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George Frideric Handel (at age 64 in 1749) produced works, including Messiah that dazzled even the musical titans who would succeed him. (AGE Fotostock)

The Glorious History of Handel's Messiah

A musical rite of the holiday season, the Baroque-era oratorio still awes listeners 250 years after the composer's death

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Dublin was one of the fastest-growing, most prosperous cities in Europe, with a wealthy elite eager to display its sophistication and the economic clout to stage a major cultural event. "So it was a great advantage for Handel to make the voyage to Dublin to try out his new work, and then bring it back to London," says Keates, comparing the composer to Broadway producers who tried out plays in New Haven before staging them in New York City.

Messiah's success in Dublin was in fact quickly repeated in London. It took time for Messiah to find its niche as a Christmas favorite. "There is so much fine Easter music—Bach's St. Matthew Passion, most especially—and so little great sacral music written for Christmas," says Cummings. "But the whole first part of Messiah is about the birth of Christ." By the early 19th century, performances of Messiah had become an even stronger Yuletide tradition in the United States than in Britain.

There is little doubt about Handel's own fondness for the work. His annual benefit concerts for his favorite charity—London's Foundling Hospital, a home for abandoned and orphaned children—always included Messiah. And, in 1759, when he was blind and in failing health, he insisted on attending an April 6 performance of Messiah at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Eight days later, Handel died at home.

His total estate was assessed at 20,000 pounds, which made him a millionaire by modern standards. He left the bulk of his fortune to charities and much of the remainder to friends, servants and his family in Germany. His one posthumous present to himself was £600 for his own monument at Westminster Abbey, final resting place for British monarchs and their most accomplished subjects. Three years after Handel's death, the monument by French sculptor Louis François Roubillac, was installed.

Abroad, Handel's reputation—and that of his best-known composition—only continued to grow. Mozart paid Handel the supreme compliment of reorchestrating Messiah in 1789. Even Mozart, however, confessed himself to be humble in the face of Handel's genius. He insisted that any alterations to Handel's score should not be interpreted as an effort to improve the music. "Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect," Mozart said. "When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."

Classical music aficionado Jonathan Kandell is based in New York City.

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