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ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Aiken Symphony tackles Handel’s most popular oratorio

December 7, 2018

About six years ago, on one of my many trips to London, I took the Underground to Bond Street, walked down South Molton to Brook Street, and arrived finally at the former residence of 18th-century composer George Frideric Handel. At Number 25 Brook Street, one of four row houses built between 1717 and 1726, Handel spent thirty-six years until his death in the second-floor bedroom in 1759.

Despite the fact that that particular room now boasts a magnificent period-appropriate canopied bed, today’s visitors to the Handel House Museum will find the first-floor rooms much more intriguing: the spacious front room where Handel rehearsed many of his singers and instrumentalists and the back room where he composed many of his works, including the most popular of his oratorios, “Messiah.” Indeed, during my visit, one of the highlights of the self-paced tour was a sheet from Handel’s autograph score of the opening of the Hallelujah Chorus on loan from the British Library.

By 1741, Handel’s London audiences had grown disenchanted with his experiments in Italian-language opera; both his “Imeneo” and “Deidamia” were flops. Thus, he turned to oratorios, musical compositions, both vocal and instrumental, based on sacred texts. To ensure their accessibility to his British audiences, Handel used libretti translated into English. The text of “Messiah” was written by Charles Jennens, a Shakespeare scholar educated at Oxford University.

Because of the lackluster London reception of his most recent Italian operas, Handel decided to debut “Messiah” in Dublin where he was under contract to stage a series of concerts in 1742. Success greeted him every step of the way. In fact, the premiere of “Messiah” was so highly anticipated in that city that audience members were asked to make adjustments to their customary wardrobe in order to accommodate a larger crowd; women were requested to forgo hoops in their skirts and men were asked to dispense with their swords. The hall had a capacity of 600, but records show that around 700 people crowded into the space for the work’s first performance.

After its popular debut in Dublin, “Messiah” eventually became a staple of Handel’s annual concert season in London. Although it is divided into three parts: the advent of Christ’s birth, his sacrifice for humankind, and his resurrection, the oratorio has been, since its inception, most often associated with Christmas; and its now a regular feature of the holiday season.

Indeed, this year the Aiken Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Dr. Donald Portnoy is bringing “Messiah” to our town for a special performance at St. Mary’s Help of Christians Catholic Church (the new church on Fairfield Street) at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 18. The orchestra will be joined by four soloists and a chorus handpicked by Maestro Portnoy for the occasion.

Many are the stories – some undoubtedly apocryphal – attendant upon the composition and early performance history of “Messiah.” One tale asserts that Handel himself shed tears when he scored the Hallelujah Chorus so overwhelmed was he by its power and majesty. An even more consequential tale involves the reaction of George II, who sat on the British throne when the oratorio gained traction in London. It is said that he was so moved by the Hallelujah Chorus during a royal command performance of “Messiah,” the king abandoned his seat and stood up. The modern audience practice of standing for that part of the oratorio thus dates from the age-old custom of standing when the monarch stands.

Oratorios rejuvenated Handel’s reputation and refilled his coffers. Indeed, the composer died a rich man, worth perhaps a million dollars in today’s money. It is particularly appropriate, given the spirit of generosity customarily associated with the holiday season, to note that Handel gave much of his fortune away to charity. Part of the profit he made in Dublin from the premiere of “Messiah,” for example, Handel donated to a local debtors’ prison and hospital; his annual performances of “Messiah” in London beginning in 1750 were offered in support of his favorite charity, the Foundling Hospital, an establishment for the ”education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children.” This is the traditional season of giving; and Handel’s “Messiah” sprang, to some extent, from the composer’s acceptance of that sentiment.

For information on the ASO’s performance of “Messiah,” contact Doris Begley at 803-642-9453 or dorisbegley@atlanticbb.net. Single admission is thirty dollars; tickets are available by calling 803-220-7251. There is open seating for this special event, so early arrival is recommended.

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