The birth of the English Oratorio

Back in 1718, Handel had composed a highly successful masque, Hamman and Mordecai, ‘writ’ by Alexander Pope. The year after his annus horribilis, 1731, he revived the masque and things started to take a turn for the better. On 23rd February, with boys from the Chapel Royal and Bernard Gates (one of his regular soloists), Handel staged performances of it, renamed The History of Esther, at the Crown and Anchor tavern. One person who witnessed the performance, the Earl of Egmont, commented:  ‘This oratoria or religious opera is exceeding fine, and the company were highly pleased, some of the parts being well performed.’

After this success, Handel proposed to stage it at the King’s Theatre, where his operas were usually performed. This caused a dreadful furore. Dr. Gibson, Bishop of London forbad it. He deemed it sacrilegious to perform a biblical work in such a theatre.  Handel’s response to the ‘ban’ was to extend it to a full-length work, and he proceeded to perform it at the theatre, renamed simply Esther, on 2nd May the same year. He was very careful with the publicity though: ‘there will be no action on stage’; ‘the house will be fitted up in a decent manner’; ‘the music is so disposed after the manner of the coronation service’. On 6th May the Royal Family attended the performance in state. The new form, the English Oratorio had been born, and approved.

The issue of oratorio being performed in a theatre would rear its head some years later. In 1741 Charles Jennens had given Handel the libretto for Messiah. Famously, Handel composed it in 24 days.  In April 1742 it received its first two performances in Dublin, to rapturous applause. In March the following year Handel performed it in the King’s Theatre.  Here it was a disaster. The ‘public’ were offended that such a deeply religious work should be performed in a theatre.  However, Handel would go on to give many performances of it, to great public acclaim, raising considerable funds for his favourite charity, the Foundling Hospital. 

The Foundling Hospital

The Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children was the brain-child of Captain Thomas Coram, who was greatly concerned at the number of abandoned, destitute children on London’s streets.

In 1739 he persuaded King George II to grant a royal charter for the establishment of the hospital in Bloomsbury (in the region of the current British Library). Handel, along with his friend William Hogarth, became one of the governors in 1749. It was in that year Handel mounted a performance of his Music for the Royal Fireworks in aid of the hospital, to which the King subscribed £2,000.  Handel went on to compose an anthem for the hospital and to donate an organ which he had previously bought for himself. To mark the inauguration of the organ he arranged a performance of Messiah on 1st May 1750. Tickets cost half a guinea (now £150) and were available in fashionable coffee and chocolate bars.  Many seats were sold twice, and people were turned away.  Handel was much perturbed by this and arranged a second performance for those who had missed out the first time.

The Messiah charity performance was an annual event until Handel’s death nine years later. The performances raised £11,000 (modern equivalent £1,540,000).


Haydn’s St. Nicolas Mass

Haydn composed his St. Nicolas Mass in 1772 for his employer Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy I’s name’s day. This was not the normal practice, and the mass was composed under unusual circumstances.

There are some signs of turbulence under the surface at this time. It is of course so easy to draw false conclusions from a modern perspective, particularly since in Haydn’s time it was not usual for composers to give expression to their own personal feelings in their work. But in 1772 Haydn wrote some unusually dark works. Of the five symphonies he wrote that year, three are in a minor key. Given that out of his 104 symphonies only 10 are in minor keys, this would seem to be a significant concentration of dark moods. The St. Nicholas Mass, which is in the gentle key of G major, is not without its own particular dark swerves into the minor.

1772 was the year he composed his Farewell Symphony (in F sharp minor). It was customary for the whole Esterhazy court to migrate from its base in Eisenstadt to the Esterhazy palace in Hungary for the summer. Haydn and the leader of the orchestra could take their wives with them; sadly Haydn’s wife would probably have preferred remaining in Eisenstadt, or better still in Vienna. Meanwhile all the other musicians had to leave their wives and families at home in Eisenstadt. Frequently they didn’t return home until December, which caused frictions.

This particular year there was much unrest amongst the musicians because of this and Haydn famously staged a walk-out in the Farewell Symphony, leaving just the leader and Haydn himself playing the violin at the end. Prince Nikolaus took the hint and the court returned to Eisenstadt early.

Haydn quickly composed the St. Nicholas Mass in time for the prince’s name’s day. H.C. Robbins Landon makes the suggestion that the St Nicholas Mass may have been written as a ‘kind of surprise congratulation’ for the prince’s generosity. He must have been pleased: it is a present of great charm.

Mozart Vesperae de Confessore k.339

In 1780, when he composed his Vespers K339, Mozart was becoming increasingly frustrated with life in Salzburg, indeed, itching to escape from it. This is hardly surprising, given his fraught relationships with Archbishop Colloredo. They clearly detested one another. The Archbishop called Mozart, to his face, ‘ein Fetz’ – a nonentity; he also, for good liturgical reasons, put tight restrictions on the length and nature of Mozart’s settings, which must have been frustrating. Given that he also had a very controlling father, life in Salzburg must have been irksome.

1780 was also the year Emperor Joseph II ascended the Habsburg throne. To celebrate this, there was a ceremony held in March of the following year. The ceremony was held in Vienna, and Archbishop Colloredo was of course in attendance. He summoned Mozart to Vienna, housing him along with the other servants, which offended Mozart. What is more, Mozart had the opportunity to perform for the Emperor, for a fee equivalent to half his annual salary, and the Archbishop forbade this, since he wanted Mozart to play for his own concert. Mozart attempted to resign from the Archbishop’s services, but found himself summarily dismissed. The Archbishop’s deputy forcibly ejected him with, as Mozart put it, ‘a kick up the arse’.

Mass in D – Antonin Dvorak

The Mass in D is unique among Dvorak’s religious works in that it was not composed for concert performance.

This somewhat intimate piece was composed in 1887 for Josef Hlávka who had built himself a private chapel.  He commissioned it for the consecration of this chapel.

Chapel at Hlavka castle, in the village of Luzani

The original version was accompanied by the organ.  At this time Dvorak was much involved in English musical life, and in 1892 his English publisher, Novello, asked him to orchestrate it.  On this occasion we shall be performing the Mass in its original form.

Vivaldi’s Kyrie in G minor

Vivaldi’s Kyrie in G minor is written for double choir and orchestra, a favourite layout for Venetian composers since the 16th century.  The geography of St. Mark’s Cathedral allowed the placing of groups of musicians around the building to create the excitement of a new ‘music in the round’ – Venice became famous for this.  The Ospedale chapel is quite small which means the Kyrie could not have been performed there – the space has insufficient breadth to accommodate two orchestras and two choirs.  There is a canal next to the Ospedale which leads to the nearby church of San Lorenzo, a Benedictine monastery church with a spacious rectangular nave.  It is believed Vivaldi wrote this and his other polychoral works for the Benedictines.  Sadly their church was severely damaged during the Napoleonic Wars, and was only recently reopened – as an exhibition space.


Vivaldi’s Gloria

For most of his adult life, Vivaldi was employed by the Ospedale della Pietà (Hospital, or Hospice of Mercy), one of the orphanages for ‘orphans and abandoned children’ in Venice.  The boys were educated for a trade and the girls were trained to provide music for the church services and concerts to raise money.  The sheer virtuosity of Vivaldi’s playing, and that of some of his pupils, attracted numerous visitors from all over Europe, bringing generous donations.  He trained some of his best pupils to teach, which meant in later life he could absent himself for long periods as long as he kept supplying the Ospedale with new concertos fortnightly (they paid him 2 gold sequins a concerto).

Considering the Gloria is the most famous of Vivaldi’s sacred choral pieces, it is perhaps surprising there is so little known about its origins.  It was most likely composed for the Ospedale della Pietà.  Since the musical establishment had an almost entirely female staff (Vivaldi taught there in the presence of a chaperone), it will have been performed entirely by the ladies of the Ospedale, tenor and bass parts included.  They performed behind a metal grille to shield them from the public view.


Sparrow Mass K. 220

Mozart composed his Spatzenmesse (Sparrow Mass) K220 when he was in his early 20s – some time between 1775 and 1777. The mass gained its nickname from certain twitterings in the orchestra during the two Hosannahs. It is a charming work, beginning to show some of the intensity of his mature style, but certainly giving no signs of the frustrations of his professional life.

Telemann’s Magnificat in C

Telemann composed his Magnificat in C around 1705, probably while he was still in Leipzig.

He had enrolled at Leipzig University to read Law, but was very active musically, becoming thoroughly embedded in the musical life of the city.  Indeed, he became so dominant a figure that he seriously trod on the toes of Johann Kuhnau, J.S. Bach’s predecessor at the Thomaskirche.

It was customary in Leipzig when performing the Magnificat as part of a service that congregational hymns would be inserted between movements.  In line with this tradition, in this performance there will be appropriate Christmas carols included for the audience to join in.

Haydn’s ‘Creation’

The Creation 

Josef Haydn (1732 – 1809)

by Joseph Haydn

First bilingual oratorio?

Haydn’s greatest hit….



The Handel Festival, Westminster Abbey


In 1791, during Haydn’s first triumphant visit to London, he attended the annual Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey.  The tradition at the time was to perform Handel’s oratorios with as many as 1,000 performers, and that year Israel in Egypt and Messiah made a huge impact on Haydn. He resolved to compose something similar himself, particularly inspired by the vivid musical pictures in Israel in Egypt.

Initially a suitable libretto did not materialise, but four years later, just as he was leaving London for home for the second time, he was given a libretto, The Creation of the World, based on Genesis as it appears in the King James Bible, and on Milton’s Paradise Lost.

When Haydn arrived back in Austria he had the libretto translated into German by that great musical connoisseur and pillar of Viennese society, Baron Gottfried van Swieten.  Then he got to work on what would be one of his final masterpieces.  It took him more than a year to complete and left him ill with exhaustion.  But at the first performance, before a private audience of the great and good, the listeners were so completely bowled over by the musical picture of the creation of Light that the performance had to stop while they recovered.  The Creation proved to be an instant huge success, too, with the wider public.

In fact, Haydn had decided to publish The Creation in both German and English, making it probably the first bilingual musical composition.  He also published and distributed it himself, with the aid of subscriptions, which proved to be very lucrative.  Also, he conducted many lavish charity performances raising huge sums for the Tonkünstlersocietät, a charity supporting widows and orphans of musicians, very much in the vein of his inspiration, Handel, in his support for the Foundling Hospital in London.