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'Messiah' origianlly written for Lent, Easter

George Frederick Handel is perhaps best known for penning the composition 'Messiah', which originally was intended for performance at Lent and Easter. Today, churches performing the work usually focus on the famous chorus sections and sing them at Christmas. (Photo courtesy of Handel House Museum).
George Frederick Handel is perhaps best known for penning the composition 'Messiah', which originally was intended for performance at Lent and Easter. Today, churches performing the work usually focus on the famous chorus sections and sing them at Christmas. (Photo courtesy of Handel House Museum).

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

Although most people don't realize it, George Friedrich Handel's "Messiah" was originally written for the Christian Lent and Easter season, not for Christmas.

But in Crescent City, as in many other places, the piece was sung at Christmas last year.

"We only did the parts pertaining to Christmas," said Pastor Dan Schlensker of Grace Lutheran Church. "Lent and Easter might be the more fitting time because they are about the whole purpose of Jesus being sent."

Schlensker has heard the work's "Hallelujah Chorus" performed at both Christmas and Easter.

"Because of the nature of the work, it gives the whole picture of Jesus' life," he said.

Handel composed his signature work during a 21-day period n 1741-42, and it was first performed in Dublin, Ireland.

"Messiah" is a collaborative effort, with music composed by Handel and the libretto, the words, written by Charles Jennens.

Jennens had admired Hand-el's music since 1725. Before he wrote "Messiah's" vocal parts, he had helped the composer on two other pieces.

According to David Vickers, whose article about "Messiah's" history is posted on the Internet, that performance was nearly de-railed by author Dean Jonathan Swift ("Gulliver's Travels").

Swift threatened to forbid St. Patrick's Cathedral singers from taking part in the performance. He later relented, but the uproar that "Messiah" aroused remained loud enough a year later to persuade Handel to advertise the piece's London premier as "A Sacred Oratorio."

The composer feared charges of blasphemy.

"Messiah" was not a popular work during the composer's lifetime. "In fact, it was only through Handel's annual Eastertide performances to benefit his favorite charity, the Foundling Hospital, that Messiah was heard at all," writes Henry Denmead.

Despite its shaky beginnings, "Messiah's" popularity grew to the point that the piece changed for the worse.

Tinkered with by various re-composers, and performed by huge choirs Handel could never have envisioned, the effect drew harsh criticism from the composer Hector Berlioz.

The Frenchman described it as "a barrel of roast pork and beer," hardly the sacred work Handel wrote to inspire medication on the Christian faith.

In creating words to accompany Handel's music, Jennens chose carefully from the New and Old Testaments.

He presented the piece much as he would have written a three-act opera divided into scenes.

Jennens' 1743 "wordbook," Vickers wrote, breaks Messiah into the following sections:

Part 1 presents the prophecy of Salvation, the prophecy of the coming of Messiah and the question of what his birth might mean for the world, the prophecy of the virgin birth, the appearance of the angels to the shepherds and Christ's miracles on earth.

Part 2 showcases Jesus' sacrifice, his scourging and crucifixion, his death and passage through hell to redemption, his ascension to heaven, God disclosing his identity in heaven, Whitsunday (Pentecost), the gift of tongues, the beginning of evangelism, rejection of the Gospel by the world and its rulers, and God's triumph.

Part 3 ends "Messiah" by showcasing the heart of the Christian faith, the promise of bodily resurrection and redemption from Adam's fall, the day of judgement and general resurrection, the victory over death and sin and the glorification of the Messianic victim.

"I wish they would do the Easter part at Easter," said Martha Williams, Triplicate religion columnist. "I've lived places where they did the Christmas part at Christmas, and the Easter part at Easter."

Whether its performances change, chances are that audiences in Crescent City will never hear the piece performed true to its form.

"The rarest version heard in modern performances is the 1742 Dublin original," wrote Vickers. "It can be bewildering to sort out exactly which authentic version of Handel's "Messiah" to perform."

If you want to hear recordings that come close to the Dublin performance, Vickers recommends buying the Dunedin Consort & Players; John Butt/Linn CKD 285, or a recording made by Worcester Cathedral Choir, Grande Ecurie et La Chambre du Roy, Jean-Claude Malgoire, a Sony "essential classics" piece.

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