When Michael Francis, The Florida Orchestra and The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay team up for their production of Handel’s Messiah this week, they will add another notch to a growing record: The single most-performed piece of classical music worldwide.
Sure, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Pachelbel’s Canon take in some pretty good numbers, but it’s hard to avoid Handel’s grand oratorio this time of year – every year – as part of our holiday tradition. Like Tchaikovsky’s the annual Nutcracker, Handel’s matchless wonder is a draw for arts organizations, a challenge for performers, and much-loved by listeners.
What makes this 280-year-old work so popular? For one thing, Handel knew how to write a good tune, and Messiah has plenty of them, said Brett Karlin, artistic director for the Master Chorale.
“The single-most attractive quality about Messiah is its melodies,’’ he said. “The piece is hit after hit after hit.’’
Messiah is an oratorio, a large-scale work based on sacred text, but without sets, costumes, or action. Drawing from the Old and New Testaments, Handel designed it in three sweeping sections: Prophecy and Fulfillment, Suffering, and Redemption. Although religious, its message remains universal, and Handel intended it for the concert hall. Its theatricality is another reason for its popularity.
Handel also wrote Messiah in English, rather than German or Italian, which appealed to the middle class in England and Ireland, where the work first appeared back in the mid-1700s. This also made it easy to digest in the United States, and choral societies quickly got on the Messiah bandwagon.
Musically, the score is a hodgepodge of styles, including Italian (recitative), French (overture), English (anthem), and German (fugal) influences. Handel was, after all, a man of the world.
He also poured his soul into composing Messiah at a difficult period in his life. Several of his Italian operas at the time had been duds, costing him enough to nearly be thrown into debtor’s prison. So he did what any good composer would do: He locked himself in a room and pouted awhile, then began writing in a burst of white-hot inspiration. Trance-like, he finished the score in a remarkable 24 days, going for long periods without food or sleep.
After completing the Hallelujah chorus, he wrote that he “saw heaven before me and the great God himself.” Evidence of this inspiration can be seen on the facsimile of the original score: Notes become increasingly large and spaced apart, as if written in a fury.
The full score is a handful, to say the least. It includes 53 sections spanning 2-1/2 hours. Many productions cut it down, but keep the favorites, such as Comfort Ye My People, For Unto Us A Child Is Born, and the Hallelujah chorus. There are so many favorites, in fact, that editing the work is more challenging than performing it in full.
“Messiah provides a seemingly unending supply of tunes that are elegant, charming, profoundly moving, and just make you want to dance,’’ Karlin said. “Particularly the choral fugues, like And He Shall Purify and His Yoke is Easy.’’
This brings us to the business of standing during that famous Hallelujah chorus, a tradition said to have begun in 1743, when King George II rose from his seat, enthralled by the beauty of the music. Not wanting to offend the king, the audience also stood – or so the story goes.
Scholars are divided on this story, and some say it’s a myth. But if people want to stand up and sing together, that’s a good thing, and Handel no doubt would give his nod of approval.