Georg Frederic Handel (1685 – 1759) arr. Prout
Handel was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of 18th century London. Although born in Germany, his greatest successes came after he moved to England in 1712, where he gained renown as a composer and presenter of operas and oratorios.
Messiah, Handel’s crowning masterpiece, was composed in the astonishingly short period of just over three weeks. It was first performed in Dublin on April 13th 1742. The organisers requested ‘the Favour of the Ladies not to come with hoops’ and the Gentlemen ‘not to come with swords’, enabling 700 people to pack into the New Music Hall to give Messiah a rapturous reception. In contrast, the Covent Garden premiere at Easter the following year was mired in controversy. Many of the more conservative Londoners were outraged that ‘actors’ in a theatre should perform a sacred “entertainment”. Nevertheless, King George II attended, and apparently rose to his feet during the first bars of the Hallelujah chorus, thus inaugurating a tradition that persists to this day.
Messiah tells the whole story of Christ, from the prophecy of His coming through to the prophecy of His eventual return. Charles Jennen’s libretto is a masterful setting of biblical texts that presents the truth of the Christian faith with unequalled concision and balance. It is remarkable in presenting both Christ’s birth (“For unto us a Child is born”) and His Crucifixion using Old Testament texts, thus emphasising the prophetic fulfilment of Christ’s life.
Handel was a pragmatist and didn’t hesitate to revise Messiah to suit the requirements for a particular performance. Then, as early as 30 years after Handel’s death, Mozart reorchestrated Messiah to “modernize” the sound and replace the organ by more readily available woodwind. As the number of performers steadily increased from the several dozen of Handel’s time to several thousand in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many further versions emerged. Today we use Ebenezer Prout’s 1902 reworking of the Mozart edition. Prout retained (with revisions) the additional wind parts added by Mozart, and restored the high trumpet (in D) in The Trumpet Shall Sound, in which Mozart had used the French horn as apparently Viennese trumpeters of the day could not play that high! Prout sought also to remove the worst corruptions added in Victorian times as Messiah became a mainstay of the amateur choral movement that flourished in England following the industrial revolution.
In our own small way we continue that tradition today.
Performed: April 2003, Nov 2013