos were at times sung by today’s standard SATB singers as well as a boy, a castrato, and both male and female altos. It is difficult to pin down the precise number of singers in the chorus (the records sometimes just say “boys,” for example) but, including the soloists who formed part of the chorus, the total seems to have ranged from around 22 up to 32 or so. The singers who joined the soloists were men and boys, which meant a largely but not exclusively male choral sound, since any female soloists would be joining in as well. This male-heavy choral sound was completely normal.
Even before Handel’s death Messiah had started to spread beyond his immediate control. In 1757 the already venerable Three Choirs Music Festival added it to their repertoire, and performed it every year thereafter until 1963 (and you’re thinking: is there a good reason to break a streak of more than 200 years?). The printing of the full score in 1767 helped facilitate performances, which reached Florence in 1768 and New York City as early as 1770, and the publication of an inexpensive Novello edition in the early nineteenth century only broadened the reach.
With the increase in performances came increases in performing forces. By 1771 the chorus had expanded to at least 38 voices (still modest), but by the 1784 Westminster Abbey commemorative concert, the number of singers had grown to 250 or more (one reads different totals in different accounts) accompanied by an orchestra of well over 200 (including, apparently, 26 bassoons). And those numbers just kept growing, with 800 performers in the 1787 Westminster Abbey performances, and thousands in the Crystal Palace performances that began in the mid-nineteenth century. Messiah has appeared in charity concerts, festivals, subscription concerts, staged versions, sing-alongs, a cappella performances on worker’s summer picnics; been rearranged and reorchestrated (e.g. Mozart 1789); given gospel/soul treatments; and so on. It is performed worldwide on at least six continents (I’m not sure about Antarctica), and has been translated into the 11 official languages of South Africa. Messiah has long since made up for any kind of slow start, and is surely the most famous choral work in existence.
Needless to say, amateur singers have long since replaced the professional choristers of the early London performances (luckily for us), and, while it is thrilling to perform the work with a professional orchestra, most of us are perfectly happy to sing with piano, organ, or harpsichord accompaniment. Another change that happened along the way was a switch in performing season. All of Handel’s performances took place during Eastertide, and I already mentioned those working class picnics that presumably occurred during the summer. But in America at least, performances are overwhelmingly connected with Christmas. I grew up with the recording of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and nothing says Christmas to me like the first notes of the overture.
2021 will be the 273rd year in a row that people have performed Messiah somewhere. Even last year’s horrible pandemic year saw live performances generated somehow. I am ecstatic to be singing the work again and to help continue this glorious tradition. Hallelujah!
The numbering is based on the Novello edition, which was first published in 1958 and then revised in 1981.
|2.||Comfort ye my people
|(Recitative for Tenor)|
|3.||Ev’ry valley shall be exalted
|(Air for Tenor)|
|4.||And the glory of the Lord
|5.||Thus saith the Lord
—Haggai 2:6–7; Malachi 3:1
|(Recitative for Bass)|
|6.||But who may abide the day of his coming?
|(Air for Alto)|
|7.||And he shall purify
|8.||Behold, a virgin shall conceive
—Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23
|(Recitative for Alto)|
|9.||O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion
—Isaiah 40:0; 60:1
|(Air for Alto; Chorus)|
|10.||For behold, darkness shall cover the earth
|(Recitative for Bass)|
|11.||The people that walked in darkness
|(Air for Bass)|
|12.||For unto us a child is born
|14.||a. There were shepherds abiding in the field
|(Recitative for Soprano)|
|b. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them
|(Recitative for Soprano)|
|15.||And the angel said unto them
|(Recitative for Soprano)|
|16.||And suddenly there was with the angel
|(Recitative for Soprano)|
|17.||Glory to God
|18.||Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion
|(Air for Soprano)|
|19.||Then shall the eyes of the blind
|(Recitative for Soprano)|
|20.||He shall feed his flock
—Isaiah 40:11; Matthew 11:28–29
|(Air for Soprano)|
|21.||His yoke is easy and his burthen is light
|22.||Behold the Lamb of God
|23.||He was despised
—Isaiah 53:3; 50:6
|(Air for Alto)|
|24.||Surely he hath borne our grief
|25.||And with his stripes we are healed
|26.||All we like sheep have gone astray
|27.||All they that see him laugh him to scorn
|(Recitative for Tenor)|
|28.||He trusted in God
|29.||Thy rebuke hath broken his heart
|(Recitative for Tenor)|
|30.||Behold, and see if there be any sorrow
|(Air for Tenor)|
|31.||He was cut off out of the land of the living
|(Recitative for Tenor)|
|32.||But thou didst not leave his soul in hell
|(Air for Tenor)|
|33.||Lift up your heads, O ye gates
|34.||Unto which of the angels said he at any time
|(Recitative for Tenor)|
|35.||Let all the angels of God worship him
|36.||Thou art gone up on high
|(Air for Alto)|
|37.||The Lord gave the word
|38.||How beautiful are the feet
|(Air for Soprano)|
|39.||Their sound is gone out
|40.||Why do the nations so furiously rage together?
|(Air for Bass)|
|41.||Let us break their bonds asunder
|42.||He that dwelleth in heaven
|(Recitative for Tenor)|
|43.||Thou shalt break them
|(Air for Tenor)|
—Revelation 19:6; 11:15; 19:16
|45.||I know that my redeemer liveth
—Job 19:25–26; I Corinthians 15:20
|(Air for Soprano)|
|46.||Since by man came death
—I Corinthians 15:21–22
|47.||Behold, I tell you a mystery
—I Corinthians 15:51–52
|(Recitative for Bass)|
|48.||The trumpet shall sound
—I Corinthians 15:52–53
|(Air for Bass)|
|49.||Then shall be brought to pass
—I Corinthians 15:54
|(Recitative for Alto)|
|50.||O death, where is thy sting?
—I Corinthians 15:55–56
|(Duet for Alto and Tenor)|
|51.||But thanks be to God
—I Corinthians 15:57
|52.||If God be for us
—Romans 8:31; 33–34
|(Air for Soprano)|
|53.||Worthy is the lamb that was slain
By the time of Handel’s composition of Solomon, his standard practice was to compose oratorios in the summer that would then be used the following Lent (a period when theaters were closed). Accordingly, Solomon was written between 5 May and 13 June 1748, and premiered at Covent Garden on 17 March 1749, the first of three performances that year; bits and pieces were performed in later benefit concerts. Ten years after the premiere it returned for two Lenten performances (the first on 2 March 1759), but in a significantly altered version (e.g., the entire first act was cut). By this time Handel was completely blind and reliant on others to follow his instructions. Many would agree with the assessment of Anthony Hicks in describing the 1759 version as “massively cut and altered...in a travesty of the original.”
The libretto for Solomon was probably written by the same anonymous author who provided the libretto for Handel’s Susanna, his oratorio written at the same time as Solomon. As is normal for Handel’s oratorios, Solomon has an Old Testament subject (drawn from 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and both 1 and 2 Chronicles, with hints of Song of Songs in the conclusion to Act I). What is somewhat unusual is that it lacks a single narrative plot and instead presents a series of five scenes in its three acts. The first act has two scenes, the former celebrating the completion of Solomon’s Temple and the latter honoring the happy marriage of Solomon and his wife (daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh). Act II opens with praise for Solomon (and his own description of doing away with relatives so that he would become King). Scene 2 demonstrates Solomon’s wisdom in the famous story of the child fought over by two women claiming to be its mother. The third act shows the visit of the Queen of Sheba (Nicaule) to Solomon’s court. Anthony Hicks describes the oratorio as “a celebration of universal ideals—of enlightened rule, of equal justice, of pious worship.”
Various writers have viewed Solomon as providing parallels to the rule of King George II. A useful summary is provided by Ruth Smith in the booklet accompanying the recording by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players. Smith notes that the celebration of the peaceful reign of Solomon represented the return of England to peace after the Stuart rebellion of 1745 (an attempt to replace the Protestant Hanoverian branch of the royal family with the long-exiled Catholic Stuart branch) and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle in 1748 that ended the War of the Austrian Succession. The oratorio demonstrates what a peaceful government and good ruler should do: create strategic alliances and generate trade (the new queen from Egypt; the Queen of Sheba), build things (the Temple), invoke national piety (Zadok the priest, etc.), deliver impartial justice (the Act II judgment), and—not least, especially in Handel’s eyes—support the arts, especially music (the Act III choral masque for the Queen of Sheba). The Solomon/George II analogy was already present at his coronation: the Bishop’s sermon at that ceremony invoked the Queen of Sheba’s praise for Solomon, and the best known of Handel’s coronation anthems, Zadok the Priest, concerns the same Zadok who appears in the oratorio. Smith also notes that not only was George II not exactly an ideal monarch, Solomon wasn’t the greatest of role models either with the murder of his rivals, his general licentiousness, and so on. But hey! What’s art for if not to help us strive for the ideal? Or (more cynically) throw pixie dust in our eyes to distract us from what’s really going on?
In keeping with the splendor of Solomon’s court, the oratorio uses an unusually rich collection of performers. The seven solo roles are for Solomon (originally sung by mezzo-soprano Caterina Galli), the high priest Zadok (tenor), a Levite (bass), and four soprano roles: Solomon’s queen, the Queen of Sheba, and the two women (called harlots in the score) claiming to be the baby’s mother. In the premiere, though, three of the soprano roles—the two queens and the first harlot—were sung by the same singer (thus, one role per act). The preference for high voices mirrors the casting of contemporary opera, Handel’s musical model for the oratorios. The full orchestra of flute, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, continuo, and both regular strings and a second set of ripieno strings, each of which includes (unusually) two viola parts. Especially noteworthy is the frequent use of double chorus; Handel did not normally have so many singers at his disposal to split the chorus (he also wrote for SATB and SSATB chorus in the work).
Solomon contains thirteen choruses, of which seven are for double chorus, five for SSATB, and just one for SATB. Handel expert Winton Dean (author of Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques) believes that Solomon contains some of Handel’s very best writing for chorus, and the selections we’re singing are certainly terrific. The thirteen choruses are as follows (the numbering is from the piano/vocal score of the critical edition, and is based on the 1749 version).
After the overture, the oratorio opens with a powerful double chorus of priests (No. 1), Your harps and cymbals sound (No. 2 in older editions) intended to invoke the majesty that surrounds Solomon and his achievements, even though we are ostensibly praising Jehovah.
This is followed by an aria of divine praise sung by the Levite, and then the chorus is in again, singing No. 3: With pious heart and holy tongue (double chorus; No. 4 in older editions). This moves from an opening section (tempo marking grave) of 22 measures, where we proceed in slow-moving chordal harmony. At m. 23 the tempo picks up as we take turns tossing around an imitative subject (“Till distant nations catch the song”) that serves as a fugato subject for the remainder of the chorus. Thus, even though the purpose of the opening is to honor Jehovah (and by implication, Solomon for getting the Temple built) the chorus is showcased right from the start. It’s an oratorio, after all.
After a set of recitatives by Solomon and Zadok, and then an aria by Zadok, the chorus is back with another song of praise (double chorus, No. 7: Throughout the land Jehova’s praise record; No. 8 in older editions).
We are then silent until the conclusion of the act. The five-voice chorus we sing there (No. 14: May no rash intruder disturb their soft hours; No. 22 is older editions), is one of the most famous in the oratorio and is known as the “Nightingale Chorus.” We sing it as Solomon and his queen trundle off to bed with our wishes that they are left in peace “While nightingales lull them to sleep with their song.”
Act II again opens with the chorus, this time even more elaborately than the beginning of Act I (No. 15: From the censor curling rise; No. 23 in earlier editions). We are a chorus of Israelites and our text is one of praise for Solomon. The splendor of the double chorus is heightened by the instrumentation: this is the first appearance of the full orchestra, meaning that only now do we hear brass instruments and timpani, traditionally associated with royal fanfares.
The chorus is then silent for a very long time, throughout the rest of Scene 1 and the legal battle that is the focus of Scene 2. Once that has been resolved, we sing another song of praise to Solomon, No. 23. (SSATB: From the East unto the West; No. 36 in older editions).
This is followed by recitative and an aria in Solomon’s praise by Zadok, and then recitative and an aria by the victorious mother, after which we are back with another chorus in Solomon’s praise (No. 26), the only one in the oratorio that uses SATB scoring (No. 26: Swell the full chorus to Solomon’s praise; No. 41 in older editions). This cheerful triple-meter chorus, sung mostly in homorhythm and following a dal segno ABA formal structure, brings the act to an end (just as we closed Act I, and will close Act III). We know from Handel’s compositional draft that his original plan was for a choral rondo to end the act: two episodes for chorus surrounding the mother’s aria, but he revised it so that only the aria and the last choral refrain were left. The changes may have been connected to large-scale timing; unusually for him, Handel carefully timed the length of each act and even the number of measures of some pieces. Act I was timed for 50 minutes total, with Acts II and III lasting 40 minutes each.
Act III opens with an instrumental work, the famous “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.” The Queen greets Solomon, who responds to her (both are in recitative), and she then expresses her wonder at the glories of Solomon’s court in an aria. Solomon accordingly commands an entertainment (masque) for her pleasure, and we sing four successive choruses (each introduced in some way by Solomon) of different character. The variety was intended as a pleasing component of the masque, but it also served as an opportunity for Handel to show off his stylistic skill. Interestingly, the original plan was to have this entertainment be for Solomon’s Queen in Act I. The switch to Act III moves the display from a “private” one within the court to a public exhibition of wealth and power—more suitable for the intended symbolism.
This first chorus of the set (SSATB, and begun by Solomon) is one of the most famous in the oratorio (No. 29: Music, spread thy voice around; No. 46 in older editions) and it is a celebration of the glories of music in a gentle triple meter (sadly, the Daniel Reuss recording truncates this lovely piece).
Solomon again introduces the next, contrasting, chorus (No. 30: Now a diff’rent measure try; No. 47 in older editions) that depicts “martial deeds,” with the double chorus, enhanced by trumpets and drums in a bright D major, representing the different armies.
The third chorus in the set, again well known (No. 31: Draw the tear from hopeless love; SSATB; No. 49 in earlier editions), switches to “hopeless love;” one writer describes it as an “apotheosis of the English madrigal.”
And with the last chorus of the set, introduced by Solomon, everything returns to peace (No. 32: Thus rolling surges rise; SSATB; No. 51 in earlier editions).
After this choral entertainment there are two more choruses in the oratorio. The first is the impressive double chorus Praise the Lord with harp and tongue (No. 35; in older editions No. 56), which follows the Queen of Sheba’s recitative, an aria by the Levite, and a recitative/aria pair by Zadok, and precedes recitatives and arias by Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, plus a duet between the two. The second is a much more modest closing chorus, The name of the wicked shall quickly be past (No. 39). Winton Dean has called this final double chorus “weak,” and has suggested that it be jettisoned altogether, with “Praise the Lord” replacing it. Dean’s suggestion is now widely followed, and that revised ordering (and disappearance of The name of the wicked) is found on the recordings (of the four I know) of John Eliot Gardiner and Daniel Reuss. Nicholas McGegan and Paul McCreesh follow the original order (and speaking of recordings, Gardiner and Reuss use women for the role of Solomon; the others use male singers. Also, Gardiner cuts five arias from the oratorio).
As Dean implies, this is indeed a good sing. Solomon was not one of the three oratorios that enjoyed popularity after Handel’s death (those were Judas Maccabaeus, Samson, and especially Messiah), but that just shows how posterity sometimes misses out on good things. The world could certainly use more performances of Handel’s delicious oratorios (and I would love to sing some!)
Works (highly selective)
Handel wrote a zillion pieces (or thereabouts) in every genre of his time. Many of these compositions were reworked and exist in multiple versions. In addition, Handel frequently shared material from one work to another, so if you know a Handel piece quite well you may find it popping up someplace entirely different (e.g. flute sonata movement turning up in an orchestral work). He also borrowed a lot of material from other composers, without acknowledgment. This was neither common nor admirable, even if the borrowed material typically turned out better in Handel’s hands.
The works listed below are a mix of things I know or have read about; there’s no real “Handel’s Greatest Hits” list. I’ve included a batch of things that were probably better known once than they are now. The HWV numbers refer to the “Handel Werke Verzeichnis,” the “List of Handel’s Works.”
- the final movement variations from Suite #5 for Harpsichord in EM, called “The Harmonious Blacksmith” (a 19th-century title)
- the air of his Harpsichord Suite in Bb, HWV 434, was used by Brahms in his excellent “Variations on a Theme by Handel”
Described as “fine” or “particularly impressive”
- Keyboard suite in dm, HWV 436
- Fugues in am and cm from his 1735 “Six Fugues and Voluntaries”
- 10 Solo Sonatas, Op. 1, for oboe, flute, recorder, or violin (the collection also includes two works not by Handel)
- 6 Trio Sonatas, Op. 2
- 7 Trio Sonatas, Op. 5
- Flute Sonata in DM, HWV 378
- Violin Sonata in DM, HWV 371
- Trio Sonata in gm, HWV 393 (described as both good and popular but perhaps not by Handel)
Lots of great stuff here! And it doesn’t get performed nearly enough.
(In the order they were performed in the ceremony)
- The King Shall Rejoice
- Zadok the Priest
- Let thy hand be strengthened
- My heart is inditing
Other Occasional Works
- Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate (1713)
- Eternal Source of Light Divine (birthday ode for Queen Anne; probably 1713)
- Alexander’s Feast (Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day; 1736)
- The Ways of Zion Do Mourn (funeral anthem for Queen Caroline, 1737)
- Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1739; different from Alexander’s Feast)
- Dettingham Te Deum (1743)
- Aci, Galatea e Polifemo
- Clori, Tirsi e Fileno (“exquisite”)
- Apollo e dafne (“splendid”)
(Asterisks by those considered especially strong, with some selections highlighted; some oratorios have explicit connections to contemporary political events)
- Recall, O king
- Sing of ye heavens
- Israel in Egypt*
- I will sing unto the Lord
- Waft her angels
- Oh had I Jubal’s lyre
- Judas Maccabaeus*
- Sound an alarm
- See the conquering hero comes
- Awake the trumpet’s lofty sound
- Let the bright seraphim
- Let their celestial concerts all unite
- O first created beam
- Dead March
- How excellent thy name, o Lord
- Mourn Israel, mourn thy beauty lost
- Where e’er you walk
- O sleep, why dost thou leave me?
- The arrival of the Queen of Sheba
- Ask if you damask rose be fair
- Angels ever bright and fair
- Acis and Galatea (masque)
- Blessed are they that considereth the poor (Foundling Hospital anthem)
- Brockes Passion
- 11 Chandos Anthems
- Chandos Te Deum
- The Choice of Hercules (ode)
- L’Allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato (ode)
- La resurrezione (Italian oratorio)
- Water Music
- Music for the Royal Fireworks
- 6 Concerti Grossi Op. 3, especially #2, #4, #5
- 12 Concerti Grossi Op. 6; one writer calls these as good as the Brandenburgs
- #7 sometimes singled out for praise; #6 has a famous musette
Handel essentially invented the organ concerto and would play these works as entr’actes during performances of his oratorios. Perhaps best known are the dm concerto from Op. 7 and the “Cuckoo and the Nightingale” concerto in F.
Handel wrote a type of opera known as opera seria, a genre that had many expectations for structure. What is striking with Handel’s operas, however, is how often they simply disregard the purported rules. Although one writer claimed (back in the 1960s) that Handel’s “operas...with one or two exceptions, are little better than museum pieces—faded relics of a dead tradition,” the last few decades have seen a wonderful flowering of beautifully performed revivals that show off Handel’s endless musical imagination. Handel, in fact, has become part of the repertoire today of every major opera house, and rightly so. Below I’ve listed some of the better-known operas, and in some cases the best-known arias within them; asterisks mark those that are often considered the finest.
- Verdi prati
- Care selve
- Alma mia
- Caro amore
- Giulio Cesare*
- Orlando (the DVD of the 2007 Opernhaus Zürich production is quite enjoyable)
- Sommi dei
- Lascia ch’io piango
- Cara sposa
- Or la tromba
- Ombra mai fu (also known as Handel’s Largo)
A Personal Note
Music history includes a number of composer dichotomies, including Verdi/Wagner, Mahler/Strauss, Mozart/Haydn (or sometimes Mozart/Beethoven), Debussy/Ravel, and various others. The Bach/Handel juxtaposition is especially famous, for the two were exact contemporaries (with Handel born in February 1685 and Bach born less than a month later) yet they led very different lives. Bach never travelled outside of Germany; Handel was a cosmopolitan who left Germany for Italy and England. Bach wed twice and sired twenty children; Handel never married and had no known descendants. Bach was deeply religious; Handel not so. Bach was always someone’s employee; Handel became an independent businessman. Bach never wrote an opera; Handel was the most famous opera composer of the early eighteenth century, and so on.
When I was in college I was definitely a member of Team Bach. The counterpoint and harmonic intricacy that characterize his music were (and are) of enormous appeal for me. But looking back I can see other factors in play, chief among them the fact that much more time was devoted to Bach’s music in my classes and ensembles. To cite just one example, analysis of Bach’s chorale harmonizations was a normal component of my music theory classes, while Handel was pretty much never featured therein. And Bach’s music occupies a much more substantial position within the traditional “standard repertoire.” A music lover will normally know all the Brandenburg Concertos and various solo concertos, the orchestral suites, the unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas and cello suites, the B minor mass, the St. Matthew Passion (and usually the St. John one as well), multiple organ works, a bevy of cantatas, a few motets, bits of the WTC and Clavier-Übung, maybe some of the Art of the Fugue, etc. For Handel on the other hand: Messiah, Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, and....???? As a music major my exposure was only very slightly bigger: I played the flute sonatas and learned Giulio Cesare for my annual music major listening exam, but that was about it. And in more than half a century of choral singing, I’ve sung (by Bach) the B minor mass, St. John Passion, chunks of the Matthew Passion, a bunch of motets, and even more cantatas; when I lived in Brussels I was in a group that performed one or more per month on Sunday mornings. In contrast, by Handel I’ve sung one work (Messiah) and am about to sing another (Utrecht Te Deum).
It’s unlikely that Handel is ever going to rival Bach in terms of the familiarity of his music. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate Handel much more than I ever did as a student; I now find his music a source of endless variety and delight, and I would love more opportunities to sing his works. Handel’s music is coming alive now as never before since the eighteenth century, with ever better recordings available and every fresh revival of one of his operas revealing new treasures. There are still, it seems, a few ways in which the world is improving.
December 2019; Revised November 2021, June 2022, July 2022