HANOVER, NH—Handel’s Messiah: it’s all about Christmas, right? How many times have you heard its famous “Hallelujah Chorus” in halls decked in green and red?
Handel would beg to differ. The proper season for this beloved oratorio is spring. Recounting through song the life of Jesus Christ, Messiah culminates in the Easter story, in which Christ returns to save our souls. Its 1741 debut in Dublin occurred in the month of April, and it very literally redeemed suffering people, raising money to pay the debts of 142 people in debtors’ prisons. “
The Handel Society of Dartmouth College returns Messiah to its rightful time of year with performances of the complete oratorio on Saturday, May 18, 8 pm, and Sunday, May 19, 2 pm, in the Hop’s Spaulding Auditorium. Nationally known soloists Sarah Moyer, soprano, Doug Dodson, countertenor, Brian Giebler, tenor, and David Tinervia, baritone, join the 100-member chorus and a full orchestra.
These performances of the Handel Society’s signature work also make up the final program directed by Robert Duff, the Society’s conductor and artistic director for the past 15 years. Duff will leave at the end of June to become Director of Music at Saint Cecilia Parish in Boston, Mass, a vital musical congregation with three choirs, a vibrant concert series, and partnerships with Berklee College of Music, Boston Conservatory, New England Conservatory and Boston University. This complements Duff’s other Boston-area job as director of choral programs at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
Duff leaves behind a legacy of great performances and teaching and expanded repertoire at Dartmouth, wrote Joshua Price Kol, Hop Managing Director/Executive Producer. “Throughout Bob’s 15 years at Dartmouth, Bob has conducted the Handel Society as well as the Chamber Singers and has taught classes in the Music Department. Through his work, he has had a profound impact on countless Dartmouth students and community members. At the helm of the Handel Society, Bob has conducted numerous major masterworks of the Western choral repertoire, led the ensemble on several deeply meaningful tours of Europe, and worked tirelessly to advance the art of choral music in our community, the region and beyond. He has represented Dartmouth and the Handel Society as a past President of the Eastern Division of the American Choral Directors Association. … Bob will be leaving the Handel Society on solid ground and in a great place for his eventual successor.”
The Hop will name an interim director for the coming season and embark on a search for Duff’s successor. Founded in 1807, the Handel Society is the oldest student, faculty, staff, and community organization in the United States devoted to the performance of choral-orchestral major works. Since its inception, the Handel Society has grown considerably beyond its original size and scope of programming, which focused on Baroque works from Handel’s era. Today comprising 100 members drawn from the Dartmouth student body, faculty and staff, and the Upper Valley community, the Society performs concerts of major works both old and new.
Handel’s Messiah, by David Wright, 2019
George Frideric Handel was born February 23, 1685, in Halle, in what is now Germany, and died April 14, 1759, in London. In early November 1741, Handel traveled from London to Dublin, “very merry all along the way,” as he put it in a letter to his friend Charles Jennens. Shortly before his departure, he had been seen at the opening night of a rival’s opera company, watching a very serious opera and laughing continuously. What was tickling Handel’s funnybone? Most likely it was pure relief. After nearly thirty years of headaches, heartaches, bankruptcy and broken health, he had just taken leave of the thankless task of promoting Italian opera to a reluctant English public. What he didn’t know yet—and how this composer-entrepreneur would have smiled had he known—was that he had already discovered a musical genre with vastly more commercial potential.
The English oratorio is, in some ways, a monument to pragmatism. Handel, searching for operatic subjects that would interest the English, presented several works during the 1730s that were based on Bible stories. Since church authorities forbade the representation of Biblical personages by actresses, castrati and other theatrical lowlifes, quasi-operas like
Esther, Deborah and Saul had to be performed without sets or costumes, under the dignified title “oratorio.” Perhaps to compensate for the lack of stage effects, Handel filled the orchestra’s music with picturesque details. Recognizing the English love of choral anthems, Handel sprinkled them liberally through his oratorios; in fact, the choruses of Israel in Egypt (1739) far outnumber the solos. The results were gratifying: tickets to oratorio performances sold briskly. Only Israel in Egypt—which committed the unpardonable sin of putting the actual words of Holy Scripture (not paraphrases) in the mouths of actresses, etc.—was a financial failure.
Handel, however, remained convinced that the mighty lines of the King James Version would shine in an oratorio, if only he could find a receptive audience. When the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Duke of Devonshire, invited him to Dublin to lead charity benefit performances of his works, he found the occasion he was looking for. Since he was particularly known in Ireland for his anthems and other church music, Handel turned to his trusted friend Charles Jennens for a suitably theological text. Jennens supplied him with a collage of Biblical verses that was, when one thinks about it, stupefying in its ambition—to sum up, in one evening’s “entertainment” (to use Jennens’ word), the central narrative of the Christian faith: sin, prophecy, and the coming of Christ; His ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection; the foundation of the Church; Christ’s return in triumph; and the redemption of the faithful from sin and death.
Handel, however, was not stupefied. In late August 1741, he plunged into one of his legendary productive spells; after just 24 days of feverish work, the oratorio was complete. (Riding the same creative surge, he completed another massive oratorio, Samson, just six weeks later.) Although the new work contained no operatic characters, dialogue or action, Handel’s sense of epic narrative and dramatic timing remained irrepressible. If English authorities frowned on dramatizing the stories of Esther and Deborah, what would they think of this? Throughout the 1740s, Handel would suppress the work’s true title in England, referring to it only as “A New Sacred Oratorio.” In Ireland, however, he dared to announce whose story this was: Messiah.
The composer led the first performance of Messiah on April 13, 1742, before a glittering roomful of Dublin’s worthies, assembled “For the relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay.” Certainly Messiah’s words of comfort and redemption would not have been lost on the inmates of those institutions, had any been present; in fact, as a direct result of this concert, the debts of 142 prisoners were paid, and they were released. The audience received the new oratorio, a Dublin paper said, with “exquisite Delight.” For the rest of Handel’s life, Messiah was heard almost exclusively at charity benefits, which sheltered it from churchmen’s protests until it became an indelible part of English culture.
Although Messiah marks Handel’s decisive turn toward the oratorio, it resembles none of his other works—and all of them. Its arias are operatic, its choruses English, and the somber Passion music of Part Two draws on the north German tradition of Schütz and Bach. It is a summa not only of Christian theology but of Handel’s musical heritage. But to say so is ponderous, and if there is anything Messiah doesn’t need, it is more ponderous interpretation. In fact, much of the work’s charm comes from its delicate, inventive scoring for strings only, tailored to Dublin’s small orchestra, with trumpets and drums added only in the jubilant choruses. It is a remarkable flight of musical imagination, sustained not by conventional piety—Handel was a man of the theater and the marketplace, not the church—but, apparently, by the sheer beauty and force of the text. After composing it, Handel resumed his career as a music dramatist, immersing himself again in the world of characters and plots, to the delight of his London audiences. If he had known that this one untypical oratorio, of which he was justly proud but which could be performed only at the Foundling Hospital, would consign all the rest of his dramatic works to obscurity for two hundred years, he would not have smiled.