It was at my family’s place of worship, Church of Redemption in New Delhi, that as a child I first joined in the singing of the carol Joy to the World and it was also when I first learned of the name of its composer, George Frideric Handel. Thereafter, I was at Christmas time regaled by his majestic Messiah, sung by our well-rehearsed Church choir with brio and full-voiced jubilation.
Let’s then start with the composer’s background:
b. February 23, 1685 in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg, Germany
d. April 14, 1759 (aged 74)
As a young man the German-born Handel travelled and lived in Italy, its operatic tradition becoming very influential on his work.
In 1712 Handel decided to settle in London, becoming a naturalized British citizen in 1727. He enjoyed early royal patronage and wrote his famous Water Music in 1717 for King George I on the River Thames and in 1727 was commissioned to compose works for the coronation of George II. One of these, Zadok the Priest has been played at every British coronation since.
Handel began to move away from Italian-style operas towards oratorios before later in life embracing a more English choral tradition. His most famous work Messiah was composed in 1742 and its Hallelujah chorus has been a Christmas favorite ever since.
Later in life I learnt that Joy to the World wasn’t actually written by Handel, but arranged from certain passages of his famous Messiah by Lowell Mason (born in Medfield, Massachusetts, 1792/ died in Orange, New Jersey, 1872).
Thus, Mason had selected two passages from Messiah, as the basis for his own arrangement, as follows:
Part One of Handel’s Messiah –
- The first passage is from the Chorus which sings: Glory to God in the highest
- This corresponds to the opening line of Mason’s carol: Joy to the world the Lord is come
- The second passage is from the accompaniment to the opening Tenor solo recitative on the words: Comfort ye my people
- That accompaniment is similar to the second part of Mason’s carol on the words: And heav’n and nature sing
Here are the complete four verses of this carol penned by Isaacs Watts in 1719:
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let ev’ry heart prepare him room,
Andt heav’n and nature sing, And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n, and hea’n and nature sing.
Joy to the world! the Savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,
Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sin and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
and wonders of his love.
And here’s a YouTube clip featuring a young people’s choir singing Joy to the World.
I can’t leave one of my favorite composers without mentioning the opening aria of his 1738 opera Serse – Ombra mai fu. The opera itself was a commercial failure, but in the 19th century the aria was rediscovered and became one of Handel’s best-known pieces. Handel adapted it from the setting by Giovanni Bononcini who, in turn, adapted it from the setting by Francesco Cavalli. All three composers had produced settings of the same opera libretto by Nicolò Minato.
Originally composed to be sung by a soprano castrato (and sung in modern performances of Serse by a countertenor, contralto or a mezzo-soprano), it has often been arranged for other voice types and instruments, including solo organ, solo piano, violin and piano, and string ensembles, often under the title Largo from Xerxes, although the original tempo is marked larghetto. Listen now on YouTube to the incomparable Cecilia Bartoli singing Ombra mai fu.
References: Wikipedia; My Diary
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