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From Philadelphia flash mobs to standing-room-only sing-alongs, George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” — and its booming “Hallelujah” chorus — has become a popular staple of western sacred music. But Handel’s masterpiece, which was written for Lent 271 years ago this spring, has also been one of the most re-worked pieces of the baroque period, including by the quill of Mozart himself. Join Kojo for a little “Messiah 101,” and find out what makes “Messiah” one of the most enduring, yet misunderstood, pieces of all time.
- Anthony DelDonna Director of Music in the Department of Performing Arts and Associate Professor of Musicology, Georgetown University
- Frederick Binkholder Artistic Director of the Capitol Hill Chorale; Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Georgetown University, Music Minister at St. Alban's Episcopal Church.
Capitol Hill Chorale with Frederick Binkholder
Opera Company of Philadelphia “Hallelujah!” Random Act of Culture
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's one of the most recognizable pieces of music of all time. And all you need to hear is this to identify it.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom flash mobs to sing-alongs and even laxative ads, the music of George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" has become a popular staple in Western classical music. "Messiah" has been reinterpreted and rethought by everyone from Mozart to Baltimore's own Marin Alsop. And in the 271 years since its debut, "Messiah" has often been misunderstood by the very musicians who revere Handel's masterpiece. But wait, Kojo, you might be thinking. Aren't you misunderstanding something? Isn't the "Messiah" Christmas music?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWell, here to clear up my confusion with a little "Messiah" 101 is Frederick Binkholder, artistic director of the Capitol Hill Chorale. He's also a visiting assistant professor of music at Georgetown University and the music minister at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Annandale, Va. Frederick Binkholder, good to see you again.
MR. FREDERICK BINKHOLDERThank you so much.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Anthony Deldonna. He is director of music and associate professor of musicology at Georgetown University's Department of Performing Arts. Anthony Deldonna, thank you for joining us.
MR. ANTHONY DELDONNAThank you, Kojo. Great to be here.
NNAMDIFred, so let's set the record straight. When exactly is the right time to talk about Handel's "Messiah?"
BINKHOLDERWell, Easter -- Lenten Easter is the time that Handel envisioned it. When Handel was in London there was a ban on theatrical performances during Lent and Handel had to keep his musicians busy. So he went into a new art form called the oratorio, which is what "Messiah" was, and he created "Messiah" in a little under a month. And it was something that was performed during his lifetime either in March or in April. And, in fact, it's in three parts and only the first part actually deals with the Christmas portion. The other two parts deal with more Lent and Easter feel.
NNAMDISo we generally play just the first part or performance the first...
BINKHOLDERWell, there are performances during...
BINKHOLDERThere are performances that do the whole thing during Christmastime, but it is specifically envisioned to be of the Eastern Lent period.
NNAMDIBy your own count you have conducted and performed this piece hundreds of times. Is it important for your performance to know the back story behind this iconic piece of music, or do most singers just belt it out like we see at the big annual sing-alongs and those now infamous flash mobs?
BINKHOLDERRight. Well, the greatest thing about "Messiah" is that it's, as I've said also, is that it's incredibly malleable, which means that the essence of the piece itself, it is so well constructed. The genius of Handel is so clear that we can have flash mobs and other interpretations.
NNAMDIAnd if you want to see the flash mob interpretation you can go to our website kojoshow.org. You can see the flash mob that was performed at Philadelphia's Macy's in 2010. But I interrupted you, Fred.
BINKHOLDERNo, no, that's fine, please. I love interruptions. I'm used to it.
NNAMDII'd imagine your singers are probably used to the big grandiose presentations of this piece. Have you had to, like, dial them back a little bit?
BINKHOLDERWell, what's really interesting is that the piece was -- especially after Handel's death -- in the 19th century the piece started to grow larger and larger and larger. And, in fact, there is the -- the record of it in London that there were hundreds of singers, hundreds of players, and it's in celebration of Handel. So it did start to grow larger.
DELDONNAYeah, it seems almost immediately after its premier in 1742 it continued to grow very large. Even in the late 18th century musician and composer Hiller arranged a performance of it, which I believe had 259 singers. So it seems that the celebratory nature of the work itself lent itself to this adding of numbers, increasingly accumulatively.
NNAMDIIn contemporary terms it was blowing up in more ways than one.
NNAMDIHave you ever sung Handel's "Messiah?" Give us a call, 800-433-8850. What was your favorite part to sing? Anthony, Handel was part of what's called the class of 1685. What was happening in music during this extraordinary time?
DELDONNAIt's a pretty prestigious time. I mean, certainly Bach is also -- Johann Sebastian Bach is born in 1685, dies in 1750, so nine years before Handel's death. We also...
NNAMDIThey were both born in Germany not far away from each other, but never met.
DELDONNARight, right. Certainly I think one would think that they knew of each other and certainly their influence. And Handel was actually from Halle in Saxony and he studied with Friedrich Zachow, who's a very prominent organist contemporary well known to Bach. And so very similar cultural orientation. But this is a great time for music because there's also contemporaries in Italy, Vivaldi who was born 1678, in Germany Georg Philipp Telemann, 1681, France, Jean-Philippe Ramos, 1683. So it's just an amazing time for the performance to cultivation of music -- baroque music.
NNAMDISo it might be surprising to some people that Handel spent most of his life in England. Why did he settle there?
BINKHOLDERThat's a great question. And I think it was actually a courageous decision, a smart decision by Handel because he realized that in going to England he would have more control over his career and his fate, as opposed to remaining in Germany or say going to the Italian states where he would work within the system of aristocratic patronage. And so in London, this large metropolitan city, there's, you know, almost an unlimited opportunity for a gifted musician. You could write for a private patron, you could organize subscription concerts, which he did.
BINKHOLDERBut ultimately he went to London to write Italian opera.
NNAMDIAnd, as you said, he did this in a period of little less than a month, writing the "Messiah" that is. Well, let's dive into some of the music and talk about it.
NNAMDIWhat are we hearing in this piece, Anthony?
DELDONNAWell, that's Rejoice Greatly. So that is -- actually it belongs to a type of aria that we call a de capo aria. If I was going to be really musicological and specific, it's a modified da capo aria. And the da capo aria is probably the most common type of solo soliloquy aria that you're going to find in Italian opera in the early 18th century. It's really one of the signature vehicles for singers. And just in that little clip that we listened to, you hear what's called fiore tuda (sp?) . It's a flowering of the vocal line. These long vocal embellishments on a single syllable.
DELDONNAAnd so this is very -- highly lyrical in florid style of singing that we associate with Italian opera in the early 18th century. But here it's put in place of this really hortative text celebrating the birth of Christ.
NNAMDIAnd, Fred, we talked earlier about how this, in modern terms, blew up both in terms of its numbers of people performing it and in terms of how people appreciated it. But take us back to the Dublin premier, which happened 271 years ago on, well, exactly a month from today, the 13th day of April. How many musicians were there? What was the audience like?
BINKHOLDERThe most interesting thing about it is that it was performed in Fishamble Street. And the premier itself was so highly anticipated that at the time period ladies were asked not to wear hoops. And also gentlemen were...
NNAMDIJust took up too much room, right?
BINKHOLDERYes, because it took up too much room. And then also that gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home so that there would be plenty of room for that. Much smaller orchestral forces and singers. A few singers from the St. Pat's Cathedral in Dublin and also Christ Church in Dublin. And they would come together and perform this brand new work.
BINKHOLDERIt wasn't really called "Messiah" at that time. It was just a musical celebration. And then it became a little bit later known as "Messiah."
DELDONNARight, because they were concerned about how this was being promoted and staged. It's called a new sacred oratorio rather than "Messiah" with, you know, obviously the very clear references to Christ.
BINKHOLDERThe forces involved were actually pretty modest. I mean, there were two choirs, 16 -- there was a 16-member choir and then there was a 16 -- a second choir of 16 members, a boys choir. And then there were three soloists, two of which he had brought from London. And the third happened to be -- it was a Mrs. McLean who happened to be the wife of the organist that day. She had an inside track evidently.
NNAMDIWhat is the likelihood that the people without their hoops and without their swords who attended that performance actually stood up during the Hallelujah Chorus? What's the real scoop on how that tradition started?
DELDONNAI think it's apocryphal. I mean, it seems that for the London revival in subsequent years, I guess 1743 to 1749, that George II was in attendance. And as the story goes he stood at the Hallelujah Chorus and so that required being the sovereign that everyone stand. So I think history has proven that, as I said, to have been apocryphal. But it's a nice story.
BINKHOLDERYeah, it is a nice story but it's carried on the tradition so that when the Hallelujah Chorus is played it is not uncommon for people to stand during it because it's carried on from that time.
NNAMDIPut on your headphones please, because we have a caller who would like to comment, I guess, on the number of people who were in the ensembles that performed the "Messiah." Here is Frank in Fairfax, Va. Frank, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANKOh, thank you very much. This piece is one of the most extraordinary I've ever experienced. And I'm a lifelong music lover and also an activist and avocational writer and impresario. And one of the facets that is very interesting is that I don't know of any other Handel work where the orchestra has bold leaps, octaves all over the place. It has been said that -- Lord Clark I believe -- that Handel wrote it in a feeling of religious ecstasy. And I think once he got rolling he seemed to simply exceed himself with almost every piece. Every piece is inspired, which is very rare even among any composer.
FRANKAnother thing is that, as you mentioned at the introduction, I was reviewing it a while back -- I don't have the details here -- but there was an absolutely monster performance, probably the record, in New England around 1816, if I recall right -- I mean 1916 with something like 10,000 singers and a special wooden enclosure for the orchestra, hundreds and hundreds of players.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to ask our guests if they're familiar with that at all. Fred?
BINKHOLDERWell, I know that there's been a lot of different performances of this. And it is a work that lends itself to just growing, if you need it to be. Because there are so many people, as the caller indicated, and you can tell by his emotion that the people are very excited about this work. And if you learn it as a child you can continue to sing it through the rest of your life. And so you sometimes seek out performances. And it is not uncommon for the performance size to grow.
NNAMDIAmong those people some guy named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 50 years after the performance of "Messiah" in Dublin he got his hands on it. How did that happen?
BINKHOLDERWell, he was writing it for the Baron Von Swieten. There was a musical society and it was for -- it was a closed society and Von Swieten asked Mozart to actually rework four of Handel's pieces. And "Messiah"...
DELDONNAFour of the oratorios in particular.
BINKHOLDERYeah, four oratorios. And "Messiah was just one of them that sort of went on and had a life of its own. And what Mozart did is he took the structure of "Messiah," kept it basically the same but made it more palatable to the ears of the time period, which means that Mozart was a big believer, and just the technique of that time period would be Winds in Paris.
BINKHOLDERSo Mozart -- the original orchestration has two oboes, two bassoons, horn -- I'm sorry, trumpet and strings and tympani. And what Mozart does is he puts in two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two clarinets, two trumpets, two horns, strings and tympani. So what he does is just expands the orchestration itself.
NNAMDIAnthony, was it common back then for composers to revise the work of public composers to, well, fit the times?
DELDONNAYeah, absolutely. I think what Fred's described is that Mozart is updating it into the sound of his era. I mean, the -- Fred outlined what was the characteristic baroque orchestra. And so Mozart, having at his disposal all of these great wind players that are now sort of, you know, constituent element of the late 18th century orchestra, Simply updated it in sound.
NNAMDILet's make a comparison. Let's listen first to how Mozart modernized "Messiah" starting with Handel's original but then contrast it with Mozart's version. So first we hear Handel's version.
NNAMDINow let's hear what Mozart did with it 50 years later, this time for late 18th century audiences.
NNAMDIToday they've called is slow jamming the news. What kinds of differences are we hearing here that reflect the taste of the times that these composers were writing?
BINKHOLDERThe orchestration. But the other thing is that what you heard is that the "Oh Thou That Tellest," Mozart then also transcribed it into German so that it would be palatable to Baron Von Swieten and the people. And again, nothing changes really, it's just the underlay sometimes is a little different for the German text.
BINKHOLDERBut that's all that it is.
NNAMDIDid Mozart admire Handel's work or was there room for improvement in the opinion on Mozart?
DELDONNAOh, I think probably both. I mean, as early as 1782 he had been meeting with von Swieten, and he writes to his father Leopold in Salzburg, telling him, every Sunday I meet von Swieten and we go through Handel and Bach. So there's this very clear admiration he had for Handel's music, but again, it goes back to the question of taste. He wanted to update Handel, do him justice. And so as we heard in that example, what Mozart has done is gone in and done -- moved a few things around...
DELDONNA...and added the winds to it. In the original Handel, the accompaniment is all strings, and Mozart, he's added the winds, he's moved some of the parts around, he's really filled out the composition, so you get a lot of different colors and textures.
NNAMDIWas Mozart's own music influenced by Handel?
DELDONNAAt the time that he's visiting von Swieten, so really 1782 to 1783, we start to see influences creep into Mozart's music. I think the most compelling -- or two of the most compelling influences happen in Mozart's "Mass in C Minor," the catalog number is (word?) 427, and then the "Requiem."
DELDONNAAnd it's this idea of counterpoint, that is how the parts of the music, the voices and instruments, the interplay, how they come together.
NNAMDILet's listen to "And With His Stripes," by Handel and do a little comparing.
NNAMDIOkay. We've got that. So now, let's give a listen to Mozart's Kyrie.
NNAMDIMozart's Kyrie. Is this (word?) musical plagiarism?
BINKHOLDERWell, I think that at that time period it was a show of respect when you borrowed somebody's tune, that you thought that much of it to use it for your own and expand it. But I think though that with Mozart, he did revere Handel so much that I think it was a direct tribute to him to use that -- to use a lot of his thematic ideas...
DELDONNAYeah. It's an homage, it's a sign of respect for what he's taken from Handel's music, what he's -- and by taken, I mean what's he learned. But you bring up the good point of borrowing. I mean, because "Messiah" is rife with self-borrowings where Handel has gone back and borrowed from music that he's already written and recycled for the purpose of "Messiah." So it's very common within the 18th century.
NNAMDIFred, you're doing a rare performance of Mozart's version of "Messiah" this weekend on Capitol Hill with more than 100 singers. At least one of whom is familiar to me. I won't mention her name, Elizabeth Weinstein McMann. How do you balance Handel and Mozart's original intent with this piece with modern expectations and the talents of your performers?
BINKHOLDERWell, it's very unique because this performance of -- I've gone back to the English version and it fits quite well, instead of doing it in the German that Mozart wanted, I've used the English text so that it doesn't alienate people and they don't have to go through translations again, and the other thing is, is that I've tried to keep both Handel's intent, and Mozart's intent intact as we perform it. The chorus is decidedly larger, and the reason that I chose Handel's "Messiah," the Mozart addition for the Chorale was simply that it could -- it lent itself to a larger interpretation, more singers, fuller orchestration, and so it fit well with me.
NNAMDIWell, Elizabeth is our producer here, and she never signs here. Is she any good?
BINKHOLDEROf course she is.
DELDONNAYou should bring her in and have her sing.
NNAMDIOh, well, we'll have to find out at a later date. We're going to take a short break. When we get back, we will continue this conversation about Handel's "Messiah." Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing Handel's "Messiah" with Frederick Binkholder, artistic director of the Capitol Hill Chorale. And if you go to our website, kojoshow.org., you will see the Capitol Hill Chorale rehearsing Handel's "Messiah." Fred is a visiting assistant professor of music at Georgetown University, and the music minister at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Annandale, Va. He joins us in studio with Anthony Deldonna, director of music and associate professor of musicology at Georgetown University's Department of Performing Arts. Fred, Handel was a big personality to put it mildly. What was he like to work with?
BINKHOLDERWell, there is the dichotomy of Handel's personality in that he -- when he got to London, they called him the great bear because he was incredibly gruff, and his manner and walking and manner of speaking very short. And so he put in the air of professionalism to a high degree. And he was fluent in four languages, and the story is told of Handel that to speak to Handel, or to listen to a Handel story, you had to be proficient in English, French, German, and Italian, because he would use them all seamlessly.
BINKHOLDERAnd the other side of him is that he's incredibly generous. Handel's "Messiah" was used as a benefit for the Foundling Hospital where funds were raised to support the Foundling Hospital, and throughout his career, money was gathered for that. And in fact, after he died, a score was donated to the Foundling Hospital because Handel thought so much of the cause. So you have this gruff personality that would, the story goes, of there was a soprano that was not singing a piece the way that Handel wanted, and they got into an argument, and this was the era of the diva, and so Handel grabbed her by the waist and took her over to a balcony and kind of put her over the edge a little bit and said...
BINKHOLDER...are you going to sing it that way, or not? And then, of course, she decided to go ahead and sing it the way that Handel wanted it. Now, that again may be just a story, but I think that it would fit sort of with the personality that you see of Handel.
NNAMDIWell, historians also like to mention that Handel was greedy with food, but not with his money. What did they mean by that?
BINKHOLDERWell, I think that he loved food and drink. I think that that's just an nice way of saying it, but that he was also, as they said, a generous personality throughout.
DELDONNAOh, absolutely. I mean, I think he's someone very much a product of his times. As you mentioned earlier, these two sides to his personality. I mean, he generally was perceived as someone irascible and unapproachable, but was generous. The very nature of, you know, the premiere of "Messiah" as a charitable endeavor speaks for itself throughout, you know, to our time.
NNAMDIHere we go to Katherine in Takoma Park, Md. Katherine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHERINEYes. I originally called because I was, as a kid, in the chorus of the "Messiah" before I learned to read music, and I had to learn it by heart. And so now I can sing all of those chorale parts from memory, and so as complicated as the music sounds, it's really not that hard. But I also wanted to know if the people you have as your guests know about Marin Alsop's recording. She did a recording in 2005 with the Colorado Gospel Choir called "Too Hot to Handel," and it's a recording of...
NNAMDIDo you mind -- Katherine, do you mind if I interrupt you for one second?
NNAMDIListen to this.
NNAMDISound familiar, Katherine?
NNAMDIIs that what you were talking about?
KATHERINEI think it is.
NNAMDIYes. We had Marin Alsop on this broadcast to discuss that. We played a little bit of that on that occasion. Yes. I'm pretty sure...
KATHERINEI'm sorry I missed it.
NNAMDIAnd I'm pretty sure both of our guests know this very, very well, correct, Fred and Anthony?
NNAMDIKatherine, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIAnthony, how did "Messiah" grow to the grandiose holiday extravaganza that we all know today? How did it make the move to Christmas from the Lenten season?
DELDONNARight. I mean, because as we've discussed, it was certainly designed for passion week. It just seems to -- because of, as I said, it lent itself so well to these large celebratory occasions and charitable occasions. I also think it may have something to do with the outline of the text itself, because it's Jennens -- Charles Jennens who compiled the text. I mean, it's really the outline of the liturgical year, the birth of Christ, his ministry, and then his death. And so it certainly lends itself to being appropriate at the beginning, the nativity -- well, actually even the prophesies which is part one, but then the culmination of Christ's life, passion week, and then death and resurrection.
DELDONNASo it just over time has been shifted entirely and associated with Christmas, and Christmas is certainly a time where we want to be nice to one other and Fred actually has organized a charitable performance of "Messiah" at Georgetown at each year to benefit the Lombardi Cancer Center. So we've kept that spirit alive.
NNAMDIAfter more than two-plus hours of listening to "Messiah," we finally get to the end, the grand finale. We think we're done, but no, this piece goes on for almost 10 more minutes, and most confounding the words repeat themselves over and over again. So please, tell us what makes this last movement so great musically, but first, let's listen to a bit of the first part.
NNAMDIWhat's happening in this movement which is called "Worthy is the Lamb That Was Slain"?
BINKHOLDERWell, I think it's just the culmination of the entire work. It is Handel making a final statement. Mozart said of Handel that Handel understands drama better than any of us. When he wants to, he will strike with a thunderclap. And so the way that I look at this is that this is the final cap on this entire performance, because yes, it -- he uses all of the orchestral forces, the chorus keeps singing for another 10 minutes as you said, and it is the -- his final statement of this.
NNAMDICare to comment, Anthony?
DELDONNAI agree fully. I mean, it's the exclamation point right on the performance of the Messiah and full orchestration and that repetitions of the text, this really resounding conclusion to "Messiah "as a whole.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Bill who says, "Awesome, awesome piece of music. Am I incorrect in feeling that "I Know My Redeemer Liveth" seems to leap out of the baroque period and previews the romantic period and style?"
DELDONNAI wouldn't go that far. It's certainly a great aria, but I don't think that I would go that far in saying it. I mean, I think of "Messiah" as a decidedly baroque work, you know.
BINKHOLDERBut again, with it being malleable, it -- an aria taken outside can be interpreted in a more romantic way.
DELDONNAOr a contemporary manner.
BINKHOLDEROr a contemporary manner, yeah.
DELDONNAI mean, that's, you know, Mozart's reinterpretation of "Messiah" is in the decidedly late 18th century classic style, so absolutely. It can be.
NNAMDIWhat would Handel have thought about "Messiah" being the music he's best remembered for? First you, Fred.
BINKHOLDERWell, I think that he would probably be upset that he is known for only one work. And in fact, the thing is, is that with Handel, at least in my estimation, if you say Handel, the first thing, if you asked 50 people, most of them will say "Messiah." And I think that he would probably have been upset that that was the only thing -- all of his work, that is the thing -- just one piece that is the deciding factor for his life, and that he would want other parts of his operas, some of his Italian operas to be better known.
BINKHOLDERAnd I think that would be my guess.
DELDONNAI think so. I think that, you know, he goes to London really to write Italian opera, to introduce Italian opera to London audiences, largely these aristocratic wealthy audiences. He turns to oratorio because it's more profitable and he can control it. So I think yes, he would be proud of the legacy of his -- of "Messiah"...
BINKHOLDERRight. Of course.
DELDONNA...in an English oratorio, but Italian opera I think is really what he wanted to be known for. IT was the key to fame, fortune, and posterity.
NNAMDII'll let Handel have the last word in this show, but first, Frederick Binkholder is the artistic director of the Capitol Hill Chorale. He's also a visiting assistant professor of music at Georgetown University, and the music minister at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Annandale, Va. Anthony Deldonna is director of music and associate professor of musicology at Georgetown University's Department of Performing Arts. Thank you all for joining us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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