He shall purify!

While it persists throughout the year as a masterful musical composition, my abiding affection for Handel’s Messiah noticeably escalates when approaching Easter (though I doubt it ever was intended to coincide with that particular event on the Christian calendar). I can happily listen to it every day until then. The work was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. The conjunction of the scriptural text of the oratorio with the King James version of the Bible and Psalms included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer has a stimulating effect as well. It is consistent with the Church of England with which I have communicated through the Anglican church similar to the Episcopal church in the United States of America.

I have since learned that the libretto was compiled by Charles Jennens. Though we often assume ancient musicians languished in bucolic luxury while sipping wine, whetting the nib of their quill and effortlessly composing their work, the picture is much abused for other reasons.  For one thing, the social and economic parallels are indisputable. Handel – a naturalized Englishman – knew where his bread was buttered.

Charles Jennens was born around 1700, into a prosperous landowning family whose lands and properties in Warwickshire and Leicestershire he eventually inherited. His religious and political views—he opposed the Act of Settlement of 1701 which secured the accession to the British throne for the House of Hanover—prevented him from receiving his degree from Balliol College, Oxford, or from pursuing any form of public career. His family’s wealth enabled him to live a life of leisure while devoting himself to his literary and musical interests  Although the musicologist Watkins Shaw dismisses Jennens as “a conceited figure of no special ability”, Donald Burrows has written: “of Jennens’s musical literacy there can be no doubt”. He was certainly devoted to Handel’s music, having helped to finance the publication of every Handel score since Rodelinda in 1725  By 1741, after their collaboration on Saul, a warm friendship had developed between the two, and Handel was a frequent visitor to the Jennens family estate at Gopsall.

An oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists. Like most operas, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an instrumental ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. However, opera is musical theatre, while oratorio is strictly a concert piece – though oratorios are sometimes staged as operas, and operas are sometimes presented in concert form. In an oratorio the choir often plays a central role, and there is generally little or no interaction between the characters, and no props or elaborate costumes. A particularly important difference is in the typical subject matter of the text. Opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder, whereas the plot of an oratorio often deals with sacred topics, making it appropriate for performance in the church. Protestant composers took their stories from the Bible, while Catholic composers looked to the lives of saints, as well as to Biblical topics. Oratorios became extremely popular in early 17th-century Italy partly because of the success of opera and the Catholic Church’s prohibition of spectacles during Lent. Oratorios became the main choice of music during that period for opera audiences.

By entire accident recently I came upon a modern production of the Messiah by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players.  My instant reaction was that it was winningly more upbeat than the production by Mormon Tabernacle Choir for example.

Although the huge-scale oratorio tradition was perpetuated by such large ensembles as the Royal Choral Society, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society in the 20th century, there were increasing calls for performances more faithful to Handel’s conception.

My preference is one of tempo largely, not a dispute with the grandeur of the choir or orchestra. Volume is always one of my weaknesses!  Given the collective context of the Messiah it is a reminder of those salad days of devotion. Matins was followed by a luncheon in the manse at which was preliminarily served a glass of sherry. The bouquet was magical!

As fondly reminiscent as I am, the current reality is far different – at least other than spiritually. The material or physical demonstration has vanished. Indeed it has become a predilection of mine to rejoice in the success of seeing the world thus reduced and distilled, strictly through my own uninhIbited lens; that is, without the enforcement of any competing or contrary dominion.  Call it my new economic theory of minimal! It would be specious of me to pretend that any distance or revolution I may now have is entirely due to insight.  It is no more dynamic than downsizing or elimination generally. I am still very much a product of my past whether manifest or not. Some things are imperturbable.