This month ABS returns to Grace Cathedral to present its annual performances of Handel’s enduring masterpiece, Messiah. Over the sixteen year tradition of performing the work annually in the Cathedral, Jeffrey Thomas and ABS have presented several versions of the work that Handel prepared and conducted during his lifetime. Between the work’s premiere in 1742 and the composer’s death in 1759, Handel treated the overall form of his Messiah with a measured flexibility and some 10 versions are known to exist. The versions differ mostly in how music is allocated among the four soloists. It may be hard to imagine today, but when Messiah was a new work Handel reworked it to accommodate the capabilities of his musicians and, in the case of a few star singers, to exploit the extraordinary talents of his performers.
For this year’s performances, Thomas will lead the musicians of ABS in the Foundling Hospital Version of 1753. First presented eleven years after the work’s premiere in Dublin, this version was performed at the dedication of the new Chapel in London’s Foundling Hospital. The engagement of the famous Italian castrato Gaetano Guadagni as one of the soloists for the occasion influenced Handel’s preparation of the score. When listening to ABS’s performances, keep in mind that the alto part, which will be sung by countertenor Eric Jurenas, was adapted to showcase the technique of one of the great international singing stars of the mid-eighteenth century. Handel reassigned the bass aria “But who may abide” to Guadagni and composed a new, much more ornate B section in which the singer could astound with an exhibition of his technique. Befitting Guadagni’s reputation and the audience expectation that the biggest star would sing the last aria, Handel also assigned him “If God be for us.” Handel’s other soloists for the dedicatory performance–soprano Giulia Frasi, tenor John Beard, and bass Robert Wass–were all experienced singers who had performed with the composer on earlier occasions. In fact, Beard was Handel’s tenor soloist in Messiah at the work’s 1743 London premiere performance at Covent Garden.
Handel’s Foundling Hospital Anthem
Years before the 1753 performance of Messiah, Handel directed a program of celebratory works in the still unfinished chapel. Along with compositions that are today chestnuts of the Baroque repertory like Fireworks Music and excerpts from the oratorio Solomon, Handel included a new work, Foundling Hospital Anthem. This sacred work which employs a boychoir is well-suited to liturgical purposes, but is rarely performed today in concerts. Its message of charity and humanity, however resonate powerfully in other compositions by Handel, especially his Messiah. Listen to an excerpt from Handel’s Anthem here.
A Home for Abandoned Children
The Foundling Hospital was created by merchant and philanthropist Thomas Coram during the 18th-Century rise in cosmopolitanism in London. Built over the course of more than a decade, the institution was a force for social welfare during a period of rapid urban growth in London which coincided with a dramatic rise in destitute families and abandoned children. The Hospital also stimulated public philanthropy among the upper classes who saw their fortunes increasing while a growing population of have-nots threatened to fall through the cracks. The Foundling Hospital served in its original capacity until the early years of the 20th century when there were efforts to move the operation out of the city and into to the countryside. A proposed university purchase of the buildings fell through and the campus was purchased by a developer in 1920 and soon thereafter razed.
Though Foundling Hospital no longer exists, the spirit of charity surrounding its founding and initial purpose live on in Handel’s compositions of the 1740s and 1750s. Tickets for ABS’s 2014 performances of Messiah at Grace Cathedral are available here or by calling (415) 621-7900.