We explore Handel’s rousing oratorio Messiah - a piece with the chorus at its heart.
This autumn Glyndebourne presents a concert performance of Handel’s Messiah. This is a rare opportunity to see – and hear – Glyndebourne’s exceptional chorus centre-stage.
While most oratorios put the spotlight on the soloists, Handel’s Messiah has the chorus at its heart. As exhilarating now as it was then – this is a piece that wholeheartedly showcases its singers. With Glyndebourne’s long history of superb Handel stagings, this is one not to be missed.
A brief introduction
George Frideric Handel had arrived in London in 1712 as a young man keen to make his mark with the most fashionable musical genre of the day: Italian opera. But fast forward nearly 30 years and tastes were changing. The public were weary of opera and, after premiering Deidamia in January 1741, Handel abandoned the genre, turning his attention instead to oratorio.
Oratorio swapped opera’s secular subjects for sacred ones, but otherwise offered a pragmatic composer like Handel all the same opportunities for musical drama and vocal display. That summer Handel began work on what would quickly become his most celebrated oratorio of all. Setting a text by Charles Jennens, Messiah is unusual – trading traditional narrative and characters for a more meditative approach, using solely Biblical texts to guide its audience through the story of Christ’s birth, crucifixion and resurrection.
In April 1741 Messiah was premiered in Dublin to a hall so full that gentlemen were asked not to wear swords and women to leave their skirt-hoops home. The response was rapturous, as the audience responded to the work’s ‘exquisite delight’. The London reception was cooler, more suspicious, with some even arguing that it was blasphemous for such a work to be presented in a Covent Garden theatre. But the piece quickly gained popular momentum, and became a fixture of Christmas and Easter schedules from the 19th century onwards.
Why not to miss this production
This is rare opportunity to see – and hear – Glyndebourne’s exceptional chorus centre-stage. While most oratorios put the spotlight on the soloists, Handel’s Messiah has the chorus at its heart, showcasing its singers in everything from the exhilarating fugue ‘He trusted in God’ to the rapt wonder and stillness of ‘Worthy is the Lamb’.
Glyndebourne has a long history of superb Handel stagings, and this concert of Messiah continues and develops the Festival’s close relationship with the composer’s music.
A great moment to look out for
Part II of Handel’s oratorio ends with the work’s – quite possibly Handel’s – most famous music: the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus. Its appeal is obvious and immediate: shouts of rejoicing are passed back and forth among the choir like trumpeters. Rhythms are crisp and rhetorical, and the counterpoint builds up satisfyingly to an explosive, exultant climax.
Less obvious is the history behind the strange tradition that sees audiences rise to their feet during performances of this chorus. Many claim that George II, deeply moved and impressed by Handel’s music, spontaneously stood at this moment during the premiere, forcing the rest of the crowd to join him. But no contemporary accounts bear this out, so perhaps he was just standing up to stretch his legs, or perhaps he was never even there at all. We’ll never know the truth, so standing remains strictly optional.
Cast and creative team
Ben Glassberg, music director of the Glyndebourne Tour, will conduct the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus in Handel’s much-loved oratorio.
Image credits: Header image © Tom Hammick. All rights reserved, DACS 2021 | The Glyndebourne Chorus, photo by Robert Workman