Ever wondered how Handel only needed 24 days to compose the celebrated oratorio Messiah, which has become a Christmas tradition world-wide? It turns out that the then 56-year-old Handel was on the verge of bankruptcy, which may have spurred him on, despite the fact that he was ill from a stroke at the time.
This back story was dramatized by marketer Pierre Audet in The Brilliant Resurrection of Mr. Handel, a musical narrative on the creation of Messiah. Its successful premiere in spring 2011 by the Chœur Radio Ville-Marie has inspired a second staging, this time by the McGill Chamber Orchestra (MCO) and Boris Brott, at the large St. Jean Baptiste Church.
Audet tells the story through the eyes of Handel’s servant, Peter le Blond (played by Luc Guérin), who has remained faithful to his master despite not having been paid in a while, protecting him against his numerous creditors. One day, Handel’s occasional librettist Charles Jennens appears with a new text based on biblical texts mostly from the book of Isaiah (the exile of the Jews) and the New Testament, and wants Handel to lend his creativity.
Interspersed with dialogue and music, the musical narrative presents a new way of looking at Messiah. “I acted as though the music didn’t exist, at least not yet,” says Audet. “I followed the path of the texts, imagining the ways in which Handel discovers them and sets them to music. This process — breaking the usual order of the pieces in Messiah — made it possible to create an entirely new sequence, one which tells of the resilience of a man in the effervescence of creation.”
Public reaction was enthusiastic. “It’s very rare for the music-going public to be offered a glimpse of the writing process and to understand the steps by which a masterpiece comes into being,” wrote musicologist Marie-Thérèse Lefebvre. “The play renews our appreciation by connecting each musical piece to a painful and vital event in the life of our hero,” wrote music critic George Nicholson.
McGill Chamber’s artistic director Boris Brott is happy to present both a traditional performance of Messiah followed the next day by the narrative version. “I am fascinated by Pierre Audet’s dramatization of the circumstances surrounding the writing of Messiah. I find the combination of the theatrical text presented in French with the musical libretto sung in its original English to be particularly relevant to Montreal audiences. You will find this version vital and will want to attend both versions to better understand how Handel came to write this amazing work in just one month. The words give an entirely new meaning to Charles Jennens’s text. It is transformational.”
A holiday tradition
For Brott, Messiah is one of those seminal works which should be celebrated annually. “We have performed it each Christmas for over 30 years. Similar to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Mahler’s Resurrection, there is always something new to say interpretatively and which resonates with an audience.”
That the concert is sold out every year is a mark of its popular appreciation. “It is a work that for many Christians signifies that it really is Christmas. For many it is a holy experience so different from the commercialism of Yuletide. Devout people and even those who do not attend church regularly often attend as an act of devotion, a moment of solemn reflection at the darkest time of the year. An acknowledgement that Christ, the Light of the World, was born at this darkest time as a symbol of hope and renewal.
For non-believers, it is a work of intense beauty and contrasts, superbly written for solo voices and chorus. It is an inspiring work regardless of faith. I know many Jews, annual subscribers, who hear it for the first time because it is part of their subscription. They comment on its musical beauty and that they are inspired by the setting of the text, in much the same way as the Verdi Requiem.”
For Brott, Messiah is a work that requires the ambiance of a church. “At St. Andrew and St. Paul’s there are no pillars to disturb sight lines, yet it is very intimate, only 800 seats as opposed to Maison Symphonique which seats almost 2,000. Its stained-glass windows and live acoustics offer the perfect ambiance.”
Daniel Taylor’s return
Brott is particularly looking forward to working with the professional choir prepared by Jean-Sébastien Vallée and the return of countertenor Daniel Taylor, who has sung over 400 performances of Messiah around the world. “Daniel was a regular soloist in the MCO’s Messiah for 25 years. When he was just out of his teens I engaged him to perform this part when I was Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony. It is not normal to applaud between movements, but the audience was so overcome by his ‘He Was Despised’ that they rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. I expect no less this time!”
“Messiah has always held a very important place in my heart since my first solos in the work under Gerald Wheeler and Boris Brott at Christ Church Cathedral some 30 years ago,” says Taylor.
“I value my long friendship with both of these fine musicians, and my association with Boris Brott has taken me to halls all over the world. Even now, we are discussing dates for our next Messiah! There is a sense of coming together during our concerts here in Montreal, of our singing as one to strengthen our sense of community and to celebrate this music. While artistic expression and goodwill may be more important today than they have ever been, even more truly valuable are the people who understand what it actually is.”
The McGill Chamber Orchestra performs Handel’s Messiah, November 30, 7:30 pm, Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, Montreal. Handel’s Messiah with musical narrative on Messiah’s creation (French only), December 1, 7:30 pm, St. John Baptiste Church, Montreal. www.orchestre.ca