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Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall

At 2 PM on December 29, 1891, Walter Damrosch conducted the Oratorio Society of New York in the first Carnegie Hall performance of Georg Frideric Handel’s Messiah, beginning one of the longest performance streaks in the Hall’s history: With the exception of 1960, the Oratorio Society has performed Messiah at Carnegie Hall every year since. Let’s take a look at Messiah, its creation, what makes it a perennial favorite, and some notable Carnegie Hall performances. 

An Enduring Choral Music Treasure 

The German-born Handel (1685–1759) mastered his craft in Italy and eventually found his way to London. The triumphant 1711 premiere of his opera Rinaldo established him as one of Baroque music’s greatest composers and made him a leading light of the London stage. His Italian-language operas (many heard in recent years at Carnegie Hall in performances by The English Concert) were wildly popular in his day. Handel also wrote English-language works, including sacred oratorios (“an extended musical setting of a sacred text made up of dramatic, narrative and contemplative elements,” as explained in the New Grove Dictionary of Musicand Musicians). Handel took the genre and infused it with high drama, virtuoso operatic arias, and thrilling choruses. All of these elements are in Messiah.

Messiah was set to a text by librettist Charles Jennens and composed in a breathless two weeks between August and September of 1741. It was probably intended for production in London, but fate interceded when Handel was invited to perform a series of concerts in Dublin in April 1742. Legend has it that he ran out of new pieces, so he threw in a performance of Messiah. The oratorio had its debut April 13, 1742, in a benefit concert for several Dublin charities.

Why Messiah?

While it is popularly viewed as a Christmas work, Messiah’s musical narrative actually reflects on the Christian Lent and Easter stories. But its brilliance transcends belief systems. Riveting recitatives (a kind of dramatic musical speech), mellifluous arias, and rousing choruses make Messiah a work singers and audiences love. The opening nativity portion is a veritable hit parade. The arias “Every valley shall be exalted,” “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” and “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” have been favorites of opera greats through the ages. Professional and amateur choirs live for those moments when they sing “And the glory of the Lord” and “For unto us a Child is born.” And that’s just the first part; the famous “Hallelujah” chorus comes much later in the performance. WhyMessiah? It’s fun to sing and thrilling to hear.

Messiah at Carnegie Hall

According to Carnegie Hall’s Performance History Search, there have been 373 performances of Messiah in the Hall. This makes it second only to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Oratorio Society of New York has the lion’s share of performances, but Musica Sacra and the Masterwork Chorus and Orchestra have substantial numbers as well. December is always festive at Carnegie Hall with exciting concert traditions. In one notable December, these choral ensembles—plus The Cecilia Chorus of New York—performed Messiah five times in less than two weeks!

It’s fun to consider additional statistics. Messiah runs about two and one-half hours, so 373 performances would be roughly 932.5 hours. The Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage’s seating capacity is 2,804, where most performances of the work took place—that’s more than 1 million audience members who have experienced Messiah at Carnegie Hall.

The power and beauty of Messiah have also inspired performers not closely associated with Baroque choral music. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s 1954 performance featured tenor Jon Vickers, a Wagnerian opera legend known for the searing intensity of his singing. Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic were not strangers to choral music, but Handel was not their calling card. Even so, Bernstein and the orchestra joined the Westminster Choir for three performances of Messiah at the Hall in 1956. Eugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra had their turn in 1958 with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and magnificent soprano Leontyne Price. It was fitting that Robert Shaw—one of the greatest choral musicians—conducted a 1992 performance leading Orchestra of St. Luke’s in a 250th anniversary celebration of Messiah’s premiere.

Messiah is a versatile work that lends itself to many different performance styles. Banchetto Musicale (now known as Boston Baroque) and its long-time maestro Martin Pearlman gave the first historically informed performance of the work at Carnegie Hall in 1984. The sheer joy of communal singing was shared in the National Chorale’s 1986 Messiah Sing-In, an event for which audience members brought their own vocal scores and joined in the choruses.

Fast Facts About Handel’s Messiah 

  • More than 700 people crammed into the 600-seat Great Music Hall for the premiere performance of Messiah in Dublin. The hall’s management placed newspaper advertisements before the concert asking women not to wear hooped skirts to help accommodate the large crowd.
  • The first performance of Messiah in America was in New York City. The concert took place in the Burns’ Coffee House—a tavern in lower Manhattan—on January 16, 1770.
  • Mozart reorchestrated Messiah in 1789 with the text sung in German. He insisted he wasn’t trying to improve on Handel’s original. “Handel knows better than any of what will make an effect,” Mozart said. “When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”
  • Beethoven said of Handel, “He was the greatest composer that ever lived.”
  • Martin Pearlman was concerned the period instruments of his Banchetto Musicale would not be clearly heard in Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage. While he was rehearsing the “Pifa” section—a delicate instrumental passage depicting shepherd’s bagpipes—he asked a friend to sit in the Balcony. The friend reported that he was able to clearly hear both the music and Mr. Pearlman’s on-stage comments to the ensemble.
  • Such unlikely vocalists as Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and others raised their voices in the famous “Hallelujah” chorus to celebrate Carnegie Hall’s 85th a anniversary in what was called the “Concert of the Century.”

Photo of the Oratorio Society of New York by Brian Hatton; concert artifacts courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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