Handel’s Messiah and Holiday Playlist
When Handel’s Messiah premiered, concert-goers came as much for the contralto as they did for the composer. The date was April 13, 1742. The place was Dublin. The singer was Susannah Maria Cibber, a mesmerizing vocalist and renowned actress, highest paid on the London stage. She was also at the center of a scandal.
Susannah was married to Theophilus Cibber, an actor, abusive husband, and spender well beyond the couple’s means. Theophilus had been selling his wife’s jewelry to satisfy creditors. But when this failed, Cibber took in a wealthy tenant named William Sloper to generate extra cash. The London rumor mill went wild. There was gossip about a ménage á trois. One tale had it that Theophilus forced his wife at gunpoint to sleep with the boarder. The fact was, in the end Susannah left with lodger Sloper. Lawsuits filed by Theophilus ensued. At the Dublin premiere, women took out the hoops from underneath their dresses to make space for attendees determined to squeeze in.
There were other controversies linked to Messiah’s premiere. Handel’s masterpiece was composed in 24 days. Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens fought with the composer over the haste and what he insisted was the composer’s general lack of care with the music.
The most enduring tale about Messiah stems from the first London performance. King George II, it is said, leapt to his feet during the stunning Hallelujah chorus. All present were obliged to stand, of course. From this day on started the tradition of audiences standing for this portion of Handel’s work. The only problem is that there’s no record of the king ever having attended any performance of Messiah.
Messiah, the Music
German composer George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) had become famous in Britain for Italian opera, but in response to changing English taste he turned his attention to oratorio. Messiah was his sixth work in this genre. It was originally intended for Easter. Part 1 starts with the prophesies of Isaiah. Part II begins with the Passion of Christ and concludes with the Hallelujah Chorus. Part III is the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven. Think of an oratorio as modified opera without the acting. There are scenes, recitations, and choruses.
I’ve never been a fan of the massive Messiah performances with big orchestras and large, invariably unwieldy choirs. Here’s (Opens in a new window) a clear and crisp full performance with Voces8 and the Academy of Ancient Music. It’s a chamber ensemble and likely the way Handel heard his music at his time.
Here’s (Opens in a new window) a short, beautiful chorus under the baton of baroque expert John Eliot Gardiner. And here’s (Opens in a new window) something that, when sung by Susannah Maria Cibber at the Dublin premiere, moved the audience to tears. The singer in this performance is Glasgow-born mezzo-soprano Beth Taylor (think of mezzo-soprano as between contralto and soprano). If you’re in Europe, you can hear her sing in the Mozart Requiem in Lausanne on February 9 and as a soloist in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in Lisbon on March 2 or 3. The twenty-nine-year-old Taylor performs regularly in opera houses across Europe. She deserves to be better known in the United States.
Beyond Messiah, a Playlist for the Holidays
For something joyful, listen here (Opens in a new window) to William Byrd’s Laudibus in Sanctis, one of ten psalm settings among twenty-one pieces contained in the Cantiones Sacrae from 1591. The collection was published at a time when Byrd was leaving London and the praise he had enjoyed at the Chapel Royal was fading. This (Opens in a new window) is gorgeous, too. It’s a short choral work by Orlande de Lassus (1532–94).
Here’s the joy of the fugue. A fugue is compositional technique that involves the introduction of a theme followed by several imitative parts that, beginning at staggered stages, join together to form a harmonic whole. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was a master of the fugue. He was also very well caffeinated when he worked, and he worked all the time. Bach drank as many as 30 cups of coffee a day.
Keep this in mind as you listen to this marvel of a fugue (Opens in a new window) from the B Minor Mass. It begins at the one minute and five second mark. Anyone who’s struggled writing counterpoint — I suffered through this as an undergrad — or who’s sung the B Minor Mass knows how maddeningly difficult this sort of thing is. For the singers, a train wreck is always right around the corner. I know this from experience, too.
After exuberant Bach, try these Christmas carols. “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” dates back to 1599. It’s sung here (Opens in a new window) by the Olga Vocal Ensemble from the Netherlands. Here’s (Opens in a new window) a wonderful French classic.
“I Saw Three Ships” is an English carol from the 17th century. Here’s (Opens in a new window) Sting’s rendition. If you prefer a more traditional version, here’s (Opens in a new window) the sparkle of King’s College Cambridge. And here, a 1966 classic recording (Opens in a new window) by Nat King Cole.
“In Dulci Jubilo” dates back to the 14th century. Here (Opens in a new window), more perfect, pure tones from the choir of King’s College Cambridge. And “Riu, Riu, Chiu,” my Spanish favorite (Opens in a new window). I always come back to John Fahey. Here’s (Opens in a new window) a lovely medley for guitar.
Six more recommendations for the holidays:
• Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his piano concerto No. 22 in mid-December 1785. Here’s (Opens in a new window) a live performance with David Fray at the keyboard and Marin Alsop conducting. Mozart himself performed this concerto at least three times. Mozart was both traditionalist and innovator. This concerto is bursting with color and joyfulness. Said a contemporary, “His feeling, the rapidity of his fingers, the great execution and strength of his left hand particularly, and the apparent inspiration of his modulations, astounded me.”
• Johannes Brahms finished his “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel” in autumn 1861. Brahms was 28 at the time. He once played the piece (Opens in a new window) for Richard Wagner, who in turn attacked Brahms in the press. The “War of the Romantics” pitted Brahms and his friend Clara Schumann against radical progressives such as Wagner and Franz Liszt.
• Arnold Schoenberg cracked things open with his new, revolutionary musical technique. Don’t run away from the following piece fearful of off-putting atonality. It’s Christmas music (Opens in a new window) from Schoenberg that might surprise you. Check out the wonderful still images and paintings from the composer as you listen. From 1908 to 1912, Schoenberg produced a number of sketches and paintings associated with the expressionist movement.
• Bill Evans is surely perfect for any time of year. Evans grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey. His father was of Welsh descent. His mother’s forebearers came from a coal-mining family in Ukraine. Harry ran a golf course, Mary was a seamstress. Bill grew up loving pinball machines and music. Here’s (Opens in a new window) a “best of” album, jazz from Evans to sink into.
• Thelonious Monk did it all. He pushed boundaries like mad. Here’s (Opens in a new window) his “San Francisco Holiday.” He recorded it first live at San Fran’s Blackhawk jazz club in 1960. Monk called jazz freedom, but fully understood structure and training (“You've been making the wrong mistakes,” he once said). For Christmas, try this (Opens in a new window).
• Have a listen to the American Purpose holiday playlist (Opens in a new window). It includes many of the pieces mentioned here, and more. Feel free to recommend and share.
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Susannah and William Sloper went on to have a son and a daughter, while Theophilus Cibber died in a shipwreck off the coast of Ireland. Susannah had seen trouble in Cibber from the get-go. She insisted on a prenup — an unusual arrangement at that time — to protect her healthy earnings as singer and actress.
Handel composed 42 operas and 29 oratorios. Messiah is by far his most popular oratorio, but there’s other equally spectacular work in this genre. His Judas Maccabaeus is the story of the back-and-forth struggle in roughly 165 B.C.E. between the Jews in Judea and the Seleucid Empire. Judas Maccabaeus emerges as the leader of the Jews. Parts 1 and 2 of the oratorio convey twists and turns in the war. Part 3 deals with the hard-fought Jewish victory, ending with the Feast of Lights.
Here’s (Opens in a new window) the dramatic overture to Judas Maccabaeus with gripping images as you listen.
Here’s (Opens in a new window) a sensational anthem for orchestra, soloists, and chorus. “I Feel the Deity Within” is equally brilliant, with a wonderful rendition here (Opens in a new window) by baritone and British Handel expert Jerome Knox.
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Warmest regards for this holiday season.