THE STORY BEHIND: Handel’s Messiah

On December 14, four world class soloists will join the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Providence Singers to perform the holiday music tradition of Handel’s Messiah

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THE STORY BEHIND: Handel’s Messiah

Title: Messiah, HWV 56

Composer: George Fredric Handel (1685–1759)

When was the last time the Rhode Island Philharmonic played this piece: December 15, 2018

The Story: 

Handel settled permanently in England in 1712. He wanted to make his reputation and fortune there as an opera composer. For many years, he was successful in that endeavor, becoming the director of the Royal Academy of Music, an enterprise sponsored partially by the King for the production of Italian-style opera, Handel’s specialty. Public taste always changes, however, and Handel became the victim of the fickle crowd in 1728, when London went crazy over the first English ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera. Little by little, the Academy’s loyal subscribers lost interest in stilted Italian opera in favor of the more earthy and entertaining ballad operas, which were capturing the city’s theaters.

Handel was not the sort of composer to dabble in such lowbrow pastiches, no matter how financially successful they had become. Steadfast, he clung to his operatic enterprise, which he operated by himself. The company struggled along, producing more failures than successes. Then during Lent in 1732, an event took place that affected the future direction of Handel’s career and permanently changed English musical history. Handel’s Esther was performed. It was the first oratorio ever given in London, and it created a real stir. That May, Handel presented six more performances of Esther, which the public received enthusiastically, in spite of his Italian singers that “made rare work with the English tongue you would have sworn it had been Welch,” according to one review.

ProvSignersHandel still did not give up Italian opera, however, and he continued to write new operas and revive the old ones. Each spring also brought some new (or revised) oratorio including Alexander’s Feast, Saul and Israel in Egypt. By the spring of 1741, it looked as though Handel had worn out his welcome in England. Rumors spread in London that Handel was considering moving back to the Continent. Then in August, he received an invitation to present a concert for the benefit of Dublin’s charities. Using a libretto by Charles Jennens (author of Saul), Handel composed Messiah between August 22 and September 14 — a period of only 24 days! The astonishing thing is that a work written in such haste should be such a consistent, peerless masterpiece. One might even speak of divine inspiration, for Handel once declared, “When I composed the Hallelujah Chorus, I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself.”

The resounding success of Messiah and other Handel works in Dublin during 1741– 42 virtually inaugurated a new career for the composer, though it also had its difficulties. The London premiere of Messiah in 1743 had to be billed simply as “a new sacred oratorio,” since its title might be offensive to the puritanical element. Unfortunately, that was not all. Messiah was a failure at first, and only began to gain some success in 1750 when Handel conducted it for charity. Messiah, however, more than any other oratorio, set the trajectory for Handel’s re-emergence as a composer in England. Of course, it turned out to be the trajectory of a rocket to the stars for Handel’s future position in music and in the hearts of his listeners.

Program Notes by Dr. Michael Fink © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Beethoven’s Emperor • Sept 16 & 17


Garrick Ohlsson Joins
RI Philharmonic for Opening Concert

Music Director Larry Rachleff’s
Farewell Season Begins

The Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra welcomes celebrated pianist Garrick Ohlsson to begin this season, Music Director Larry Rachleff’s last leading the Orchestra. Ohlsson will play Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Orchestra. The program also features Smetana’s The Bartered Bride Overture and Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra.

TACO Classical Concert
Saturday, September 17 • 8:00pm

Larry Rachleff, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano

SMETANA The Bartered Bride: Overture
LUTOSLAWSKI Concerto for Orchestra
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No.5 (Emperor)

Before & After the Concert
Pre-concert Talk with Francisco Noya
Music School Students in Mezzanine Lobby
Talkback with Larry Rachleff


Amica Rush Hour Concert
Friday, September 16 • 6:30pm

SMETANA The Bartered Bride: Overture
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No.5 (Emperor)


Directions & Parking

Concert sponsored by Almon & Suzanne Hall
Mr. Ohlsson’s appearance is sponsored by
Almon & Suzanne Hall and Mr. & Mrs. Robert Catanzaro

Box Office


The Carter Center
Mon–Fri: 9am–4:30pm
667 Waterman Avenue
East Providence, RI 02914

Friday Concert Days: 3:30pm–Showtime
Saturday Concert Days: 4pm–Showtime
1 Avenue of the Arts
Providence, RI 02903

Supper Club

Enjoy a special buffet at the Renaissance Hotel, adjacent to The VETS, at 6pm on Classical Saturdays. Francisco Noya gives a pre-concert talk at 6:30pm, then take your seat for the 8pm performance featuring Music Director Larry Rachleff and your RI Philharmonic!

$45 per person
Cash Bar Available

RI Philharmonic Supper Club • Sept 17
Renaissance Haydn Room

6pm ~ Cocktails
6:30pm ~ Pre-concert Talk
7pm ~ Dinner Buffet

To RSVP email:
Deadline for reservations and cancellations is Wednesday, September 14!

About Garrick Ohlsson 

American pianist Garrick Ohlsson plays during rehearsal of Special Concert on the 200th Anniversary of Frédéric Chopin's Birth at Warsaw Philharmonic

American pianist Garrick Ohlsson plays during the rehearsal for the Special Concert on the 200th Anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin’s Birth at Warsaw Philharmonic February 25, 2010.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson has established himself worldwide as a musician of magisterial interpretive and technical prowess. Although long regarded as one of the world’s leading exponents of the music of Frédéric Chopin, Ohlsson’s repertoire ranges over the entire piano literature. To date he has at his command more than 80 concerti, ranging from Haydn and Mozart to works of the 21st century, many commissioned for him. Last season, with concerti as diverse as Beethoven, Brahms, Barber and Busoni, he performed in San Francisco, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Baltimore, Minnesota, Scotland, Prague, Boston, Los Angeles, Ottawa, Nashville, Indianapolis, Oregon, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Manchester (UK) and Lugano (Switzerland).

  • New York roots, San Francisco home: A native of White Plains, N.Y., Ohlsson began his piano studies at the age of eight; at 13 he entered The Juilliard School.
  • Big break: In 1970, he became the first American – and still the only one – to win the Gold Medal at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, earning worldwide recognition as one of the finest pianists of his generation. This fall he will return to serve as a judge at the competition.

About the Concert: Stories Behind the Music

Complete Program Notes

The Bartered Bride: Overture
Bedřich Smetana

Smetana found his roots in the music of his native Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). His political activism created a fresh, liberating force in his music, and nowhere is there a stronger sense of Czech “roots” than in his second opera, The Bartered Bride (1863-1866). Smetana felt such enthusiasm for the project that he wrote the overture first. The peasant opera has become synonymous with Czech culture.

Concerto for Orchestra
Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994)

In the 1950s, composer Witold Lutoslawski became internationally celebrated, winning prizes and honors galore. In his native Poland, Lutoslawski was renowned as a pianist and conductor as well as a composer. Under repressive Stalinist Soviet Bloc rules, however, he paid the same heavy price for fame as did Russian composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich. His Concerto for Orchestra was a 1950 commission from the Warsaw Philharmonic. Lutoslawski wrote: “This was to be something not difficult, but which could, however, give the young orchestra an opportunity to show its qualities. Folk music…was to be used…. A work came into being, which I could not help including among my most important works as a result of my episodic symbiosis with folk music, and in a way that was for me somewhat unexpected.”

Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, op.73 (Emperor)
Ludwig van Beethoven

Oh no, you don’t:  Beethoven’s “Emperor” slammed the door on the tradition of piano soloists improvising cadenzas. In the first movement, just before the conclusion, where the soloist’s cadenza is expected, Beethoven wrote in the score, “Non si fa una cadenza, ma s’attacca subito il seguente” (“Do not play a cadenza, but immediately proceed to the following”). The movement continues with Beethoven’s own written-out cadenza, gradually bringing in the orchestra for a triumphant ending.

Who is Emperor? The “Emperor” was written during the French siege and occupation of Vienna. The origin of the nickname “Emperor” is unknown, but a story persists that a French officer attending the premiere enthusiastically dubbed it “an emperor among concertos.”