George Frederic Handel, having made his fame and fortune in England for his Italian-language operas during the early 1700s, found his career beginning to falter in the 1730s. Being both a gifted composer and savvy businessman, Handel followed the changing tastes of the English, and began writing oratorios. An oratorio, like an opera, featured vocal soloists, a choir, orchestra and some sort of narrative; however, unlike an opera, oratorios were not staged, and told religious stories instead of historical or mythical ones like operas of the time. Messiah, his sixth oratorio, was composed by Handel in only twenty-four days in the fall of 1741 and received its premiere in Dublin in April 1742. Initially just one of a string of successful oratorios by Handel, over the years, Messiah has steadily grown in popularity compared to its siblings, and has now become a near-ubiquitous part of holiday season music-making in the English speaking world.
This weekend’s concerts mark the fiftieth anniversary of The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus’s first full performance of Handel’s Messiah. The December 1965 performance was conducted by Robert Shaw, the legendary American choral composer and associate conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. The performance was notable for presenting an interpretation of the piece similar to how it would have sounded back in Handel’s day. Shaw molded the Orchestra and Chorus’s sound to create a leaner, clearer, and more brisk performance than that of the orthodox interpretation, which used huge performing forces and slower tempi to create a veritable wall of sound. While reviews of the performance were mixed, Shaw’s interpretation of Messiah was incredibly influential, and contributed to an overall change in how many orchestras and choruses perform this piece today.