The Commonwealth Chorale of Virginia

"Cultural Jewel in the Heart of Virginia"



Messiah Rehearsals to begin October 10!

Posted on September 24, 2017 at 4:00 PM

By Marion Carter

Interested singers are invited to join the Commonwealth Chorale in rehearsing Georg Frideric Handel's magnificent oratorio, Messiah, in preparation for performances in December.  Rehearsals begin October 10, 7-10 p.m. at the Farmville Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall, 200 West Third Street.  All singers are welcome; no auditions are required.  Young singers age 12 and over are also invited to participate.  Performances will take place at 3:00 p.m on Dec. 3 at Crenshaw United Methodist Church in Blackstone and at 3:00 p.m. on Dec. 10 at Farmville United Methodist Church. 

As one of the best known and most loved oratorios of all time, Messiah needs little introduction.  It has been a fixture of the holiday season all over the world for generations, especially in Britain and the United States.  For many choirs and orchestras, a performance of Handel's masterpiece is the high point of the year.  As the Christmas season approaches, audiences flock to hear the beloved work performed, sales of recordings soar, and no festival concert would be complete without at least a rendition of the "Hallelujah" chorus.  However, Messiah was not conceived as or originally performed as a Christmas piece.  Librettist Charles Jennens drew his inspiration from both the Old and New Testamernts of the King James Bible.  Only the first third of his manuscript covered the birth of Jesus.  The main emphasis of the work was on Christ's death and resurrection.  Thus it was regarded as being primarily associated with Easter rather than with Advent, as in modern times.  Indeed, the premiere performance took place during the Lenten season of 1742. 

Though born in 1685 in Halle, Germany, Handel went to England in 1712 to live and work, where he established his reputation in Italian opera.  As public taste in music changed, he began writing English oratorios which achieved wide acclaim.  When he received the Messiah libretto from Charles Jennens, he immediately recognized its commercial possibilities and began composing the music, finishing in only 24 days.  Because the work was sacred music, but was intended for popular entertainment in a concert hall or theatre rather than a church, Handel must have known that clerical authorities would disapprove of the production. This may explain why he inscribed the letters "SDG" (Soli Deo Gloria) "To God alone the glory" at the end of his manuscript.

The premiere performance of Messiah was held on April 13, 1742, in Dublin where Handel was working at the time.  It was mounted as a charity event with the proceeds being donated to prisoners, orphans, and the sick.  Handel, who had earlier suffered and miraculously recovered from a stroke that caused temporary paralysis and brain damage, explained, "I have myself been a very sick man, and am now cured.  I was prisoner, and have been set free."  Despite the performance being for charity, Handel had trouble recruiting singers due to objections from religious leaders.  The Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver's Travels fame, threatened to forbid his cathedral singers to participate with "this club of fiddlers."  The fact that Handel chose Susanna Cibber, a stage actress who was embroiled in a scandalous divorce, as the contralto soloist did not help the situation with Dean Swift. The Dublin audience, however, had no such qualms; more than 700 people crowded into a concert hall designed to hold 600.  In order to squeeze in additional paying customers, the sponsors asked the ladies not to wear hoops under their skirts and the gentlemen to refrain from wearing swords.  The premiere was an overwhelming success. In spite of her notoriety, Susanna Cibber received rave reviews.  Reportedly, a Dublin clergyman, the Rev. Delaney, was so moved by her rendition of "He Was Despised" that he rose to his feet and cried, "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!"

After the Dublin concerts, Handel moved production of the oratorio to London, but his success was not repeated there, even though he tried to defuse the sacred-secular issue by calling his work "The New Sacred Oratorio" instead of the more Biblically inspired "Messiah."  The tradition of standing during the "Hallelujah" chorus supposedly began after this first performance in London, at which it is reputed that King George II was so moved that he rose and stood throughout the chorus. This is probably mythical, as there is no evidence that the king actually attended the performance.  In any case, the lukewarm reception of Messiah in London caused Handel to reduce the number of planned performance of the work, to the great disgust of librettist Jennens.  The work did not achieve wide popularity in England for several years.  However, by 1750, audiences had realized its worth, and Handel performed it thirty-six times over the years, more than any other of his works.  On April 6, 1759, when he was blind and in failing health, he attended his final performance of Messiah at Covent Garden.  He died eight days later at his home in London, at age 74.

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