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Music In The Baroque Era

Handel's Oratorios and Orchestral Suites

Peter Kun Frary


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By the early 1740s, Handel was heavily in debt following a series of business failures. In 1741 a group of Dublin charities paid him a commission to write music for a benefit concert to free men from debtors prison. This commission became the great oratorio, Messiah. Oratorio is a multi-movement work similar to opera but with an emphasis on choir and Old Testament text but lacking props and acting.

Bathsheba at Her Bath, 1700 | Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari (1654–1727) | Metropolitan Museum of Art | Oratorios were usually based on Old Testament stories or scripture.

The composition of Messiah commenced on August 22, 1741, and was completed on September 14, 1741, 24 days of nonstop work in the creation of 260 pages of music. It is said that Handel rarely ate or slept during the writing of Messiah.

The scriptural text of Messiah was compiled by Charles Jennens and is mostly based on passages from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The text is structured to proclaim prophecies of Christ's nativity, passion, resurrection and, finally, his second coming and glorification in heaven.

Portrait of Charles Jennens, librettist for Messiah (c. 1740) | Thomas Hudson (1701–79) | Handel House Museum

Messiah's first performance in Dublin in 1741 was a great success: the concert sold out in advance. Ladies were asked not to wear hoop dresses and men were implored to leave swords at home in order to make room for more people. The acceptance of Messiah in London was a little more rocky but by 1749 this great oratorio was on the road to becoming a staple of the repertoire.

Rehearsal of the Oratorio | William Hogarth (1697-1764) | Hogarth was a renowned 18th century London painter, engraver and satirist.

With 53 movements, Messiah is a substantial work. The original was simply scored for SATB choir, vocal soloists, two trumpets, timpani, two oboes, two violins, viola and basso continuo. Many modern arrangements of the score take considerable liberties, expanding the instrumentation to mammoth proportions.

Messiah: Hallelujah | Autograph draft score before orchestration | British Library R.M.20.f.2, 103v | Examine the entire autograph score at the British Library.

The famous Hallelujah chorus is movement forty-four of the Messiah, concluding the second section of the work. The text for Hallelujah is knit together with passages from the book of Revelation:

Revelation 19:6: “Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”
Revelation 19:16: “And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.”
Revelation 11:15: “And he shall reign for ever and ever.”

Here are the complete lyrics for the Hallelujah chorus:

Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah
Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah

For the lord God omnipotent reigneth
Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah
For the lord God omnipotent reigneth
Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah
For the lord God omnipotent reigneth
Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah

Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah
Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah
(For the lord God omnipotent reigneth)
Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah

For the lord God omnipotent reigneth
(Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah)
Hallelujah

The kingdom of this world;
is become
the kingdom of our Lord,
and of His Christ
and of His Christ

And He shall reign for ever and ever
And he shall reign forever and ever
And he shall reign forever and ever
And he shall reign forever and ever

King of kings forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah
and lord of lords forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah
King of kings forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah
and lord of lords forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah
King of kings forever and ever hallelujah hallelujah
and lord of lords
King of kings and lord of lords

And he shall reign
And he shall reign
And he shall reign
He shall reign
And he shall reign forever and ever

King of kings forever and ever
and lord of lords hallelujah hallelujah
And he shall reign forever and ever

King of kings and lord of lords
King of kings and lord of lords
And he shall reign forever and ever

Forever and ever and ever and ever
(King of kings and lord of lords)

Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah
Hallelujah

Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah | George Frideric Handel

Water Music Suite

Handel's oratorios often garner the most attention and, thus, it's easy to forget he was a prolific composer of instrumental music of all types and an accomplished keyboard player.

Westminster Bridge, with the Lord Mayor's Procession on the Thames | Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto) c. 1747 | Yale Center for British Art

The Water Music Suite was written for King George’s boating party on the River Thames on July 17, 1717. There are twenty-one movements scored for flute, two oboes, bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, strings and basso continuo. Here’s what the London Daily Courant, July 19, 1717, wrote about it:

On Wednesday evening about eight, the King took water of Whitefall in an open barge. Many other barges with persons of quality attended, and so great was the number of boats that the whole river was covered. A city company’s barge was employed for the music composed for this occasion by Mr. Handel: which his Majesty liked so well that he caused it to be played three times over in going and returning.

The King's big shindig helped propel Water Music to major hit status and, indeed, Water Music is still popular 300 years later and among Handel's best known instrumental works.

Alla Hornpipe from Water Music | George Frideric Handel

Air from Water Music | George Frideric Handel

The Enraged Musician 1741 | William Hogarth (1697-1764) | This engraving, created the same year as Handel's Messiah, depicts London street musicians disturbing the rehearsal of a concert violinist.

Vocabulary

oratorio

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved

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