Handel’s Messiah: The Most Treasured Choral Work Is Beautiful and (Possibly) Revolting
Ars Lyrica Houston and the Orpheus Chamber Singers (pictured) will perform Handel's Messiah at the Hobby Center.
Photo courtesy of Orpheus Chamber Singers
George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is often thought of as a bulletproof choral work. That’s something considering the sprawling oratorio in 53 parts, when performed by a full orchestra and choir, can last for more than two and a half hours. But now there’s a theory that gives the regarded piece a bit of a black eye.
But first, the good about Messiah (and there’s plenty of it).
The English-language HMV 56, featuring scriptures from the King James Bible, premiered in Dublin in April 1742, approximately one year after the German/British composer completed the so-called masterpiece. Shortly thereafter, Handel’s sonic telling of Jesus Christ’s life became one of the best-known and most-performed choral works in Western music.
When Messiah is performed in a concert hall, Matthew Dirst, artistic director of Ars Lyrica Houston, says, the audience is enveloped in a sound that can’t be re-created while listening to a multi-disc set on a home stereo.
“You get the full drama of the piece with the conductor, the orchestra and the singers,” says Dirst. “The piece features a countertenor, and on a recording, it sounds like a woman singing the part when it’s really a man.”
Next month, Ars Lyrica Houston, in collaboration with the Dallas-based Orpheus Chamber Singers, will perform the piece in full at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. The Glasgow, Scotland-based conductor John Butt, a 2014 Gramophone awardee, will lead a baroque orchestra and Orpheus, a professional choir that Ars Lyrica has collaborated with previously on Monteverdi’s Vespers and Handel’s Coronation Anthems.
And now, to the not so good.
According to Tainted Glory in Handel’s Messiah: The Unsettling History of the World’s Most Beloved Choral Work, a newer book by Michael Marissen, the piece is littered with anti-Judaism blasts, partially owing to the religious climate at the time of Handel’s conception of Messiah.
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“The Hallelujah chorus was designed in a way that apparently rejoices, in significant part, over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, a horrific event that until recently most Christians construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God’s promised messiah,” writes Marissen, a music professor at Swarthmore College and a Handel and Bach musicologist.
“He makes a compelling argument,” says Dirst about the 2014 book by Marissen, who, in the introduction to Tainted Glory, says, “Writing this book was not fun.”
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 2, Ars Lyrica presents An Easter Messiah at Zilkha Hall at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street. At 6:45 p.m., Marrisen will discuss Tainted Glory during a pre-concert lecture. Tickets cost $22 to $59. Check out arslyricahouston.org.
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