FIRST NIGHT; Handel's `Messiah'

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Christmas is already in the air and, musically, the nation's concert halls and churches are overflowing with performances of Handel's Messiah. Lots of fine oratorios exist - many more by Handel himself - and many actively propound the message of the Nativity. So why should this one sacred setting possess such a stranglehold at this time of year?

A simple answer is difficult to give, for Messiah perhaps triumphs for its "ideal" combination of elements. Handel was essentially a dramatic composer, as his 40-plus Italian operas, and a host of further English oratorio settings, demonstrate. Yet, surprisingly, Handel's most enduring work, Messiah, is not a drama at all, but rather a lyrical narration and meditation. That said, of course, the "story" is already the greatest ever told.

Handel customarily worked very quickly, yet even his normal pacy rate of production was excelled when it came to Messiah. By 1741, he had had enough of Italian opera, especially as a newly formed London company attempted to undermine his supremacy in the genre. So he moved sideways, so to speak, into oratorio. He had already penned Esther, Deborah and Athalia, plus two further oratorios - Saul and Israel in Egypt - when a commission for a season in Dublin came about. Charles Jennens became the composer's librettist on Messiah. His input is not self-generated, but consists of what he referred to a "Scripture Collection". To avoid causing offence, his method avoided representing Christ by a single voice.

Easter is a time when Handel's Messiah is frequently programmed, yet the Christian message is obviously universal. Handel's stirring, lyrical setting works so marvellously for its wonderfully evocative, yet always affirmative shifts of mood, and for the bravura of his writing for soloists, chorus and baroque orchestra alike. An immediate success at its Dublin premiere, its impact is perhaps best summed up in the words of another journalist, writing at the time: "Mr Handel's new grand sacred oratorio, called the Messiah, was rehearsed to a most grand, polite and crowded audience; and was performed so well, that it gave universal satisfaction to all present; and was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest composition of music that ever was heard..."

St John's, Smith Square, London SW1 (0171-222 1061) hosts five performances of `Messiah' from now until Christmas from: The Orchestra of St John's (today); the Apollo Chamber Orchestra (14 Dec); the Brighton Festival chorus (18 Dec); the Holst Singers (20 Dec); and from Polyphony and Canzona (23 Dec), all at 7.30pm.

Duncan Hadfield