It is a commonplace of music history that Beethoven was the first composer to work outside the centuries-old system of patronage, without being employed by either noble court or church, and to support himself by selling and performing his own compositions. This, however, is not really true. For the ten years from 1781 through his death in 1791, Mozart lived and worked, as we would now say, self-employed. And before Mozart, George Frideric Handel spent the greater part of his career working for himself and not for royalty or for the church. Instead he financed and produced the operas which he himself composed. And for about twenty years he was generally successful.
Unfortunately, in the 1730’s audiences in London started to grow weary of opera in a foreign language (Italian) sung mostly by foreign singers (also Italian) about stories from centuries past in the Mediterranean world. After several of Handel’s productions failed — which meant bankruptcy and nervous breakdown for the composer — he realized he needed to find a new hook to land his audiences. For this he turned to a form which he had practiced during his five year’s stay in Rome as a young man, the oratorio.
The oratorio was a dramatic production, like opera, with solo arias and recitatives and choruses, but traditionally in the language of its audience, and built around stories from the Bible and church history rather than from Classical (Mediterranean) history and mythology. That meant that Handel could work with English-language texts rather than Italian, and with Biblical stories which would appeal to England’s large and prosperous middle class as well as to the nobility. Oratorio was also not staged, which meant that Handel’s productions were much less costly because of the lack of stage-sets and costumes. It had the further advantage that Biblical oratorios could be presented during the two-month-long season of Lent, during which non-religious theatrical events were prohibited. Four of these works came out during the 1730’s: Esther (1732), Deborah (1733), Saul (1739), and Israel in Egypt (1739). Nevertheless, the failures of his operatic productions prevented him from realizing any gain from the new form. In that same year, 1739, his librettist Charles Jennens provided him with another oratorio text, not so much telling the story of the Messiah as much as presenting meaning of the Messiah’s coming.
Handel did not find the time in that year to set Jennens’s new text, nor did he the following year. Then in 1741 he received an invitation from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to spend the Lenten season of 1742 in Dublin presenting a series of his oratorios, and Messiah was composed to finish the season, just before Easter. (And indeed, during his lifetime and under his direction, Handel never produced Messiah at any other time than before Easter.) It was moderately successful, but when he produced it in London later the same year it was not well received. London audiences found it difficult to accept a musical work representing the Messiah which was performed in a theater, a place of poor moral repute in that time. It was not until the 1750, when Handel began annual productions at the London Foundling Hospital for the hospital’s benefit that this oratorio began to receive the acceptance that it has enjoyed ever since.
But Messiah is not at all typical of his oratorios. Most of them are based on Old Testament stories, whereas Messiah’s text comes from a mixture of Old and New Testament. Moreover, the stories in the other oratorios are just that — stories. Messiah does not have a story-line: it is merely a succession of quotations from the prophetic books of the Old Testament and the apocalyptic writings of the New. They suggest a story, but do not actually tell it. It is interesting to note that the only part of the New Testament which does tell a story about the Messiah, the four Gospels, are almost totally omitted from the oratorio. Furthermore, since there is not an actual plot-line, there are also no characters: the solo singers are not associated with any particular personalities, as they are in the other oratorios.
Messiah, unlike almost every other piece of music from the Baroque era, has an unbroken history of performance, from its premier in 1742 in Dublin up to the 21st century. What, then, is the point of a “Baroque Orchestra” presenting it? Why not keep performing just as we always have? It is because the style of performance has undergone steady change during the 262 years since Handel penned this masterwork — and not only the style, but even the very orchestration of the piece.
During Handel’s lifetime (he died in 1759), Messiah became the most frequently-performed of all his works, all under his direction (he owned the only copies). After his death, performance style evolved according to the changing tastes of the times. A landmark in the performance-history was the production in Westminster Abbey in 1784, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Handel’s death: on that occasion more there were more than 300 singers and players (Handel’s productions used about 63 musicians in total). This trend continued through the 19th century — the 1859 production in London’s Crystal Palace involved over 700 musicians — and halfway through the 20th.
At the same time, Handel’s orchestration — very much in the style of the late Baroque period — also was subject to change. In 1789 Mozart provided his own orchestration for a German-language performance in Vienna: he added clarinets, flutes, horns, and trombones to Handel’s forces, very much in his own style. Other, lesser composers made their own modifications during the 19th century, basing their work on what Mozart had done. One edition, by English theorist Ebenezer Prout, published in 1902, became the standard throughout the first half of the 20th century (even now the unwary choral director purchasing instrumental parts is likely to get the Prout edition without knowing it). And the most flamboyant of all was prepared by Sir Eugene Goossens for a recording in 1957 conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham: Beecham reputedly instructed Goossens to put everything in, “including the kitchen sink.”
It was only in the 1960’s that conductors began to return to Handel’s orchestration; the first recording of it came in 1967, albeit with members of a modern symphony orchestra. By that time the pioneers in the original- instrument movement were making themselves known, but their attention was given mostly to Bach rather than Handel. Not until the late 1970’s did musicians decide to return to Handel’s instruments as well as Handel’s instrumentation.