Rhidlan Brook has a thought for the day on December 16th in which he makes the point that a nativity without messiness and vulnerability has missed the point. And so often sentimentality substitutes for religious content.
This Christmas we bought a version of the Messiah performed by the Dunedin Consort directed by John Butt. (I know that the Messiah was not originally performed at Christmas but who can think of Christmas these days without it?)
According to the notes from Linn Records, distinctive to the 1742 June performances was Handel's inclusion of one lyrical alto aria in each of the three parts to Mrs Susannah Cibber, sister of Thomas Arne. Cibber was best known as an outstanding actor, but had recently undergone the scandal of an extra-marital affair, the details of which had been described in court in astonishingly unambiguous detail. Her appearance in Dublin marked the beginning of her return to public life at a safe distance from London; although by no means expert as a singer, her performances brought a quality of expression that was clearly outstanding. The aria ‘He shall feed his flock’ in Part 1, originally cast for soprano in Bb major, was therefore transposed down to F major to suit Mrs Cibber. The aria from Part 2 (‘He was despised and rejected’ – and, as it happened, a particularly prescient text for the singer concerned) was already in the correct range and, in Part 3, Handel transposed the aria ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ from G minor (soprano) to C minor, thus giving Mrs Cibber the final aria, conventionally reserved for the leading soloist.
Handel's fascinating deployment of these arias to rehabilitate Mrs Cibber is a concrete use of text and music. I will never hear these arias without thinking of her.