Skip to content

The concert given on
Saturday 1 December 2007

at St John’s Church
Knoyle Road, Preston Village, Brighton

G F Handel

Brighton Orpheus Choir

with the Musicians of All Saints
leader: Ellie Blackshaw

Abbi Temple (soprano) Marjorie Ouvry (mezzo-soprano)
Sandy Chenery (counter-tenor)

Alex Pidgen (tenor) James Wilkinson (bass)
John Walker (harpsichord)

conducted by Stella Hull

Looking at Messiah as a spiritual opera, it can be seen as three acts, each divided into a sequence of scenes.

Act I The prophecy of Salvation – the coming of the Messiah and what this may mean for the world – the prophecy of the Virgin Birth – the appearance of the Angels to the Shepherds – Christ’s miracles on earth.
Act II The redeeming sacrifice, scourging and the agony on the cross – the Messiah’s sacrificial death and passage through Hell and Resurrection – the Ascension – God discloses his identity in Heaven – Whitsun, the gift of tongues, the beginning of evangelism – the world and its rulers reject the Gospel – God’s triumph.
Act III The promise of bodily resurrection and redemption from Adam’s fall – the Day of Judgement and resurrection of souls – the victory over death and sin – the glorification of the Messiah as victim.

Handel’s Messiah

It is curious that Handel’s Messiah, though drawing on scripture and an essentially Christian story, was not conceived for the church. It is theatre, in the style of opera, intended for a diverse audience not a congregation. There is just one place where Messiah was performed in a sacred building during Handel’s lifetime – in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital, each year during the last decade of his life. The Foundling Hospital was an organisation for deprived children, which still exists today as the Thomas Coram Foundation. But long before the chapel performance it had been given in several theatres and concert halls and at least one tavern.

Handel is a dramatist, a musical story-teller. He may draw the audience into the story, and provide an experience in music that might change a life, certainly leave a listener better for the experience. Compared with opera, Handel promoted the chorus (usually confined to a bland role in most operas of the period) to the role of participant and commentator at critical moments in the drama.

So how did this best-loved of Handel’s many oratorios originate? In 1741 Handel was in debt and depressed. He needed a major success. The opportunity came with a Biblical libretto compiled by Charles Jennens. There is a tradition that Handel completed the piece while staying as a guest at Jennens’ country house, Gopsall Hall in Leicestershire. The ruins of a garden temple in the grounds can be visited in the hope that it was indeed there that Handel wrote much of the work. Borrowing freely from other works, both his own and those of others, Messiah was finished in just 24 days.

Messiah had its first public airing in Dublin in 1742. That occasion was in fact a preview, an open rehearsal before the first official performance a few days later. The public response was enthusiastic – word quickly spread that a major musical event was at hand. Now age 57, the composer had arrived in Ireland some months before, preceded by considerable fanfare. Tickets were hard to come by. He was an international celebrity already.

It was not until the London premiere the next year that the idea of a work based entirely on Holy Scripture being performed as an unstaged opera drew criticism. Some London clerics and some members of the public vehemently cried “sacrilege” and termed Messiah “heretical”.

As a performance work Messiah went through several revisions, with various numbers being re-set to match the strengths or cover the weaknesses of contemporary solo artistes. Virtually all Handel’s changes can be considered artistically and dramatically viable, and sustain the continuity and integrity of the whole work. So versions for massed chorus can be compared with those for chamber choir, and yet still be an authentic version prepared by Handel himself. The Brighton Orpheus concert will use the quite recent scholarly edition prepared by Watkins Shaw (1992).

Much of Charles Jennens’ libretto comes from the Old Testament. The first section draws heavily from the book of Isaiah, prophesying the coming of the Messiah. There are few quotations from the Gospels at the end of the first and the beginning of the second sections. The story of the Angel going to the shepherds comes from St Luke, there are two enigmatic quotations from St Matthew, and “Behold the Lamb of God” comes from St John. The rest of the second section is composed of prophecies from Isaiah and quotations from the evangelists. The third section includes one quotation from Job, “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, the rest primarily from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. The well-known “Hallelujah” chorus at the end of Part II and the finale chorus “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain”, leading to the “Amen” chorus, are both taken from The Revelation of John.

George Frideric Händel
1685 – 1759
The statue above Handel’s grave in Westminster Abbey holds the musical score
of the aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth”