Messiah and the Oratorio

Messiah-titlepageHallelujah! It’s the season for festive performances of Messiah. Would it not be amazing if Handel could enjoy royalties on the December productions of his beloved, atypical oratorio?

Atypical? Wait, it’s one the most famous of all oratorios, right? True, although much of that fame is due to a combination of the traditions surrounding its performance history and the appeal of certain magnificent numbers such as “He Shall Feed His Flock,” “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” and “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Otherwise, Messiah classifies as a marvelous wrought, highly effective, but weighty choral work, hastily written in 1741 to fit a specific circumstance. In terms of musical style, it’s “spot-on” in every way: Handel was nothing if not a master of the styles popular in his day. And a work like Messiah would be expected to incorporate nearly all of them.

But its “atypical” nature is due to the style of the words—text—penned by Handel’s colleague Charles Jennens, particularly when compared to other hit oratorios of the day, including others written by Jennens. Before saying more about this, let’s back up and answer the question: what is an oratorio?

An oratorio is a type of multi-sectional music written for solo vocalists, chorus, and instruments that that tells a story. Not staged, costumed, or acted as a play or opera would be, it is performed in what today we call a “concert setting.” Oratorios had humble but important beginnings in Florence and Rome around 1600, although many aspects of both music and text were based on earlier types of music and drama.

When the oratorio was born, it was fairly short, consisting of a handful of musical numbers divided into two parts. These had a unified theme and created an engaging musical framework for a sermon that was delivered within a new type of extra-liturgical service held in . . . ready, drum roll, please! . . . an oratorio.

That’s it. Early “oratorios” were performed in an oratorio—and that’s how this type of music got its name. During the Renaissance, an oratorio was a space often built into the back of churches or somewhere nearby. Today we might call it a prayer hall (cf. Latin oratio, I pray). They were not large, and consequently these new musical works, once they grew in popularity, had to be moved to larger public spaces.

Another factor fostering the growth of the oratorio came from the desire to have some kind of entertainment suitable for Lent. All theaters were shut for 40 days during the penitential season of Lent. That’s a long time for people to be without their favorite type of popular entertainment, and in those days, people most enjoyed attending opera and plays. Think of the response today if either TV or the Internet were to be blacked out for 40 days. Plus, remember this: musicians have to eat! So singers, instrumentalists, text writers (librettists), and composers delighted in the growing popularity of the oratorio.

So now that we have a context, let’s think about what would be “inside” an oratorio in Handel’s day. Oratorios tell a story usually in two acts (remember their origin as framing a sermon). Up until around 1800 the subjects were taken from the Bible or early Christian history, including saints’ lives. Oratorios do have characters (dramatic figures) whom people recognize, such as Elijah, Samuel, Saul, and usually a narrator who conveys part of the plot. So an oratorio’s text looks something like a play script.

But another literary element can be added into the dramatic and narrative components of telling a story, and that is “reflective” or lyrical text. You might want to think of it this way. A narrator might say: “The sun came up the next morning.” A character might say, “Look everyone, the sun is coming up.” But the reflective text describing this same sunrise might be written: “Oh beauteous light of the sun, so eagerly awaited, pouring its gentle light on each us in the early morning, shedding another tear of God’s grace unto our lives, we rejoice in your beauty.”

Got it?

So now, let’s get back to my assertion that Messiah is atypical. In Messiah we find the story of Christ’s birth, career, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, set in three (not two) acts. But most of the story is conveyed through narrative and reflective (lyrical) texts. There are no named characters conveying dialogue.

This doesn’t change the power of this work or the stunning magnificence of Handel’s music, particularly the intricately constructed choruses (one of Messiah’s greatest strengths). But it does help us to see why a story told primarily through lyrical imagery packs a different punch than one that has actual characters, such as joyous women showering praise on the upstart David while King Saul sputters “With rage I shall burst” (Handel’s 1738 oratorio Saul, also written by Charles Jennens).

Well, even though Messiah dominates the season, this 2017 Calendar will soon focus on another oratorio: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium), composed in Leipzig for the 1734 Christmas season. With its six short parts, intended for six different occasions beginning with Christmas Eve, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio presents yet another model for oratorio-writing—one that, in fact, isn’t an oratorio at all! Plus it opens with some of the grandest music for trumpet, chorus, and drums you could ever find. But more about that in a few days!

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