COLUMBIA — In London’s Covent Garden on the evening of March 23, 1743, “Messiah,” a piece destined to become an annual favorite, opened for a dubious crowd. Anthony Hicks, in an article for the “New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians,” tells us that this was the first time biblical text had been sung in a theater, and the reaction was mixed.
Tonight, MU’s Choral Union and University Singers will join with the University Philharmonic to give a performance of that piece, an oratorio that has been performed continually since its revival in 1749.
Composed by George Frideric Handel, portions of “Messiah,” such as the “Hallelujah” chorus, have become an inseparable part of the Christmas season. “It has great, exciting music, wonderful choruses,” said Paul Crabb, MU’s director of choral activities.
Although it is Crabb’s first time to lead the work in Columbia, this is the 11th time the work has been performed by the groups.
“Messiah” — the official name excludes the “the” — is divided into three portions: the birth of Christ; the Passion and crucifixion of Christ; and the redemption of believers. The first is the most often performed of the three, with performances usually ending with the “Hallelujah” chorus.
“It’s traditional to perform it at the Christmas season, although the text doesn’t particularly lend itself to Christmas,” said Judith Mabary, assistant professor of music history at MU.
She added that although the piece contains text relating to Christmas season, it was originally intended to be performed during Lent, which leads up to Easter.
The text, compiled by Charles Jennens, is taken entirely from Scripture, Hicks writes in the “New Grove,” which is the Encyclopedia Britannica of music. Old Testament, or Hebrew, Scripture is mixed with texts from the New Testament to illustrate the Christian belief that Christ is the Messiah of prophesy.
Mabary called the piece a statement of personal faith.
Crabb said Handel’s ability to dramatize the words with music gives the work its power.
“He was very good at choosing text and putting the dramatic elements together,” he said.
Crabb cited a moment during the recitative before the aria “And the Trumpet Shall Sound.” The music is somber, describing those asleep in death. With the line, “and we shall be changed,” the music instantly brightens and leads to the aria, which describes the last trumpet call that will awaken the faithful from their death-sleep.
Crabb thinks Handel’s “text painting” prowess — in which the music mimics the words — is the source of the music’s draw yet today.
Before composing “Messiah,” Handel was primarily a composer of Italian-language operas. English tastes changed, however, and Handel was forced to switch to primarily composing English-language oratorios.
Oratorios differ from operas in several ways, Mabary said. They use neither costumes nor sets, so they were much cheaper to produce. Oratorios were also mainly about biblical subjects, rather than the lofty tales of Greek mythology and history that operas of the day typically used. The English knew the Bible stories better and could relate more easily to the oratorios, she said.
The work premiered in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742, Hicks writes.
Handel was worried about the reception the work would receive, so the first three performances were done for charity, Hicks wrote.
When Handel introduced “Messiah” to London audiences in 1743, some critics viewed the performance of sacred text in a playhouse as sacrilege. Eventually, the appeal of the music won over critics. A revival of the piece was held in 1749, and annual performances turned into tradition.
“There are some of his other oratorios I would really love to do, but they don’t have the appeal,” Crabb said.