An oratorio differs from an opera in that the performance takes place on a concert stage, without sets, staging, or costumes. It was church doctrine that drove the distinction; many oratorio subjects were drawn from the Bible, and it was considered blasphemous to dramatize them. Handel took up one such tale in 1741, when he received a new libretto from Charles Jennens, a Shakespeare scholar and long-time subscriber to Handel’s published works. Drawing texts from the King James Bible and excerpts from the Book of Common Prayer, Jennens had assembled a patchwork text that encompassed prophecies of the Messiah and the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Handel began composing Messiah on August 22, 1741, and he completed the first version just 23 days later. (He made various revisions and additions in the years to come.) Well aware that his dramatization of Christ might be provocative, Handel scheduled the premiere away from London, mounting it instead as a benefit concert in Dublin. For the London debut the following spring, Handel skirted controversy by billing the music simply as a “Sacred Oratorio.” The stigma died down over time, and by 1750 Messiah was an annual staple in London
Jonathan Cohen conducting
Amanda Forsythe, Soprano
John Holiday, Countertenor
Isaiah Bell, Tenor
William Berger, Baritone
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