Tuesday, December 20, 2011


A few weeks ago I got to do something I’ve always wanted to do: attend a live performance of Handel’s Messiah, performed by Boston’s famed Handel and Haydn Society in Symphony Hall. I was so not disappointed: it was gorgeous, moving, and a total, total delight!

But being the history geek I am, I was almost as struck by the fascinating history of this piece of music. For one thing, this year marked the Society’s 158th annual performance; since 1854 it’s been a part of Christmas in Boston...that's a lot of performances! The Handel and Haydn Society also gave the first American performances of Messiah, with selections performed at its very first concert in December 1815 and the oratorio performed in its entirety in 1818.

The story of Messiah is equally interesting. George Frederick Handel wrote the music for it in just 24 days, after being sent the libretto by his friend and previous collaborator, Charles Jennens. It premiered in Dublin in 1742, and so anticipated was the concert that an ad in one of the city’s newspapers requested that ladies planning on attending the concert not wear hoops, so that more seating could be fit into the concert hall!

Though the London debut was not greeted with as much enthusiasm, within a few years it had achieved the status it now occupies in vocal music. Early on, many objected to an oratorio which contained passages from the Bible being performed in secular playhouses by professional singers, who were regarded along with actors and dancers as being of suspect morality; amusingly, one alto so moved a concert-goer that he shouted, "For this thy sins be forgiven!" after her solo.

There is also a story that the tradition of audiences standing during the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus dates to a performance given for King George II, who was so moved by it that he sprang to his feet (or maybe he’d just dozed off and was startled by the chorus’ exuberant opening). Of course, if the King was standing, everyone else had to stand too, and thus was a tradition born…except that there are no contemporary accounts confirming this story, and the first mentions of audiences standing date from the 1780s. Nevertheless, it’s a fun story!

I’m sure many of you have seen this before, but it seems an appropriate way to end this post. I hope you enjoy this brief musical interlude in the midst of this busy pre-Christmas week!

P.S. To follow up on Regina's reminder about our beloved Miss Austen’s birthday, check this out: has a new portrait of the author been discovered? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16027710


Janine DeJesus said...

This was your first time? I've actually gone every year for several years now, but that's because my church does a performance every year. I went earlier this month and was going to go again on Sunday but decided against it. It's beautiful isn't it? I love Handel's Messiah. And the story behind it!

Anyway I'm glad you finally saw it. It's such a wonderful part of the Christmas season. :)

Marissa Doyle said...

Oh, I've been to Messiah performances before--but the Handel and Haydn Society kind of does the Cadillac of Messiahs, and I'd always wanted to see it. They're doing the St. Matthew Passion in April, and I'm so going!