By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

In the orchestra world, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is every bit an annual Christmas tradition as eggnog and overworked shopping mall Santas.

In the 2014-2015 season alone, 13 out of the 22 largest American orchestras will perform the piece 38 times.

The Messiah oratorio premiered in 1742 when the German-born Handel was the preeminent composer in his adopted home of the United Kingdom. Handel’s name drew such a crowd that audience members were advised to leave their hoop skirts and swords at home for fear of overcrowding at the Messiah’s Dublin premiere.

But as much of a tradition as Handel’s work has become, many modern audiences might not know just how it came to be and how it came to dominate the Yule time orchestra calendar.

Handel 300W
George Frideric Handel

1. A lot of people thought itwas blasphemous

Given the oratorio’s sacred subject matter and Handel’s note on his original manuscript that read “To God alone the glory,” it’s hard to imagine that any audience could have interpreted the music as anything less than devout.

However, opera and classical composers were often the subject of moral outrage in the 1700s. During a 1727 performance of a Handel opera, two leading sopranos came to blows onstage while the audience rooted them on. The incident led satirist John Arbuthnot to write a pamphlet on the absurdity of London’s opera world that included the line, “Shame that two such well-bred ladies should call [each other] b---- and wh---, should scold and fight.”

Handel’s opera Esther also caused outrage from the Bishop of London when it was performed by cathedral singers in 1732. When Handel moved from opera into oratorio dealing with religious subject matter, many critics objected to the idea of mixing the sacred and secular worlds where the same theater might host religious subject matter one day and suggestive comedy the next.

Handel hoped advertising the piece as “A Sacred Oratorio” instead of “Messiah” would help defuse some of the controversy, and his decision to premiere the work in Dublin instead of London was in part to try the work away from Anglican bishops. But even in Ireland, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame threatened to publicly forbid singers from St. Patrick’s Cathedral from participating.

2. It is not a Christmas piece

Librettist Charles Jennens, who was a close friend and collaborator with Handel, used the biblical stories of Jesus for the Messiah’s text. Jennens described his work as “a meditation of our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief.”

But only the first third of the work was about the birth of Jesus. The second act covers the death of Jesus and the third focused on his resurrection. As such, the piece was originally conceived as a work for Easter and was premiered in the spring during the Lent season.

By the 19th century, Messiah became a regular December staple particularly in the United States. Laurence Cummings, conductor of the London Handel Orchestra, told Smithsonian Magazine that the Christmas performance custom may have partly come out of necessity.

"There is so much fine Easter music — Bach's St. Matthew Passion, most especially — and so little great sacral music written for Christmas," he said.

3. It was written incredibly fast

Handel wrote the original version of Messiah in three to four weeks. Most historic accounts estimate the composer spent only 24 days writing the oratorio.

What makes this even more astounding is the sheer scale of the 259-page score. Richard Luckett, author of Handel’s Messiah: A Celebration, writes that there are some uncorrected errors or blotted out notes but remarkably few mistakes given the speed of Handel’s writing.

NPR music commentator Miles Hoffman estimates there are roughly a quarter of a million notes in Messiah. At a little more than three weeks of 10-hour days, Hoffman said that means Handel would have had to keep a continuous pace writing 15 notes a minute.

4. There is no definitive version

Leonard Bernstein once raised eyebrows by reordering sections of Messiah for a Carnegie Hall performance. Not many conductors would have the confidence to tinker with the original intentions of a composer like Handel, but in reality his original intentions are hard to guess.

Handel rewrote parts of the oratorio to better meet the abilities of soloists and the available instruments with each of the original 13 performances. Historically, Messiah has continued to change with the ensembles that perform it. Mozart re-orchestrated Messiah in 1789 and gave it a more modern sound by Classical orchestra standards. He humbly wrote than any alterations he made should not be seen as an effort at improvement.

5. King George II stood during the “Hallelujah” chorus… or maybe not

An often repeated legend about Messiah tells the story of King George II who was so moved by the “Hallelujah” chorus during the London premiere of Messiah that he rose to his feet and then everyone in attendance followed suit as not to be sitting when the king stood.

Thus we believe the regularly debated tradition of standing during the “Hallelujah” chorus came to be — also giving birth to countless passive-aggressive battles of concert decorum between the sitters and standers.

However, according to various experts, there is no truth to this story. In fact there is no evidence King George II was even in attendance, and it is unlikely the newspaper writers that were in the audience would have overlooked mentioning a royal presence. The first reference to this story was a letter written 37 years after the fact.

Just where that leaves us in the annual stand-versus-sit showdown though is still very much up for debate.