This weekend (December 2-4) British conductor and Baroque-era specialist Laurence Cumings leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Handel's popular 1742 oratorio "Messiah." In doing so, he's following a tradition nearly two centuries old. The origin of that tradition is the first of our three "Messiah Mysteries." [NOTE: this includes some additional bits of trivia in mystery #3 added on Friday, December 2nd].[Preview the music with the SLSO's commercial-free Spotify playlist.]
1. The Adventure of the Moving Messiah
Handel's "Messiah" is a Christmas tradition. Which is odd, because (as I noted when the SLSO last played the piece back in 2018) the composer never intended "Messiah" to be Christmas music.
The oratorio was first performed on April 13th, 1742 in Dublin, repeated that same June, and then moved to London, where it was first presented on March 23, 1743. I can't find any evidence that the work was in any way associated with Christmas during Handel's life. In fact, as Christopher H. Gibbs points out in his program notes for a 2007 NPR broadcast of Messiah from Philadelphia , "Handel performed it some three dozen times--every time, it should be noted, around Easter, not Christmas."
And then there's the fact that Jesus himself never even puts in an appearance. The key dramatic events described in "Messiah" happen off stage. Would-be playwrights and screenwriters are usually told to "show, not tell." The libretto for "Messiah," by upper-crust arts patron Charles Jennens, does the opposite. In that respect, "Messiah" is an outlier even among Handel's other oratorios. As Howard E. Smither writes in the Grove Dictionary, Jennens's libretto is "a purely biblical, non-dramatic text, and as such is not representative of the Handelian oratorio, which is essentially a dramatic genre."
Still, as Jonathan Kandell notes in an article for the September 2009 edition of Smithsonian, "[b]y the early 19th century, performances of Messiah had become an even stronger Yuletide tradition in the United States than in Britain."
An important piece of the puzzle is supplied is supplied by Luke Howard in his program notes for a 2009 "Messiah" performance by UMS Choral Union:
The tradition of performing Messiah at Christmas began later in the 18th century. Although the work was occasionally performed during Advent in Dublin, the oratorio was usually regarded in England as an entertainment for the penitential season of Lent, when performances of opera were banned...But in 1791, the Cæcilian Society of London began its annual Christmas performances, and in 1818 the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston gave the work's first complete performance in the US on Christmas Day--establishing a tradition that continues to the present.
It apparently took a while for the Christmas tradition to become well established, though. As Marie Gangemil of the Oratorio Society of New York wrote in her program notes for their 2012 "Messiah," the first December performance by that organization didn't take place until 1874.
But are these events sufficient to explain why the tradition became so widespread? Might there also be a supply and demand issue here? As Laurence Cummings observed in the Smithsonian article cited above: "There is so much fine Easter music--Bach's St. Matthew Passion, most especially--and so little great sacral music written for Christmas. But the whole first part of Messiah is about the birth of Christ."
Painting by Thomas Hudson
So there you have it. Boston and New York picked up the idea from London, and the rest of the USA, seeing a chance to fill a product gap, picked it up from them. It's a reminder that memes were spreading long before the Internet, just a lot more slowly.
2. The Case of the Upright Audience
Another puzzle connected with "Messiah" is the business of standing during the "Hallelujah" chorus that ends Part II.
If you've been a classical music lover long enough, you have no doubt heard the story of how King George the II stood when he first heard it at the 1743 London premier and how everybody else followed suit because, hey, he was the king. It's a great story with only one little flaw: there's no evidence that George II ever attended a performance of "Messiah" at all.
The story appears to come, not from a contemporary account, but (according to Matthew Guerrieri in a 2009 article for the Boston Globe) from a secondhand description in a letter written by James Beattie 37 years later. The story is almost certainly apocryphal, and a classic example of how urban legends originate.
The tradition appears to go back a long way, though. When George Harris attended a "Messiah" performance in 1750 he observed that "[a]t some of the chorus's the company stood up," suggesting that the custom extended beyond just the "Hallelujah." Six years later, another account mentions the audience standing for "grand choruses." In his video series on "Messiah" Andrew Megill, Music Director of Masterwork Chorus, describes a letter written by a woman who attended a Messiah in Handel's time complaining of audience members who weren't standing during the appropriate choruses--suggesting that the practice was already fairly well established.
The bottom line, though, is that nobody really seems to know where the custom originated or, for that matter, why so many of us are still doing it. Maybe early audiences were just so swept away by the power of some of the choruses they stood up spontaneously and the custom simply caught on. Like the Christmas performance tradition, it seems to be a meme that just won't die.
For anyone attending "Messiah" for the first time, it must seem
just another example of the sometimes baffling and contradictory
rules of etiquette that go with classical music concerts. But
that's a whole different subject.
3. The Incredible Expanding Orchestra
stand for Messiah
George II by Thomas Hudson, 1744
Finally, a note on the size of the orchestra you'll see this
weekend. That first performance of "Messiah" back in 1743 probably used around
20 singers in toto, including soloists, along with an
orchestra of strings, two trumpets, and tympani. Handel himself
varied the orchestration of "Messiah" depending on the resources
available for a particular performance as well as the size of the
hall and other factors.
Still, the Great Expansion didn't really kick in until after
Handel's death, when it became customary to re-orchestrate and
expand the size of the instrumental and (as a result) choral
forces used to bring "Messiah" more in line with contemporary
tastes. The German-language version Mozart prepared for his
long-time patron Gottfried van Swieten in 1789 (officially "Der
Messias," K. 572) is one of the earliest and best-known examples,
but there have been numerous others.
This wasn't the only case of Mozart messing with "Messiah," by
the way. Listen to "And with his stripes we are healed" in Part 2
back-to-back with the "Kyrie" from the Requiem, K. 626 and you
will probably notice a certain (ahem) similarity. Composers not
infrequently borrowed from each other in the 17th and 18th
centuries and I expect that Mozart meant this as an homage
to Handel rather than a simple ripoff.
During the 19th century, expanding "Messiah" began to take on the aspect of an arms race, with each subsequent performance determined to become more grandiose than the last. The 1857 Great Handel Festival at London's Crystal Palace employed 2000 singers and an orchestra of nearly 400. Later performances at the same venue became even more bloated. By 1877 George Bernard Shaw, for one, cried "hold, enough." "Why," he asked, "instead of wasting huge sums on the multitudinous dullness of a Handel Festival does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah in St James's Hall with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die."
I don't know whether or not Shaw, who died in 1950, eventually got his wish. The tide did begin to turn back to Handel's original intentions in the 20th century, though, and by the 1960s performing additions began to show up based on the composer's original manuscripts and using instruments appropriate to the period. The 1965 edition by Watkins Shaw was probably the earliest but it was a Basil Lam edition that was used in a groundbreaking 1967 Angel/EMI recording by The Ambrosian Singers and the English Chamber Orchestra. That recording would be the first of many that would return to something like Handel's original intentions.
As you might expect from a Baroque music guru, Cummings will be
using an orchestra of 40 musicians, including two trumpets, two
oboes, one bassoon, and tympani. I don't know how large the chorus
will be, but it's a safe bet it will be sized appropriately to the
orchestra. In this respect, Cummings is in line with previous
"Messiah" performances over the past decade by Matthew Halls (2018),
Bernard Labadie (2015),
and Christopher Warren Green (2012).
The actual length of "Messiah" also varied from performance to
performance. A complete "Messiah" contains either 47 or 53 numbers
(depending on which edition you use) and can run just under two
and one-half hours, not including an intermission. These days,
you're more likely to encounter a "Messiah" that clocks in at
around two hours, which is what you can expect to hear this
There are also alternate versions Handel prepared for a dozen of those numbers. "Rejoice greatly" is Part 1, for example, exists in versions using both 4/4 and 12/8 time signatures. The former sounds like a march, the latter like a dance. Which one a particular conductor uses is prety much up to them. The 1976 recording in the SLSO's Spotify playlist (The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Neville Marriner) uses the 12/8 score (my personal preference).
The Essentials: Laurence Cummings leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Handel's "Messiah" Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, December 2-4. The Saturday concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.