Handel’s Messiah explained
Handel is one of the giants of the baroque. But I don’t know much about him. Now, we can’t be having that can we especially around Christmas when his famous work Messiah is prominent? So I asked Penelope Rapson, Director of Fiori Musicali, what she knows about the composer. It might be easier to ask what she doesn’t know but here’s what she told me.
Originally from Germany, he arrived in London in 1710 and set about introducing the English to Italian opera (we’ve never looked back!). In no time Handel’s music had endeared itself to every music-loving Brit, and before long Handel had been adopted as an honorary Englishman. It’s strange really, there’s nothing more English than hearing the famous choruses from Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime – and yet the man who composed them was a musician from Germany steeped in the Italian style of the day, who spent most of his life writing Italian opera! But the Hallelujah Chorus (like Beethoven’s setting of the Ode to Joy) is an expression of universality that reaches across the nations.
Handel’s orchestra isnt enormous – just strings, timpani (big kettle drums), a couple of oboes, a bassoon and two brilliant trumpets (in his day the wonderful long valveless trumpets with their characteristic golden sound that you hear now in period instrument performances.)
Over the years the number of singers performing in the choruses began to increase dramatically till in the late 19th and 20th centuries literally hundreds swelled the chorus lines. But Handel’s first performance of Messiah was sung in Dublin in 1742 with fewer than 20 in the chorus! (And he didn’t even take the oboists with him to Ireland!)
We also know that on the way to Ireland Handel stopped off in Chester to rehearse some of the choruses with the local musical flora and fauna – not altogether successfully. ‘I thought you could read at sight’, fumed the composer in despair, when the chorus ‘And with his stripes’ fell apart. ‘Yes, indeed,’ responded the musically suspect bass who was attempting the part, ‘but not at first sight!’ Ah well…. such are the trials and tribulations of the musical director!
I’m very excited as I’m going to see Handel’s Messiah live for the first time on 23rd December. Fiori are performing the piece at Northampton’s Guildhall. What a Christmas treat! I don’t know if you can tell but I get a bit giddy about Christmas! I can imagine that it’ll be a hugely powerful performance from the chamber orchestra and choir, and in such stunning surrounds as the Guildhall. It really has a grandeur that I think will suit Messiah.
Have you ever been? It feels so steeped in history and I suppose, wonder. I can’t help but imagine what it would have been like in centuries past with dignitaries walking around!
If you fancy joining me 23rd, there are still some tickets left. You can find more info and opportunity to buy tickets by clicking on this link, or you can always speak to the Fiori box office on 01327 360931.