Choirs and orchestras around the world are gearing up for their annual holiday performances of Handel’s Messiah, one of the most familiar and well-loved works of classical musical ever composed. (Here’s one of our favorite recent renditions of the oratorio’s famous “Hallelujah” chorus.)
Many works of art that live on to become classics were unappreciated in their own time — but was Messiah? Music history expert Calvin Stapert, author of Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People, here looks back at early reviews of Handel’s masterpiece.
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Over the years reviewers have become notorious for panning early performances of works that posterity would judge to be masterpieces.
Louis Spohr’s comments on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are legendary. “Monstrous and tasteless” he called it, proof “that Beethoven was wanting in aesthetical feeling.” Anthologies of such reviews make for entertaining reading because it’s great fun to make sport over the stupidity of reviewers, but it has led to the belief that it is normal for great works to be unappreciated in their own time. But of course that’s not the case. Early assessments of new pieces are a mixed bag — some are positive, others negative; and whether positive or negative, some are perceptive, others are not. Such were the early reviews of Handel’s Messiah.
The first performances of Messiah were in Dublin, much to the chagrin of Charles Jennens, the librettist who supplied Handel with the text. He had hoped it would debut in the more fashionable London, but he had to wait until the following season for the London premiere.
As it turned out, however, the responses of the Dublin audiences were more predictive of the Messiah’s unparalleled, long-term reception than were the responses of the presumably more sophisticated audiences in London. Dublin reviews were overwhelmingly positive; those of London performances were mixed, mainly because of the uneasiness many felt about performing a sacred work in a secular venue. As one Londoner wrote, “An Oratorio either is an Act of Religion, or it is not; if it is, I ask if the playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word.”
Even in London, however, few found serious fault with Handel’s music, but one of the few that did was Jennens. Although he admired Handel greatly, Messiah did not consistently live up to his expectations. He found it to be “a fine Entertainment,” but he did not think Handel made it “near so good as he might & ought to have done.” He said, “I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition, but he retain’d his Overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah.”
For this Jennens has been taken to be a pompous fool. Without doubt he was pompous, but not all of his criticisms were foolish. Handel actually made revisions based on some of Jennens’s criticisms; others, however, in his better judgment, he ignored.
Dr. Edward Synge, Bishop of Elfin, who heard one of the Dublin performances, caught the essence of what makes Messiah great, and what accounts for its unparalleled popularity and staying power. He began his review with general superlatives — Handel “greatly excels all other Composers,” and in Messiah he “even seems to have excell’d himself.” He went on to give specific reasons for Messiah’s special excellence. It starts with the subject — “which is the greatest & most interesting” — and it is told in words that “are all Sublime, or affecting in the greatest degree.” Handel enhanced those sublime words with music composed “with great care and exactness” (contra Jennens, who thought Handel did not spend enough time on it). And even though the music is “very Masterly and artificial [i.e., masterful in its artistry], yet the Harmony is So great and open, as to please all who have Ears & will hear, learned & unlearn’d.”
Bishop Synge observed that the audience “Seem’d indeed thoroughly engag’d frome one end to the other,” including the “young and gay of both Sexes who were present in great numbers.” And not only were they present, but “their behavior was uniformly grave & decent, which Show’d that they were not only pleas’d but affected by the performance.” He concluded by expressing the hope that many “were instructed by it and had proper Sentiments inspir’d in a Stronger Manner on their Minds.” He couldn’t have begun to imagine how fully his hope would be realized in countless audiences throughout the world, even into the twenty-first century.