Saturday, 7 April 2012


Handel's Messiah at Easter? Oh yes, because it's a work written for and first performed at Eastertide. Because of the magic of its Christmas music many assume it's a Christmas piece, but the story of Christ's Nativity only takes up the first part of The Messiah, with the second part dealing with the Passion and the third part with the most important part of the story for Christians, the Resurrection. Of course, those (like Jessica Duchen) who are fed up with yearly onslaughts of Handel's Messiah at Christmas might not look too kindly on it if it conquers Easter as well!

History has given The Messiah the crown among Handel's many many oratorios - a crown it has worn comfortably for two hundred and fifty years now. Critics may mount occasional challenges and offer doubtless worthy alternatives but these pretenders have no chance whatsoever of success against it. The Messiah shall reign for ever and ever. And so it should, as it's an absolutely marvellous work. (Is it any surprise that the first Handel-based post on this blog is about it?!?)

OK, Christmas first. The first part opens with a Sinfony in the form of a French overture - a stately dotted slow section followed by a sprightly fugue. Then comes the gripping tenor recitative Comfort ye my people with its pulsing, melodically-magical accompaniment and unforgettable vocal line. Its wonderfully consoling atmosphere is an anchor to hold on to. The 'dry' passage that follows so dramatically is no less charismatic. Its companion aria Ev'ry valley shall be exalted maintains this standard. Each phrase is given its own tune (all superb) and made to paint its own words ("exalted", "made low", "crooked", "straight", etc) with delightful results; indeed this aria could serve as the model for word-painting.

The first great chorus follows, And the glory of the Lord. This also gives each phrase in the verse its own melodic phrase and then moulds them into a masterly contrapuntal structure. High points include the bass entry that introduces the phrase "for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it" (backed by the tenors), the re-entry of this phrase with the sopranos soaring high above the dancing texture and their later turn on "hath spo-") - a moment to be repeated - plus the coming together at the close.

An exciting bass recitative (Thus saith the Lord), with its word-painting on "shake" and its magnificent string accompaniment, is followed by the aria But who may abide the day of his coming? - another excellent, tuneful number, with something of the sicilienne about its lilting rhythm, and a refined fiery passage at its centre!

The chorus And he shall purify is a spry fugue with a great swinging phrase at "that they may offer unto the Lord." 

The alto aria with chorus O thou that tellest is classic Handel, with a cracking tune to sing and scope for word-painting on "mountain" and "lift up". There's also a strongly imagined accompaniment and a wonderful awestruck freezing on "Behold your God." The choral culmination is its crowning glory.

The mood then changes for the bass recitative For behold darkness - a remarkable soundscape summoned like a creeping mist. Against this string pattern the singer shapes a noble line. The mists clear and noble harmony floods in, movingly. The accompanying aria The people that walked in darkness traces a trajectory from creepy, chromatic writing (in unison) to the "great light" of diatonic harmony. What a composer!

We have now arrived at For unto us a child is born, which it is surely impossible not to thrill to. The contrapuntal mastery of the choral writing, the magical string figures at each climax, the sheer melodic strength of each of its phrases and the exhilarating intensification towards the close - all these things enchant. To repeat: What a composer!

Also enchanting is the Pifa for strings, a melodically-charming and peaceful number evoking a pastoral vision complete with bagpipes. (Oooh, Christmas!)

Another magical passage follows - the soprano recitative There were shepherds, with its string arpeggios and bass-line beating like an angel's wings. This impression is amplified when the angel multitude appears, ingeniously. This leads into another thrilling chorus, Glory to God, wherein trumpets do appear! This multi-faceted gem contains both delightful word-painting and exciting counterpoint. 

We take to the operatic stage for the entertaining da capo aria Rejoice greatly where a soprano awaits to show off her vocal range. The central section, however, retains a pastoral flavour and is more intimate in mood.

If you think a dip in quality is long overdue you would be right, but there's no dip in what comes next - the magical, heavenly soprano aria He shall feed his flocks, where the Pifa's pastoral charms are combined with one of Handel's loveliest tunes. Once more, what a composer!

The first part unfortunately has to come to an end. Alas, it can't be Christmas every day! It ends with the fugal chorus His yoke is easy.

Fast forward to Passion Week and Part Two of The Messiah. Obviously the work now assumes a very different tone - a tone struck straight away by the grave chorus Behold the Lamb of God, with its falling phrases. This is a chorus with the character of a French overture crossed with a very slow rustic dance. It's a beautiful number. 

The long, sorrowful alto aria He was despised has another of Handel's great melodies (aren't there a lot of them in The Messiah?) and amplifies its power even more by using the strings to echo the singer's intense phrases. At times bare in texture and given to pangs of grief-stricken chromaticism, it makes a strong impact and this strong impact is not lessened by the fast central section with its merciless use of dotted rhythms.

Dotted rhythms also drive the outer portions of the imposing chorus Surely he hath borne our griefs, with its austere counterpoint. My highlights here focus on the harmonies underlying "chastisement". A flavour of the antique style is found in it and in the following fugue, And with his stripes - a fugue Bach would have been proud to have written.

A little liveliness is now needed and provided by the next chorus, All we like sheep, with its catchy tune and entertaining word-painting (as on "astray" and "turned"). It's excellent stuff and Handel caps it with a remarkable concluding Adagio where time seems to congeal.

Jeering laughter and shaking heads are portrayed by the strings in the following tenor recitative which leads to the great fugue He trusted in God, which has something of the same character as some of the choruses in the Bach Passions.

The tenor recitative Thy rebuke hath broken his heart is very moving. The slow string chords that underpin it are like frozen sighs of harmony. The 'arioso' Behold and see if there be any sorrow is also moving. It's bare but not without beauty, especially the low string figures beneath the tenor's closing words. The aria But thou didst not leave his soul is more French-sounding than usual and yet also, strangely, more ordinary. 

There's nothing ordinary about the glorious chorus Lift up your heads, O ye gates. Its words (in phrases) connect with a particular melodic idea and Handel then runs with them. Each has its own shape and rhythm and is, thus, strongly characterised before being wrung contrapuntally or antiphonally. Fine though it is, its successor Let all the angels cannot compete with such a high level of invention. 

The splendid bass aria Thou art gone up on high features a fine vocal line and an even finer string line. The latter leaps and tumbles with great character, encompassing rising sevenths and various chromatic twists and turns. The continuo contributes a sturdy yet mobile bass line.

The chorus The Lord gave the word (like He spake the word in Israel in Egypt) contrasts a solemn invocation with something altogether livelier. Here there comes all manner of preachers (rather than flies and lice). This jaunty "company" dances delightfully and contains dizzying melismas that give no less delight.

Next comes How beautiful are the feet , either a soprano aria or and an alto duet (leading into the delightful chorus Break forth into joy), depending on which version you are listening to. The siciliano's rhythm guides this lovely number.

The bass gets a virtuoso 'rage aria' next, Why do all the nations? This exciting section also puts melismas to work and word-paints furiously as well. The bass's splendid part is matched by the extremely brilliant, agitated string part. An equally brilliant fugue Let us break their bonds asunder follows. 

The tenor aria Thou shalt break them is followed by...and get ready to stand up now!...the Hallelujah Chorus. So famous that its sheer magic and mastery might be taken for granted, this number remains an indestructible gem - tuneful, festive (note the trumpets and drums), contrapuntal or chordal, always operating at the peak of quality, so various in its invention and a triumph of architecture. Hallelujah!

Hallelujah, it's Easter Day! The Third Part of Handel's Messiah celebrates the Resurrection and opens with the other ultra-famous number, that serene soprano aria I know that my redeemer liveth, whose melody cannot but keep casting its spell - a spell the strings share the casting of.

Since by man came death is a great chorus that contrasts slow, archaic-sounding minor-key music for a group within the chorus with jubilant Handelian music for full chorus.

A short but majestic bass recitative, Behold I tell you a mystery, is followed by a long - overlong! - bass aria, The trumpet shall sound. In its trumpets do indeed sound and the bass himself at times imitates a trumpet, though the central section moves away from this idea. The main section is boldly and broadly melodic.

The alto-tenor duet O Death, where is thy sting? is accompanied by continuo alone, giving it a fascinating spidery quality. It leads directly into the chorus But thanks be to God, a good if unexceptional contrapuntal number.

The contralto aria If God be for us doesn't entirely justify the promise of its fine opening phrase.

The final chorus, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, begins by alternating slow, solemn music (in chords) with lively, rhythmic music (with a sparkling accompaniment). A fine fluid fugue follows at "Blessing and honour", with trumpets and drums brightening its climax. The music then halts and a new fugue begins. This 'Amen' chorus is initially for voices alone, but then the voices stop and the strings enter, starting off the fugue again. The voices and the festive instruments rejoin the action and counterpoint briefly meets homophony before the fugue resumes and builds to a big finish - a masterly ending for so great a work.


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