Handel, With Care

Continuing the blog’s tradition of Easter musical moments, I offer a collection of Fun Handel Facts! Plus, some sheep!

First, the fun facts:

• On Messiah’s opening night (Dublin: 13 April 1742), a nasty divorce was complicating life for contralto Susannah Cibber – quel scandal! But her singing of the aria “He was despised and rejected of men” so moved a clergyman among the listeners that he jumped from his seat, crying, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

• Speaking of jumping up: It is not documented beyond a doubt that George II of England surged to his feet during the first London performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  But still, this is why tradition demands one stand for the “Hallelujah.” (N.B.: There is no related royal tradition that supports checking phones for messages during a performance. Please stop that.)

• George Frideric Handel could be scary. Faced with a soprano who resisted his direction, he threatened to throw her out an open window, yelling: “I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!” (P.S. Those of us who have labored to tackle Handel’s more florid melismatic runs will agree with this. P.P.S.: Why is it always sopranos in these stories?)

• Handel composed Messiah in an incredible 24 days. I mean, holy cow.

• One possible reason Messiah premiered in Dublin: Handel was playing things safe. He’d gotten some depressingly so-so notices in London the season before for other premieres.

• Back when Messiah was new, clergymen did not entirely approve of it. Biblical texts in a theater? As entertainment?  Oh, well, you know how long those shock-value novelties last, amirite?

Many of these tidbits are from this wonderful history of Messiah by Jonathan Kandell in Smithsonian magazine. Or, for more Handel fun, you can take a very entertaining quiz.

Finally, for your listening pleasure, here is the chorus “All We Like Sheep.” This is also known as “one of the choruses with all those ridiculous melismas” or “All we like sheep! Geddit?”

Please remember that were we to punctuate this text in contemporary fashion, it would read: “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” Commas: They matter.

Still, I think the sheep pictures add something. For those who celebrate, have a joyous Easter!


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