Skip to content Skip to navigation

Handel’s Messiah at Bard

Music Preview
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Apr 4th, 2016

Alleluia! This coming weekend Bard College will present a performance of Handel’s glorious oratorio, Messiah, with The Orchestra Now under the baton of Leon Botstein, soloists from the Graduate Vocal Arts Program, the Bard Festival Chorale, and the Bard College Chamber Singers at the Fischer Center’s Sosnoff Theater.

Despite being an initial flop because the oratorio was deemed sacrilegious (due to its premiere in a public theater), Handel’s Messiah has become, over the centuries, the most popular oratorio in the world. The exultant quality of the music, as it combines with magnificent chorale singing, achieves an overwhelming effect. There’s just nothing like it in the world, although music critics will point to single movements in work by Handel and others as being superior. But the gestalt itself remains a triumphant landmark.

While the populace was not impressed by Messiah in its first performance on March 23, 1743, King George II was more than impressed. During the “Hallelujah Chorus” the king was so moved he stood up. Subsequent performances have repeated this tradition. From experience, I can attest that something marvelously strange occurs in the brain at this point in the oratorio: transcendent exultation unlike any other enthusiasm from any oratorio or opera.

After the initial failure of the oratorio, Handel in 1749 donated a new organ to the Foundling Hospital in London. He dedicated the organ on May 1, 1750, with a performance of Messiah; he gave the orphanage exclusive rights to its performance. For the next nine years at the orphanage Handel conducted annual performances around Easter. His generosity not only saved the orphanage, but it established Messiah as a monumental masterpiece. During the April 6, 1759 performance Handel, now blind, became faint as he directed “The Trumpet Shall Sound” movement. He appeared to recover by the final Amen, yet he went home to bed and never recovered, dying on Good Saturday. Despite the oratorio’s subsequent association with Christmas, due to its overwhelming popularity, this calendrical point remains the proper moment for a performance of Messiah.  

Part of the appeal of Handel’s Messiah resides in its non-liturgical conception. The pathos of the work remains rooted in ethical humanism rather liturgical dignity. The work reflects the ethical ideals of The Enlightenment, yet it is also true that its popularity is due to its universal religious appeal. Solo ensembles sometimes over-go the demands of operatic convention. The work itself, despite its prose libretto, propels taut, dramatic tension. Yet it is the chorale numbers that create a new aesthetic synthesis by incorporating the finest conceptions and techniques from German cantata, Italian opera and choral tradition, and English anthem choral singing.    

Ticket prices for this weekend performance remain remarkably attractive at merely $15-$20. Performances occur Saturday, April 9 at 8 pm and Sunday, April 10 at 3 pm. If you have never experienced the wonder of this work or wish to be re-juvenated by it, go to hear, stand, and relish this extraordinary masterpiece.

For tickets go to