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”a sublimely passionate and compassionate performance"
”Do we need yet another Handel Messiah? It is, hands down, the most popular Christmas oratorio of all time. Well, listen to Jordi Savall’s revelatory version and you can’t help but agree that there is room for one more. Yes, indeed. Savall, the viola da gamba–playing rock star of early music, has brought an astounding amount of beauty to this very familiar piece. “ “Savall and his musicians here provide a leaner, cleaner, and revelatory Messiah — both uplifting and thrilling."
”Jordi Savall lo affronta come una «sublime meditazione musicale»"
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All the wonderfully diverse features of Baroque expression and vocal and instrumental declamation are present in Handel’s Messiah. It is a sublime musical meditation which transcends simple narrative, going beyond the reality of Jesus to the mystery of Creation itself and Redemption in a three-fold reflection on the struggle between Light and Darkness, the redemption of Humanity, and the relationship between God and Man.



Searching for the Light

To fully appreciate what Messiah meant to Handel himself, we must consider the spiritual, financial and physical crisis that he experienced in 1737; during that year the principal opera houses such as the Haymarket and the Nobility Opera went bankrupt. On 13th April, Handel was stricken with an attack of paralysis and on 20th November Queen Caroline, his most constant patron and loyal friend, passed away. Added to this, he had been under the terrible, relentless pressure of his dual responsibilities as a musician and impresario throughout 1736. Moreover, it is no wonder that his prodigious workload during 1737 took its toll on his robust constitution: beginning in January his creative energies produced Partenope, Arminio, Il Parnassso in Festa, Alexander’s Feast, Il Trionfo and Esther, in which -to the rapture of his audiences- he also performed the Organ Concertos, which had become one of the mainstays of his popularity. No sooner had he finished Berenice, Handel arranged a new pasticcio: Didone abbandonata. However, on this occasion he was unable personally to see the production through, because on 13th April he was afflicted with a paralysis of his right side, which also affected his intellectual faculties. Yesterday’s “Colossus” was suddenly a pitiable, prostrate figure. On 14th May, the London Evening Post reported on the composer’s ill health “which, if he don’t regain, the publick will be depriv’d of his fine Compositions.” In a gesture of support for the musician, the Royal Family nevertheless attended the premiere of Berenice on 18th May. Without Handel at the helm, however, the enterprise was in jeopardy. One last composer’s benefit performance was given on 15th June. A few days later, the troupe broke up and Strada and Conti left London. On 11th June the Nobility Opera also closed its doors.

As Jean-François Labie observes, in 1737 George Frideric’s life had hit a turbulent patch: “he had reached a low point in his career. Many believed that he was finished. Everything that he had built up with audacity, determination and prodigious self-confidence seemed to come crashing down about him. On the other hand, however, that same year witnessed the emergence of a new career, the beginning of an ascent to a greater and more definitive fame than he had previously known.” One wonders to what extent had the profound change that followed the severe crisis in his health lain dormant for several months? Or was it his thirst for success, his anger at being constantly thwarted and frustrated in his projects and derided by mediocre individuals which prevented him from objectively grasping the reasons behind the public’s behaviour, blinding him to the possibilities of his own innovation – the oratorio? This musical genre was increasingly seen as an entertainment in which the religious element was less and less important, while at the same time Italian opera was capitulating to the puritanical prejudices of the nobility and the business class bourgeoisie that courted Power.

Whatever the case, John Mainwaring’s allusions to Handel’s illness and mental problems in his Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel should come as no surprise: “His right arm was become useless to him from a stroke of the palsy; and how greatly his senses were disordered at intervals, for a long time, which are better forgotten than recorded. The most violent deviations from reason are usually seen when the strongest faculties are thrown out of course.” We know nothing about George Frideric’s life during those months of his illness, except for a few vague indications in which Mainwaring describes him as a difficult patient. On 1st September, acting on a recommendation to take the thermal baths, he withdrew 150 pounds from his account and promptly left for Aix-la-Chapelle to undergo an intensive course of traditional vapour bath treatments. It is impossible to know exactly what was wrong with him, but, surprisingly, he was completely restored to health in an almost miraculous fashion.

The only document recounting what happened is the following text by Mainwaring, “It was thought best for him to have recourse to the vapour baths of Aix-la-Chapelle, over which he sat near three times as long as hath ever been the practice. Whoever knows anything of the nature of those baths will, from this instance, form some idea of his surprising constitution. His sweats were profuse beyond what can well be imagined. His cure, from the manner as well as from the quickness, passed with the Nuns for a miracle. When, but a few hours from his quitting the bath, they heard him at the organ in the principal church as well as the convent, playing in a manner so much beyond any they had ever been used to, such a conclusion in such persons was natural enough. Tho’ his business was so soon dispatched, and his cure judged to be thoroughly effected, he thought it prudent to continue at Aix about six weeks, which is the shortest period usually allotted for bad cases.”

However, the most important aspect was not just the intensive nature of the cure at Aix-la-Chapelle and its sulphur springs. As Jean-François Labie observes, “Above all, he was in need of rest. And that is what his long sojourn away from London and its cares brought him; his appetite for life, the composer’s overriding trait, was channelled into the enthusiasm with which he followed his treatment at three times the normal pace; he was cured by his desire to be cured. It was he himself who wrought the miracle.”

On 28th October, the London Daily Post announced his return, saying that he was “hourly expected from Aix-la-Chapelle”, and on 7th November it published that Handel had returned “greatly recovered in his health.” The old lion was preparing to do battle again. On 13th November he embarked on composing a new opera, Faramondo, but only five days later the death of Queen Caroline threw his plans into disarray. He had known the queen since childhood, when he visited Berlin, and with her death Handel lost both a dear friend and a staunch supporter. His grief was deeply personal. In his Funeral anthem he left us one of his richest and most personal works in which all his emotions are reflected, a fact that makes it all the more surprising that the piece is so little known.

It was then that, faced with the difficulties of staging his operas, Handel gradually turned to the sacred equivalent of the genre, the oratorio, as well as instrumental music. He prepared the Six Concertos for Organ Opus 4 and announced the Seven Sonatas or Trios for two Violins or German Flutes: opera quinta. Between 23rd July and 27th September, he composed the oratorio Saul, and on 9th September he commenced a new opera, although he abruptly abandoned it, returning, as if driven by an invisible force, to compose religious music. In the space of one month, from 1st October to 1st November, he composed another masterpiece, Israel in Egypt, and that year he also wrote the Concerti Grossi Op. 6 (Twelve Concertos for String Instruments). His latest operas, on the other hand, were failing with audiences and at the box office.

“Acclaimed for his chamber music, his concertos and his oratorios, would Handel receive only criticism for his operas?” speculated Jean Gallois, going on to write: “As a matter of personal preference and pride, Handel refused to admit defeat, and on 22nd October, 1740, he tried once again with the opera Imeneo, followed on 10th January, 1741, by Deidamia. This time, he was forced to bow to reason: the public had snubbed him. The former was given only two evening performances, while the latter ran to three. His operatic adventure had ended in a double failure. Tastes had changed and audiences now turned their backs on a form, style and language that seemed to belong to another age. First they took issue with the opera, then with Handel himself. The gentry gave him the cold shoulder and the bourgeoisie ignored him by organising suppers to coincide with his concerts and even paid people to tear down the posters advertising the performances. In such circumstances, it was important to put some distance between himself and the public.”

In the course of his life Handel composed 32 oratorios, a compositional genre based on biblical texts, developing them as vast sound frescoes to which he brought a truly dramatic dimension. Yet it was Charles Jennens’ new “libretto”, consisting of a mosaic of texts taken from the Scriptures, that inspired Handel to compose his Messiah, a work that defied all the known categories: it was his “Great Sacred Oratorio” which, more than any other of his works, was to bring him lasting fame.

Yet the very title of Messiah is misleading, since, as Jean-François Labie amusingly observes, Christ’s absence from the work is as conspicuous as that of the Girl from Arles (l’Arlésienne) in Bizet’s eponymous work! As for the appellation of “oratorio”, it seems less appropriate to this vast sound fresco than “contemplation”, the epithet chosen by Telemann for his own Messiah. As Olivier Rouvière remarks, in this new text by Jennens there was “no plot and no dramatic character. Christ does not appear, he does not speak and he is explicitly mentioned only once – in the last-but-one chorus! The text is not divided into tableaux, scenes or numbers. At the very most, its three parts of unequal length may be considered to correspond to the three key “events” in the Christian liturgy: Part I, drawing mainly on the prophecies of Isaiah and the Gospels, focuses on the episode of the Nativity; the more sombre Part II in which extracts from the Psalms predominate, evokes the Passion and the Ascension, and Part III, the shortest section, centres on the Resurrection and Judgement. Whilst it is true that the language of the fifty or so fragments assembled by Jennens (many of which churchgoers knew by heart) is sonorous, evocative and rich in imagery, its frequently primitive vocabulary and lack of poetic structure make it more appropriate to be uttered in a rousing speech than to be sung.”

Remembering Handel’s as reported by Hawkins: “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne, with His company of Angels” it is reasonable to think, as Jean-François Labie suggests, “that George Frideric was fully aware of Messiah’s original contribution to the field of music, particularly regarding sacred dramatic composition. It is tempting to speculate whether, just as the first oratorio to which he had devoted his energies in an endeavour to go beyond the well-beaten paths, Athalia, had premiered at Oxford before being exposed to the scrutiny of London audiences, he perhaps wished to try out such a radically novel work as Messiah in a city other than the English capital. The invitation to Dublin afforded him just such an opportunity. Any one of the great provincial cities in Great Britain was as good as another. Whether it was Dublin or Oxford, the main thing was to have a testing ground.”

As Jean Gallois writes, “For their part, the good people of London who attended performances at Mrs. Cooper’s Gardens and even more so at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, enthusiastically applauded the Fireworks Music, which was taken from the opera Atalanta. Meanwhile, the composer was feverishly writing two new monumental works: Messiah (composed in twenty-four days) […] and Samson.” Handel began work on Messiah on 22nd August, 1741, receiving Jennens’ libretto some time later, on 10th July. The original 259-page score bears signs of haste such as blots, crossings-out and other uncorrected errors, although it should be said that the number of errors is remarkably small in a document of this length. The composer’s notes indicate that he finished the first part around 28th August, the second part on 6th September, and the third part on 12th September. After two days spent correcting the work, he completed it on 14th September. He then immediately turned his attention to Samson, which he finished on 29th October. “On 31st October, braving all the world,” Gallois continues, “he proudly went to the Haymarket to listen to Alessandro in Persia, a lightweight Harlequin’s cape of a pasticcio in which fragments by Johann Adolph Hasse, Leonardo Leo, Giuseppe Arena, Giovanni Battista Lampugnani and Giuseppe Scarlatti were stitched together… Five days later, at the invitation of William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Handel departed London for Dublin.”

The Dublin premiere of Messiah took place at mid-day on Thursday 13th April 1742 at the New Music-Hall, a modest venue with seating capacity for six hundred. For the occasion, Handel had distributed the work’s arias among a larger number of soloists than is usual nowadays: two sopranos, three contraltos (one female and two male), two tenors and two basses. Handel’s Irish tour was such a triumph and the expectation aroused by his oratorio was so great that it was decided to admit a larger audience than originally planned, ladies being asked not to wear hoops under their crinolines, while gentlemen were requested to leave their swords at home! It was calculated that this small affront to vanity would allow another one hundred people to attend the performance.

Handel fared less well at Messiah’s premiere in London in March, 1743, where the work was received less favourably than in Dublin. When Handel decided to stage the work there, he took care not to upset the archbishop and pious souls by omitting the title of the work, presenting it simply as a “sacred oratorio”. This precaution proved to be insufficient, as the insults and protests continued to rain down on him: “An oratorio either is an act of religion, or it is not”, argued one of his detractors. “If it is, I ask if the playhouse is a fit temple to perform it in. But if it is for diversion and an amusement only, what a profanation of God’s name and word is this!” Was Messiah’s London failure attributable to its excessive number of choruses (20 out of 52 numbers), as Jean-François Labie argues, recalling that the choral fresco Israel in Egypt had met with a similar fate? Or was it due to the modernity of a score, which, while working within the constraints of the liturgy, proposed no dramatic plot? One of the most unjust and incomprehensible criticisms came from his own librettist Charles Jennens in a letter to an unknown correspondent: “I shall show you a collection I gave Handel, called Messiah, which I value highly. He has made a very good entertainment of it, though not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition, but he retained his Overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah.

The libellous campaign went on for several months, inflicting considerable damage on the oratorio’s prospects of success. Unlike the concerts in Ireland, which were an unmitigated triumph, in London Handel had to limit the number of performances of Messiah to two in 1743, and none at all in 1744. Notwithstanding, Handel believed in his composition, performing it almost every year until finally, in the mid-1750s, it was a success. King George II is said to have risen to his feet at the first performance on hearing the explosion of joy in the Hallelujah chorus (in which the word “Hallelujah” is repeated 70 times and the words “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” are sung. In doing so, he began the tradition in British, American, Norwegian and other concert performances, whereby the audience stands at this point in the oratorio.

Messiah accompanied Handel until his death: it was the last composition to be conducted by the now blind composer only eight days before he passed away on 6th April 1759… As Olivier Rouvière points out, “these successive performances provided an opportunity for constant re-workings, particularly in the arias. Despite all these changes, the oratorio retained its two da capo arias (ABA, the preferred form in opera), with profound meditations in the passages devoted to the Passion and the Resurrection: “He was despised” for alto, with its stark, staccato notes, is a heart-rending evocation of Christ’s torment. “Abandoned” by the orchestra, it features a shorter and almost horrifying central section with its chromatic writing and a realistic description of the lashes of the whip. By contrast, the principal sections of “The trumpet shall sound” develop an implacable duel between the trumpet of Judgement Day and the bass voice, while the central part, accompanied only by the continuo, describes with chilling calm the world in the wake of the Apocalypse.”

From an orchestral point of view, Messiah is essentially one of Handel’s most sparsely written oratorios. For its first performance, Handel distributed the arias among nine soloists and used only a three-part string ensemble with the occasional addition of two trumpets and percussion. Oboes and bassoons, which formed part of the traditional orchestral line-up at that time, were not used in Dublin. Nor were there any flutes, horns, trombones or harps, or indeed any of the unusual instruments which feature in other scores by Handel. Although the exact number of musicians deployed in the performance is not known, it seems likely that there were about twenty musicians. It is true that the work went through various stages in Handel’s lifetime, many written in his own hand, as can be seen from an autograph score of 1741. A copy dated a year later no doubt reflects the format of the original performance. There is also the famous “Foundling Hospital” material (1754) corresponding to the performances that either the composer himself or his assistants conducted at the charitable institution during the 1750s, which the composer bequeathed to the Hospital in his will. The best known of all his oratorios, Messiah’s popularity has never waned: it has been performed continuously in Great Britain since Handel’s time, although at the outset it was, from an orchestral point of view, the most sparsely scored of Handel’s oratorios. However, in 1784, twenty-five years after the composer’s death, Messiah was performed at Westminster Abbey by two hundred and seventy-five instrumentalists and a three hundred-strong choir, and in 1883 performances at the Crystal Palace mustered more than four thousand performers: “tradition” thus commandeered the work in a disconcertingly casual manner, which, while proving its adaptability, contributed to its permanent disfigurement.

We have based our version on the autograph score held by the British Library in London, R.M.20.F.2, completed by the incorporation of the oboe parts found in the manuscript instrumental part-books used in the version performed at the Foundling Hospital in 1754. The version offered in this recording was prepared during Le Concert des Nations’ residence at La Saline Royale d’Arc-et-Senans, followed by concerts at Dôle, Besançon, Paris (Philharmonie), La Chapelle Royale de Versailles (where the disc was recorded) and Barcelona (Palau de la Música Catalana).

Handel’s Messiah became one of the most popular oratorios of all time, thanks not only to the extraordinary beauty and richness of its choruses, arias and recitatives, but also because, like Allegri’s Miserere, it is one of those rare early compositions to have survived the oblivion of time – that typical amnesia which was the scourge of all music before Classicism until J. S. Bach’s music was rediscovered with the performance of his Saint Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829 under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, at that time a young conductor aged twenty.

All the wonderfully diverse features of Baroque expression and vocal and instrumental declamation are present in Handel’s Messiah. It is a sublime musical meditation which transcends simple narrative, going beyond the reality of Jesus to the mystery of Creation itself and Redemption in a three-fold reflection on the struggle between Light and Darkness, the redemption of Humanity, and the relationship between God and Man.

Bellaterra, 11th September, 2019

Translated by Jacqueline Minett 




Gallois, Jean. Haendel. Éditions Solfèges/Seuil. Paris 1980.

Labie Jean-François. G. F. Haendel. Diapason. Éditions Robert Laffont. Paris 1981.

Mainwaring, John, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Haendel, R. & J. Dodsley, London 1760.

Müller von asow, Hedwig, and Müller, Erich H., Georg Friedrich Händel: Biographie, Briefe und Schriften, Lindau im Bodensee: Frisch und Perneder, 1949.

Raugel, Félix. Georges Frédéric Haendel. Histoire de la Musique, Encyclopédie de La Pléiade. Volume I). Éditions Gallimard. Paris 1960. Pp. 1863-1881.

Rouviere Olivier. Le Messie de Haendel. Programme notes. Concerts at Chapelle Royale, Versailles, 18/19 December 2017.


”a sublimely passionate and compassionate performance"
”Do we need yet another Handel Messiah? It is, hands down, the most popular Christmas oratorio of all time. Well, listen to Jordi Savall’s revelatory version and you can’t help but agree that there is room for one more. Yes, indeed. Savall, the viola da gamba–playing rock star of early music, has brought an astounding amount of beauty to this very familiar piece. “ “Savall and his musicians here provide a leaner, cleaner, and revelatory Messiah — both uplifting and thrilling."
”Jordi Savall lo affronta come una «sublime meditazione musicale»"