Monday, December 01, 2008

Messiah on Mondays

The Ravished Ear:

The Music of the Messiah

Chapter Four

by Richard Luckett

If I focused briefly on the text and the librettist last week, then this week I am paying more attention to the music itself. While there is an overture or preface, the work is then divided mainly into three parts. To listen to the entire work requires two hours time.

In this fourth chapter, the author discuss the technicalities of singing solos, recitatives, choruses, and meditations and where Handel might have used the music in an earlier composition. Apparently, Handel wrote the score over the course of a mere six weeks....not like a letter per se, but as sketches:

Each is in the nature of an outline but germinative subject, a phrase of music,
emerging from words, tested back against those words. From such
sketches, Handel could begin to compose at length, writing the music in outline
first, then adding words, and completing the infilling last of all.

Frankly, reading Mr. Luckett is over my head when he says

Messiah is not an oratoria a chiave, sustained by particular significances for
given keys: it is constructed in blocks of keys, which establish their
local centres, and work through these, rather than according to any overriding
rules of reference.

But the author grabs my attention with the plain statement:

It is important to ask to what extent the work is governed by any general
principle of musical unity.

And he explains:

The unity of Messiah is a consequence of nothing more arcane than the quality of
Handel's attention to his text, and the consistency of his musical imagination.

Now that I can understand and grasp.

With repeated listenings and practice, I can hear what Mr. Luckett is trying to explain, but his book is very detailed and more useful as a reference book.

Nevertheless, I press on.


  1. Something I've always wondered -- was it common for women to sing in this sort of thing when Handel was composing, or would the choir have been all men and boys?

  2. We kick off our advent season every year by attending the Messiah, which is presented annually as a gift to our community. I'd love to study it more in depth, as you are doing. It's my wish to sing with the group some year.... this is a community project and they don't require auditions :)

  3. Kelly,

    The next chapter in the book covers the first performance; and yes, even at that time 1742, there were lead female singers and actresses. Think *opera*, too, 'cause Handel had tried his hand at those as well.

    In addition, I am learning that there is a wide variety in the style and direction of the performances over the years....even controversy.

  4. Poeima -

    I'm giving some serious thought to participating in a *Messiah Sing-a-long* It's not as involved (practice-wise) as a true performance, and I get the thrill of being a part :)

    However, the only one I've found in my area this year is not working with my schedule.

    We'll see.

  5. Interesting. Knowing that women were rarely on stage as late as the 1600s I wandered over the Wiki to look up opera, wondering when women began singing in it (it doesn't say, but the first prima donna was Anna Renzi, c.1620-after 1660), and discovered that the castrato not only played female roles but was the favorite for the male lead up until the end of the 1700s.

    I knew that castrati existed but I had no idea how popular they were and that many boys volunteered for the operation and the intense training in hopes of becoming a star! Estimates put it at 4000 a year at the height of their popularity in the early 1700s.

    Pope Leo XIII prohibited the hiring of castrati for church choirs in 1878, but it doesn't mention Protestant churches, and I don't know how popular they were in England -- it was mostly an Italian thing. The French didn't particularly care for them, and the English tend to follow French fashions, so maybe they weren't so popular in England.

    Anyway, of Messiah's first perfomance, Wiki says this, "Handel's Messiah was first performed in New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13 April 1742, with 26 boys and five men from the combined choirs of St Patrick's and Christ Church cathedrals participating."