George Frideric Handel
Born: February 23, 1685, Halle
Died: April 14, 1759, London
The Oratorio Society of New York had planned to open its 140th season with a celebration of American Music. Hurricane Sandy and a dangling crane on 57th Street forced the postponement of that concert to Tuesday, March 5, 2013 and so this anniversary season begins as it did the second in 1874—by performing Handel’s
Messiah. Since Carnegie Hall was still seventeen years from being built, the performance was held at Steinway Hall. Located on 5th Avenue and 14th Street, the hall was one of New York’s grandest—it could seat more than 2,000 concertgoers and a 100-member orchestra. More than 700 gas lamps lit the building.
In its first year, the Oratorio Society, founded in March 1873 by Leopold Damrosch, grew from the original 18 friends, family, and supporters Dr. Damrosch had assembled to an extraordinary force of 100 singers. Since it was no longer possible to rehearse in a private house, the group moved first to Trinity Chapel and then to the Knabe piano warehouse. Undertaking the performance of as complex a work as
Messiah was a leap of faith for the fledgling group. They were undoubtedly encouraged by a review of their first concert in the
New York Daily Tribune the year before: “These ladies and gentlemen sang with correct intonation, firm attack, and a great deal of expression; and if they continue in the road upon which they have entered with so much promise, they will do some capital work before many seasons have passed.”
Even though the roster of the Oratorio Society had grown, Dr. Damrosch felt more singers were needed. He therefore enlisted the Handel and Haydn Society of Brooklyn (of which he had recently been elected director) to join in the performance. The two groups performed at each others’ concerts for several years afterward. Because of his reputation and charisma, Damrosch was able to attract leading soloists to Oratorio Society performances. That first
Messiah performance featured Abbie Whinery, Anna Drasdil, George Simpson, and A. E. Stoddard. The
New York Times, however, was not impressed. Its reviewer felt the solo movements were “not so impressive as the choral and orchestral parts of the program.”
Performing Messiah each December quickly became a tradition, and also more than that. Each performance was intended to be a new experience for both the performers and the audience: at one performance, for example, Leopold Damrosch introduced his New York audience to the European practice of standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus, begun during
Messiah's London premiere when King George II—for reasons unknown—rose to his feet. By 1884 music critic and historian H. E. Krehbiel referred to the annual Oratorio Society performances of
Messiah as its “beautiful duty” and a tribute to both Handel and
Messiah for their influence on choral music. (Krehbiel was not alone in his attitude toward oratorios, which enjoyed a quasi religious aspect in the nineteenth century. During his stay in London, Richard Wagner noted "the feeling among the audience that an evening spent listening to an oratorio may be regarded as a sort of service, and is almost as good as going to church.")
In December of that year, the Oratorio Society gave its 22nd performance of
Messiah. Less than two months later, Leopold Damrosch died and his 23-year-old son Walter became the new conductor. According to some legends, Walter Damrosch, who described himself as a “very small alto” in the Society’s early years, is credited with convincing its president, Andrew Carnegie, to augment a previously established fund and build the Oratorio Society a suitable artistic home. (Carnegie’s bride, Louise Whitfield Carnegie, is among the others credited with the idea.) Six years later, in May 1891, the Society performed under Tchaikovsky’s baton for the inaugural festival at the Music Hall that would eventually bear Carnegie’s name.
Beginning in the 1920s rumors that Carnegie Hall was to be demolished circulated periodically. In 1960, with the construction of Lincoln Center well underway, Carnegie Hall seemed doomed. New bookings were not accepted and the Oratorio Society gave its annual
Messiah performance at the Metropolitan Opera House. By spring 1961, however, the Hall had been saved and the Oratorio Society returned home.
In its early years, Messiah was “improved” with the addition of what it was felt Handel had neither the time (he composed
Messiah in 24 days) nor the resources to include. Breaking with the past, in 1892 Walter Damrosch conducted the Society in a performance that restored almost all of Handel’s orchestration.The Society continued to keep pace with contemporary research and in 1947 presented what may be the first uncut
Messiah in the United States, using the recently published J. M. Coopersmith score. Subsequent performances continued to respond to the ongoing research into Handel’s autograph manuscripts and the practices of his time. Recent scholarship has restored questions of interpretation to the discretion of the performers, affording the Society the freedom to approach this venerable and hallowed oratorio with the freshness and wonder Handel intended.
In the 138 years since that first performance, the Society has performed
Messiah more than 200 times in five countries. Although purists may object that the nearly 200 singers at tonight's performance are a far cry from the size chorus for which Handel composed, one suspects that he, the consummate showman, would have been delighted to marshal such forces as long as they did justice to his music. One may even hope that he would be as pleased as the audience member at the premiere performance who, after hearing "He was despised" sung exquisitely by a contralto of questionable morals exclaimed, "Woman, for this, thy sins be forgiven thee!"
Tonight's performance of Messiah by the Oratorio Society continues, with affection for this beloved masterpiece, the tradition begun so long ago. Nineteenth century programs used to advise the audience on what time to have their carriages return after the performance. The Society regrets that this service is no longer available and wishes you good fortune in your quest for a way home, all the more fervently in light of what Sandy did to our city.
George Frideric Handel
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:1-3)
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
Thus saith the Lord of Hosts: Yet once, a little while, and I shall shake the heavens, and the earth, the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come. The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.
(Haggai 2:6,7; Malachi 3:1)
But who may abide the day of His coming? And who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire.
And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Emmanuel, "God with us."
(Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23)
Air (Mezzo-soprano and Chorus)
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain. O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah: Behold your God! Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
(Isaiah 40:9; 60:1)
For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. (Isaiah 9:2,3)
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
Pifa "Pastoral Symphony" (Orchestra)
There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them: Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people; for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying:
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold thy King cometh unto thee: He is the righteous Saviour, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen.
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.
Air (Mezzo-soprano and Soprano)
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
Come unto Him all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and He will give you rest. Take His yoke upon you and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye will find rest unto your souls.
His yoke is easy and His burthen is light.
Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!
He was despised and rejected of men; a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. He hid not His face from shame and spitting. He was despised. . . .
(Isaiah 53:3; 50:6)
Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrow; He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.
And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn; they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads saying:
He trusted in God that He would deliver Him; let Him deliver Him if He delight in Him.
Thy rebuke hath broken His heart; He is full of heaviness; He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man; neither found He any to comfort Him.
Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow.
He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgressions of Thy people was He stricken.
But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell; nor didst Thou suffer the Holy One to see corruption. (Psalm 16:10)
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, strong and mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in. He is the King of Glory, the Lord of Hosts.
Unto which of the angels said He at any time, Thou art My Son, this day have I begotten Thee? (Hebrews 1:5)
Let all the angels of God worship Him. (Hebrews 1:6)
Thou art gone up on high. Thou has led captivity captive, and received gifts for men; yea, even for Thine enemies, that the Lord God might dwell among them.
The Lord gave the word; great was the company of the preachers.
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things.
Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world.
Why do the nations so furiously rage together, why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His Anointed.
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us.
He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision.
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. (Psalm 2:9)
Hallelujah; for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
(Revelation 19:6; 11:15; 19:16)
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.
(Job 19:25,26; 1 Corinthians 15:20)
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
(1 Corinthians 15:21,22)
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
(1 Corinthians 15:51,52)
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. The trumpet shall sound. . . .
(1 Corinthians 15:52,53)
Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory!
(1 Corinthians 15:54)
Duet (Mezzo-soprano and Tenor)
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
(1 Corinthians 15:55,56)
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 15:57)
If God be for us who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemeth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. Amen. (Revelation 5:12,13)