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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 7 Class of 1685 (II)
Richard Taruskin

ex. 7-2e George Frideric Handel, Israel in Egypt, no. 7, chorus, “He gave them hailstones,” mm. 22–26


ex. 7-2f George Frideric Handel, Israel in Egypt, no. 8, chorus, “He sent a thick darkness,” mm. 1–13


ex. 7-2g George Frideric Handel, Israel in Egypt, no. 9, chorus, “He smote all the first-born of Egypt,” mm. 1–4

This applies even to Messiah (1741), the one Handel oratorio that was performed within the composer’s lifetime in consecrated buildings and could count, therefore, as a religious observance. The work, or excerpts from it, is still regularly performed in churches, Anglican and otherwise, especially at Christmas time (although its original performances took place at the more traditional Eastertide). But it is much more often performed in concert halls by secular choral societies. That is appropriate, since, like the rest of Handel’s oratorios, Messiah’s true affinities remain thoroughly theatrical.

What distinguished it from its fellows and gave rise to its occasional special treatment was its subject matter. Practically alone among Handel’s English oratorios, it has a New Testament subject and a text, again compiled by Jennens, drawn largely from the Gospels. That subject, the life of Christ the Redeemer with emphasis first on the portents surrounding his birth, and then on his death and resurrection, brings the work into line with the most traditional ecclesiastical oratorios, and with the even older tradition of narrative Passion settings.

Messiah may have been commissioned by the Lord Lieutenant of Dublin to raise money for the city’s charities. Handel wrote the music with his usual legendary speed—in twenty-four days, from 22 August to 14 September 1741—and finished the orchestral score on 29 October, setting out for Dublin two days later. The first performance took place at the New Music Hall on Fishamble Street on 13 April 1742.

The première performance of Messiah is an especially important date in the history of European music because Handel’s atypical New Testament oratorio is the very oldest work in the literature to have remained steadily in active repertory ever since its first performance. Unlike any other music so far mentioned or examined in this book, with the single equivocal exception of Gregorian chant—and even the chant lost its canonical status at the Second Vatican Council in 1963—Messiah has never had to be rediscovered or “revived,” except in the sense the word is used in the theater, whereby any performance by a cast other than the original one is termed a revival. The continuous performing tradition of European art (or literate) music—which we can now (and for this very reason) fairly call “classical music”—can therefore be said to begin with Messiah, the first “classic” in our contemporary repertoire, and Handel is therefore the earliest of all “perpetually-in-repertory” (“classical”) composers.

Handel himself conducted yearly London “revivals” of Messiah, beginning the next year at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. The work became a perennial and indispensable favorite with the London public when Handel began giving charity performances of it in the chapel of the London Foundling Hospital, starting in 1750. These were the “consecrated” performances that led to the work’s being regarded as an actual “sacred oratorio,” although that was not the composer’s original intention. By the time of Handel’s death on 14 April 1759 (nine days after conducting his last Foundling Hospital Messiah), the British institution of choral festivals had been established, and these great national singing orgies (particularly the Three Choirs Festival, which has continued into our own day) have maintained Messiah as a unique national institution, vouchsafing the unprecedented continuity of its performance tradition (although the style of its performances has continued to evolve over the years, in accord with changing tastes—another sign of a “classic”).


fig. 7-5 Chapel at the Foundling Hospital, Dublin, where Messiah was first performed.

By the end of the eighteenth century Messiah was accepted and revered as true cathedral music. It is all the more illuminating, therefore, to emphasize and demonstrate its secular and theatrical side. This aspect of the work can be vividly illustrated both from its fascinatingly enigmatic creative history and from its performance history.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II). In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Class of 1685 (II)." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-07003.xml