MONDAY, DECEMBER 18, 2017, 8:00 PM

Program NOtes

Notes on the Program
by Marie Gangemi

George Frideric Handel: born: February 23, 1685, Halle; died: April 14, 1759, London

      On Christmas night 1874, the Oratorio Society of New York began its second season by performing Handel’s Messiah 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.
      Founded in March 1873 by Leopold Damrosch, the Oratorio Society had already grown 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 unknown reasons—rose to his feet. Among oratorios, Messiah held a very special place. Even before its premiere in Dublin in April 1742, it had achieved almost mythic proportions. In a letter to a friend, librettist Charles Jennens stated that he hoped that Handel "will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah." In May 1774, 500 singers and instrumentalists performed Messiah in honor of the 90th anniversary of Handel's birth. Too late, they realized they were a year early. Nevertheless, their performance began another enduring Messiah tradition, that of massive performances. By 1791 there were 1,000 performers. In 1883, less than a decade after the Oratorio Society's first Messiah, 4,000 performers presented it in London's Crystal Palace.
      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 presented 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. For the Society’s 1892 Handel Festival, Walter Damrosch restored most of Handel’s orchestrations and removed all of the “improvements” except one of Mozart’s. Ten years later the Society’s annual December Messiah (its 63rd) reflected the recent musicological advances of the Ebenezer Prout edition and in 1947 (its 129th performance) 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.
      Counting this evening’s performance, the Oratorio Society of New York has performed Messiah 207 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.