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Handel’s Messiah: The Most Treasured Choral Work Is Beautiful and (Possibly) Revolting

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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

“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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