Singing the Praises of Handel’s ‘Messiah’

A conversation with musician Marta López Fernández
By Lorraine Ferrier, Epoch Times
December 3, 2019 Updated: December 5, 2019

Harpsichordist and organist Marta López Fernández specializes in early keyboard instruments and is currently the harpsichord and continuo fellow at the Royal College of Music in London. She recently took time out before a performance at Handel House in London to talk with us by phone.

Marta López Fernández mainly performs Handel’s “Messiah” from a historically informed practice perspective, reviving the way it would’ve been played in the 18th century. (Courtesy of Marta López Fernández)

The Epoch Times: What’s your favorite piece of classical music and why?
Marta López Fernández: Obviously, as a musician, it’s quite hard to pick a piece, but I’d have to say George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” (1741). I particularly enjoy Handel’s “Messiah” because, obviously, I listened to it when I was growing up, but it wasn’t until I was involved in a performance of it that I really got to know all the fine details: how the music describes the action and how it develops throughout. The more I perform the piece, the more nuances I discover. It’s just amazing how Handel wrote for singers. He was a genius working with the voice!

Handel’s “Messiah” is an English-language oratorio. An oratorio, to put it simply, is like an opera but based on a religious text and is performed by solo singers, a chorus, and an orchestra.

Handel’s great masterpiece the “Messiah” describes different episodes of Jesus’s life, from his birth to his Passion. Even though the work is very much related to Christmas today and is performed around the Christmas period, it was written to be performed around Easter time.

Because it’s over two hours, there’s a lot happening that I find you can only fully understand and engage with by either sitting and listening to a full performance or by being involved in it.

Handel had already written a number of operas very much influenced by the Italian style, and this comes across in the piece at times. At the same time, we can hear in his composition how a lot of baroque music was influenced by dance forms, as he uses certain dance patterns and rhythms.

What I enjoy about being part of performing Handel’s “Messiah” is having the chance to work on so many different levels: from an aria to a chorus to an instrumental movement.

Marta López Fernández mainly performs Handel’s “Messiah” from a historically informed practice perspective, reviving the way it would’ve been played in the 18th century. (Sandra Vijandi/Handel & Hendrix in London)

As a harpsichordist and organist, I’m more used to performing the “Messiah” from a historically informed practice perspective, which means that we try to revive the way it would’ve been played in the 18th century. We try to get as close as possible to that, starting with the use of baroque instruments in the orchestra. It is important to have a fresh approach to it and revive certain traditions so that the piece comes back to life altogether.

At the root level of the baroque orchestra are the continuo instruments, also known as the basso continuo instruments, such as the harpsichord or organ, as well as the cello, bassoon, and theorbo, an 18th-century bass lute. During the Baroque period, it was common practice that the keyboard instrument would accompany the orchestra with a continuous bass line upon which harmonies would be added. I find it very interesting to play the continuo part because this role is really the foundation of Handel’s “Messiah.”

Other baroque instruments in the orchestra help to revive the way the music would have been played, which is altogether quite different from how the instruments in a modern orchestra work. The string instruments were played differently, as they were slightly different instruments, and they have many unique characteristics in comparison with their modern versions.

The Epoch Times: How does Handel tell the story of the Messiah?
Ms. López Fernández: Handel was a genius composer who really knew how to highlight the different characters and episodes in this oratorio. It can be emotive, energetic, and joyful, or sorrowful, and at the same time have so many completely different layers.

During the Baroque period, the widely accepted theory of musical aesthetic was the “affetti” (affections), meaning that composers sought to arouse certain emotions within the audience. All the affetti reflected through the music, the many different layers that can come out of this music, help the listener create an image of what is happening.

Basically, there are different types of actions happening. We have the choruses, which usually represent a group of people expressing glory to God, announcing the miracle of Jesus being born, and praising him. At other times, the choruses are used to punctuate the episodes, reinforcing certain messages.

I think most of the action happens either in the recitatives or arias. A recitative is a delivery style in which a singer adopts the rhythms and cadence of speech. The text is not repeated like in the arias. A recitative has a lot more action, and it helps to prepare the setting for the following aria.

In a recitative, the singer sings about the larger context of the situation and would have less orchestral accompaniment in a less melodic way, more like musical punctuations. Some of these are very dramatic in Handel’s “Messiah.”

Arias have less text, and they depict the mood of the character at each moment, through only a few sentences. An aria is a solo piece that conveys very expressive or very energetic moments, depending on the completely different characters in the “Messiah.” That’s what I find interesting; not all the arias are the same.

Not only would the singer approach a melodic line from a different perspective, depending on the mood of the aria, but the accompanying orchestra would too. Sometimes the aria is accompanied by a full orchestra, and sometimes it’s just a few standout instruments known as an obbligato, so it’s a little bit more intimate and meditative.

Handel wrote tremendously well for the instruments too. The instruments really “sing” with the soloists to convey a different mood in each aria, and that’s something I really like about it—how sensitive he was to the human voice and what it’s capable of. It’s not just a sort of operatic singer and then an orchestra in the background. I find everything together becomes a whole and has a meaning, and is important—is relevant to the text.

Handel’s “Messiah” can be very different to listen to when it’s played by different kinds of orchestras and uses different types of singers. I would always invite the audience to listen with an open ear and mind.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.