The Magazine

'Messiah' Man

The music of George Frideric Handel 'makes you want to live.'

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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In 1719 a contingent of noblemen, hoping to serve art and to make a killing, founded the Royal Academy of Music-the king was glad to imprint his seal-a joint-stock company designed principally to secure the rights to Handel's operas for the foreseeable future. Although other composers, such as Giovanni Bononcini and Attilio Ariosti, contributed to the venture, Handel wrote most of the operas and oversaw the artistic operation. He had a great run, producing such sterling works as Giulio Cesare (1724), Tamerlano (1724), and Rodelinda (1725), but eventually the expense of the enterprise brought it down. When the house was shuttered in 1728, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, with its simple ballads and low-life atmospherics, was pulling in the crowds at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Handel would persist in the Italian operatic vein, as efforts by the librettist Joseph Addison and the composer Thomas Arne to convince him to write English operas failed utterly. As of 1733, however, the new incarnation of the Royal Academy at Covent Garden had to compete with the upstart Opera of the Nobility, and London simply could not sustain two opera companies; both went belly-up in 1737. Handel almost went belly-up himself that year, suffering an apparent stroke that temporarily crippled his right hand and his mental powers.

Fortunately, hardiness won out, and the second stage of his career got underway. Actually, it had already gotten underway in 1733, when he had written his first English oratorios, Deborah and Esther. Generally speaking, oratorio is a musical dramatic work on a sacred theme, performed in a church or a concert hall without the usual operatic accoutrements of costumes and scenery. There are, of course, variations and exceptions. The most famous of oratorios, Messiah, is really not a drama or even a narrative, exactly, but a sort of meditative celebration of the essential Christian mystery, like an ornate alternative form of the Mass.

Disenchanted with the worldly beguilements of opera, Handel hurled himself upon his new métier with a convert's zeal, and enhanced both his already considerable name and his treasure in doing so. Besides
Messiah, which was hailed as the musical ne plus ultra at its Dublin premiere in 1742, Handel's best-known oratorios include Saul (1739), Samson (1743), and Judas Maccabaeus (1747). He was after something here that he had been unable to attain in Italian opera: There was a moral impetus behind his composition now; spiritual elevation was the end he pursued. When a noble friend congratulated him on the superb entertainment he had just provided his audience, Handel replied, "My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wish to make them better."

Although there were some Puritans who regarded oratorio as sacrilege, for the most part London audiences were only too happy to take Handel's instruction with their delight. He died wealthy and esteemed. He wanted a private funeral, but 3,000 people crowded Westminster Abbey for his burial service. It was the turn toward sanctity that established Handel as the musical paragon in English hearts, and in others' as well. Goethe would claim that Messiah led him "to the most serious in musical art." Beethoven praised Handel as the greatest composer ever-"I would uncover my head, and kneel down at his tomb"-and revered Messiah above all.

Handel's operas, however, fell into oblivion for a very long time. After a revival of Admeto in 1754, none was staged anywhere until the 20th century, when a German academic mounted a production of Rodelinda in 1920. Happily, that prolonged oversight has now been corrected, and Handel's operas are once again in fashion on the stage and in the recording studio. Their place is rightly among the best. Like the other great popular operatic composers-Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Bizet, Puccini-Handel is above all a superb melodist, and employs tuneful music to delineate complex emotion with ravishing delicacy-and as subtly as the foremost dramatists working in words alone.

In Giulio Cesare in Egitto, perhaps Handel's finest opera, Sesto is the son of the Roman general Pompeo, who has been murdered by the Egyptian tyrant; the youth, sung originally by a soprano and nowadays usually by a mezzo-soprano, vows to avenge his father in the aria Svegliatevi nel core (Awaken in my heart). In the opening section, his martial resolve seems indomitable; but then in the B section, when Sesto invokes the voice of his father's ghost, which enjoins heroic severity, the music turns soft and tremulous, with the suggestion that the son may be loath to perform the bloody work he appeared so eager to undertake. Finally, in the reprise of the A section, hysteria commandeers him: Sesto must come unhinged in order to talk himself into doing his filial Roman duty! The aria is as dramatically rich and potent as a scene from Hamlet.

Alcina (1735) rivals Giulio Cesare in excellence, and the title character's aria Ombre pallide (Pale shadows) demonstrates the art of drama in song at its highest. Alcina, a Circe-like island sorceress who captivates men sexually, then turns them into beasts or trees or rocks, is calling on spirits that no longer do her will, and she laments the erotic disenchantment of her beloved Ruggiero and the dissolution of her magic powers. Her despair is patent, and yet in the soaring vocal lines a savage, lacerating ecstasy emerges: There is exultation in the knowledge of her approaching ruin, and one apprehends the self-hatred at her core. Pride may have formerly concealed her disgust at her own malignancy, but any vanity is gone now, and in her naked misery she finds release. This is some of the most shattering operatic music ever written, and it serves the most acute sense of dramatic values.

But it is of course Messiah that remains Handel's nonpareil work. Here the secular and the sacred are joined, as Handel constructs a monument to everlasting truth on a pedestal of familiar, worldly beauty. In Handel's sound-world, biblical grandeur requires an admixture of joyous levity to portray fully the surpassing love of the God who suffered and died for human salvation. Some of the music is unmistakably churchly, based on the hymn rather than the dance or operatic aria: The bass recitatives and airs have all the majesty of prophetic utterance whose solemnity is amplified as only music can do. But the melody of the alto air He was despised could almost be set to a lament for lost love from Alcina or Rodelinda. Similarly, a chorus such as For unto us a child is born has the ebullient lightness of a pastoral dance from an Italian opera, though it will swell into hieratic magnificence. His yoke is easy is another brightly tripping chorus, which evokes happiness here, in this life, as all suffering is erased when one takes Christ into his soul.

Messiah is the voice of an earthly ecstasy that has no need of mysticism, but is available to all in their ordinary lives thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus. It is fitting that this oratorio has become the consummate Christmas musical staple: It exemplifies the community at glad-hearted worship, in a world that fulfills its spiritual needs.

And this community of souls extends well beyond the Christian flock. In Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow's hero, an American millionaire trying to heal his spiritual desolation with a journey into the African wild, is greeted warmly by the isolated Arnewi tribe. Anticipating revelation and renewal, Henderson is moved to sing to the Arnewi from Messiah: He was despised and But who may abide the day of His coming. Taking in the music, Willatale, the old queen of the tribe, the woman of Bittahness, says to him, "Grun-tu-molani." Henderson cannot wait to understand what she is saying, and the translator explains, "Say, you want to live. Grun-tu-molani. Man want to live."

That is what Handel's music does: It makes you want to live. There is no greater gift an artist can give his audience.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.