Quiz: Answers to Handel’s ‘Messiah’

The answers are in early for this month’s quiz!
But just in case you didn’t get a chance to take it yet, here’s a link to the Handel’s ‘Messiah’ Quiz.
For those of us who did, let’s read on…

Answers: Handel’s ‘Messiah’ Quiz

by Rene Jamieson

Question 1:

How long did it take Handel to write ‘Messiah’?
Just over three weeks

It is said that Handel was flat broke in the summer of 1741 and needed some ready cash to pay his debts. What a mundane reason for the creation of one of the most inspirational oratorios ever written. Tradition also has it that Handel wrote the score of ‘Messiah’ in a garden temple (a common architectural conceit in the 18th century). The temple was in the grounds of Gopsall Hall, in Leicestershire, the home of Handel’s librettist,  Charles Jennens. The ruins of the little temple have been preserved and can be visited by tourists.  Handel’s original score no longer exists, partly because Handel himself re-arranged the oratorio every time he conducted it, which was often, top accommodate the number of voices taking part or even the size of the hall in which ‘Messiah’ was to be performed. The version of ‘Messiah’ with we are most familiar today is the Mozart arrangement, commissioned by Baron Von Swieten in 1789.

Question  2:

Who selected the scripture passages that form the libretto?
Charles Jennens

Jennens (1700-1773) was a wealthy landowner and patron of the arts. He collaborated with Handel on five oratorios in all – ‘Messiah’, ‘Saul’, ‘Israel in Egypt’, ‘L’Allegro, Il Pensoroso, ed Il Moderato’, and ”Balshazzar’.   Educated at Balliol College, Oxford, Jennens was interested in Primitive Christianity and in the life and writings of St. John Chrysostom. Jennens chose all the texts used in ‘Messiah’, and they tend to support his personal views of kingship (he was an ardent supporter of the House of Stuart). The other three choices given were also librettists who collaborated with Handel on other works.

Question 3:

Where did the first performance of ‘Messiah’ take place?

‘Messiah’ was first performed in public on April 13, 1742, as one of a series of charity concerts presented at Neal’s Music Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin. The rehearsals for the premiere were a nightmare. Along with a series of production glitches, last minute rearrangements of the score and other problems, the Very Rev. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral (and the author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, insisted that all the proceeds from the concert were to be donated to local hospitals for the mentally ill (so much for Handel’s hopes of getting a share of the box office in order to pay his debts!). Handel played the harpsichord for the premier and the orchestra and singers were conducted by a friend of Handel’s, the Irish composer and violinist Michael Dubourg.

Question 4:

Where does the annual presentation of ‘Messiah’ take place in London nowadays?
The Albert Hall

The modern tradition of an annual Easter presentation of ‘Messiah’ began in 1878. The tradition of the annual Christmas presentation began in the latter years of the 20th century. While the Albert Hall is a superb venue for Handel’s masterpiece, my favourite version of ‘Messiah’ is the 1976 performance, recorded at Covent Garden, with Sir Neville Marriner conducting. The recording features soloists Elly Ameling (soprano), Anna Reynolds (mezzo soprano), Philip Langridge (tenor) and Gwynne Howell (bass), with the Academy and Chorus of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. I strongly recommend it.

Question 5:

The passages of scripture that form the libretto of ‘Messiah’ were drawn from what source?
The Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible

‘Messiah’ is an oratorio in three parts, each of which can be performed as a stand-alone piece. Technically, the portions of ‘Messiah’ that draw on the Psalms are taken from ‘The Great Bible’ of 1538, but since Psalms and the prescribed readings in the Book of Common Prayer are all taken from the Great Bible, the question is moot. The rest of the libretto is taken from the KJV (1611 edition). The oratorio’s three parts deal with the Prophecies/Annunciation/Nativity, the Passion (which covers the trial/crucifixion/resurrection/ascension) and the Aftermath (most of which is based on the Book of the Revelation).

Question 6:

Which composer wrote a popular arrangement of ‘Messiah’?

In 1789 Mozart was commissioned by Baron Von Swieten to write a new arrangement of the score and to translate the libretto into German. The arrangement is catalogued as K572 and features a French horn instead of a trumpet for ‘The Trumpets Shall Sound’. Handel scored ‘Messiah’ for harpsichord, organ, two oboes, bassoon, two trumpets, and basso continuo.  Mozart eliminated the organ part in his arrangement, and added two clarinets, a second bassoon, two horns and three trombones. In the Mozart arrangement, Handel’s solo parts “For Unto Us a Child is Born” and “His Yoke is Easy” become choral parts.

Question 7:

What restrictions were placed on gentlemen in the audience at the premiere performance of ‘Messiah’?
They were asked not to wear their swords

I’m sure that the request for men to leave their swords at home was a precautionary measure rather than any expectation that a fight would break out. However, since duels were common in the 18th century, maybe the management was circumventing the possibility of a challenge marring the performance,  or perhaps they just didn’t want people tripping over swords in a crowded concert hall.

Question 8:

And what restrictions were placed on the ladies attending the first performance? What were they asked not to do?
They were asked not to wear hooped skirts.

There’s no doubt, given the casual behaviour of eighteenth century theatre audiences, the ladies would have flirted with the men on stage, fluttered their fans and gossiped. However, for the premiere of ‘Messiah’ they were asked not to wear the wide hooped skirts so fashionable in 1742. It is my understanding that the request was made because of space limitations. Those wide skirts took up a lot of room!

Question 9:

How many singers made up the cast of the first performance of ‘Messiah’?

Handel scored ‘Messiah’ for four soloists – a soprano, an alto, a tenor and a bass – and every performance featured a different number of singers in the chorus. There were 16 choristers for the premiere presentation.

Question 10:

How old was Handel when he composed ‘Messiah’?

Handel was born in Halle, in what is now Germany, in 1685. His his barber-surgeon father intended him for a career in law, but on a trip to visit an in Weissenfels put paid to Papa Handel’s ambitions for his son. Young Handel’s uncle was valet to a duke. The duke chanced upon young Handel playing the organ in the castle chapel and so impressed was that august personage with the youth’s talent that he urged Handel’s father to promote his son’s musical career. After studying in Germany and Italy, Handel was appointed kapellmeister to George, Elector of Hanover, in 1710. The composer emigrated to England in 1712 where he found many wealthy patrons, including Queen Anne who paid him an annual stipend of 200 pounds.

Elector George became King George I of England in 1714 and when George died in 1727, he was succeeded by his son George Augustus, who became George II. It was George II who started the tradition of standing for the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ when ‘Messiah’ was first presented in London in March 1743. The monarch rose from his seat during the opening chords of the piece, and since protocol decreed that when the monarch stood, so did everyone else, the entire audience stood, and we’ve been doing it ever since. The reason why the king stood up is not really known. Some say that he was moved by the music, while others hold that he merely wanted to stretch his legs after sitting for over an hour!