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Handel’s sacred oratorio - Martin Scicluna

St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

George Frideric Handel’s baroque sacred oratorio, Messiah, has been described as “one of man’s grandest musical achievements”. It still awes listeners almost 260 years after the composer’s death.

Messiah remains the most popular of all choral works, particularly at Christmas. Although its Christian doctrine and faith were intended as a timely thought-provoking reminder for Lent and Easter, it has become a much-loved Christmas tradition.

How apt, therefore, that a grand performance of this glorious baroque-era sacred oratorio is to be performed in nine days’ time at the St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral in Valletta on January 12 at 7 pm, with all proceeds from the concert being in aid of the Save Valletta’s Skyline Restoration Appeal.

Handel was 56 when he wrote Messiah over a three-week period in the late summer of 1741, just at the same time as St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral was being built. His recent operas in the Italian style had not been successful, partly due to changing tastes in London and also partly because they were not up to Handel’s usual standard. He was depressed and in debt.

The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland invited him to present a series of concerts in Dublin that winter and there he announced that he would shortly return with a new oratorio. Messiah was duly premiered on April 13, 1742 at Neal’s Music Hall on fashionable Fishamble Street. Among the performers were seven soloists and the choirs of both Anglican cathedrals in Dublin, Christ Church and St Patrick’s. Handel himself led from the harpsichord, while the orchestra was led by the Master and Composer of State Music of Dublin, later the Master of the Royal Chapel in London.

Messiah is a narrative drama about the life of Christ, and a meditation on the idea of a messiah, which is why some of the text is derived not from the New but from the Old Testament. Later parts of the oratorio offer episodes dealing with Christ’s birth, sufferings, death, and resurrection. While Handel’s oratorios usually have characters and a clear narrative, Messiah does not. Soloists are still used, but essentially for their vocal qualities rather than to represent specific individuals or saintly figures.

The oratorio is in many ways akin to a concert performance of an opera. The singers take on different roles and there is a narrative structure, although conventional storytelling is lacking. The soloists variously comment on the action, introduce massed voices of the choir, and take on characters including fiery prophet, angel, sorrowing bystander and ecstatic convert.

The choir also enacts different characters: the heavenly host in Glory to the God, an angry mob in He trusted in God and a contrite congregation in All we, like sheep, have gone astray, among others.

The works structure was designed by the librettist Charles Jennens and is in three parts. Part one is the prophesy and realisation of God’s plan to redeem mankind by the coming of the messiah. Part Two concentrates on the accomplishment of redemption by the sacrifice of Jesus, mankind’s rejection of God’s offer and mankind’s utter defeat when trying to oppose the powers of the almighty. And the third part is a hymn of thanksgiving for the final overthrow of death.

Described as “avant-garde and controversial”, Messiah sets a sacred topic in a theatrical context. It was a ground-breaking composition in other ways too.

It may also be of interest to know that the first performance of Messiah was performed, it is thought, on the very organ which is now in St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral

It is particularly notable for Handel’s use of “text painting” in which the music closely mimics the meaning of the words. The glorious solo trumpet partnering the bass in The trumpet shall sound, is well known. Also the scene painting achieved by the Pastoral Symphony which precedes the story of the angel announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, with oboe-family instruments representing the shepherds.  From the first triumphant entrance to the final Amen, however, the role of the chorus transcends that of the soloists and orchestra.

It may also be of interest to know that the first performance of Messiah was performed, it is thought, on the very organ which is now in St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral.  This promises to be a rousing performance of a most loved and popular work.

It will be performed by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, with a large contingent from the University of Western Australia Choral Society and the Goldberg Ensemble, Malta.

The conductor will be Michael Laus and the soloists will be leading Maltese singers Gillian Zammit (soprano), Claire Massa (alto), Juan Gambina (tenor) and Albert Buttigieg (bass). The cathedral has been most fortunate to be able to obtain the services of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, Malta’s only professional orchestra, for this Messiah.

Laus’s leadership in bringing together the MPO, the soloists, the members of the University of Western Australia Choral Society and the Goldberg Ensemble for this performance is going to be a formidable effort and an inspiring musical offering.

Members of the University of Western Australia Choral Society are flying over especially from Perth in Australia to take part in the performance. With a history stretching over eight decades, the choral society has over the years joined other choirs for performances in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane (with Luciano Pavarotti), Verona, New York, Vienna, Moscow and St Petersburg. They are coming here entirely at their own expense in a typical act of Australian generosity simply to support the Save Valletta’s Skyline Restoration Appeal.

St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral Restoration Appeal Committee is announcing this performance of Handel’s Messiah with great pride and enthusiasm. They have obtained some brilliant musicians to perform it: the best orchestra and soloists in Malta, two outstanding choirs, one of which is travelling over 8,000 miles to be here. The acoustics in this cathedral are excellent.

This promises to be a most uplifting performance of a most loved and popular work.

Bookings can still be made from the Manoel Theatre Booking Office ([email protected]). The prices are: gold tickets at €75 each; silver at €55 each; and bronze at €35 each.

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