Free Bible course

--- » Messiah


George Frideric Handel’s (1685-1759) Messiah is perhaps the most popular piece of classical music associated with the CHRISTMAS SEASON. Two common misconceptions have spread along with its fame. Although many call the work “The Messiah,” Handel named his oratorio simply “Messiah.” These days most performances of the piece take place around Christmas. Nevertheless, Handel never intended Messiah to be connected with the Christmas season. In fact, he wrote the oratorio in the late summer of 1741 and premiered it around Easter of the following year. Subsequent performances during Handel’s lifetime also took place around Easter.

Although he composed the music for Messiah, Handel did not select the biblical texts that make up the libretto. His friend Charles Jennens compiled a collection of biblical verses outlining the birth and death of JESUS and the redemption of humankind. Jennens’s compilation delighted and inspired Handel. He sat down to write the music for these texts on August 22,1741. Composing with lightning speed, he completed the oratorio about three weeks later, on September 14. Some say that Handel once remarked about the work’s creation, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” The approximately two and one-half hours of music is divided into three parts, often referred to as the “Nativity,” “Passion,” and “Redemption” sections because of the themes developed in each.
Handel scored Messiah as an oratorio. An oratorio is a long choral work made up of arias, duets, trios, and choruses. Oratorios attempt to tell a story, usually a religious one. The music must convey all, since no dialogue, scenery, or costumes are used. Some experts believe that oratorios evolved out of the medieval mystery plays (see also NATIVITY PLAY). Indeed, early oratorios included dance and dramatic representations, as well as church hymns, and were usually performed in churches. Handel’s Messiah differed significantly from the first oratorios written in the early 1600s. Messiah consists of nothing other than music, beautiful and sometimes difficult music. Handel often employed opera singers to perform the challenging solo parts of his oratorios and staged the performances in theaters rather than churches.

Although the German-born Handel was living and working in London at the time he composed Messiah, the first public performance of the oratorio took place in Dublin, IRELAND. Handel brought several principal singers over from ENGLAND, including noted operatic soprano Signora Avoglio and singer-actress Mrs. Susannah Cibber, who sang the alto parts. He engaged Dublin musicians to present the other solo parts. The choir consisted of singers from both Dublin cathedrals, although the premiere performance took place in a music hall on Fishamble Street. The cantankerous dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, who was none other than Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the author of Gulliver’s Travels, at first refused to permit his choristers to participate in an event held in such a secular setting. Luckily for the audience, and for the history of music, he eventually relented.
In order to increase the number of people who would fit in the available seating, newspaper advertisements kindly requested that ladies who planned to attend refrain from wearing hoops under their skirts. Gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home.
Handel’s Messiah premiered on April 13,1742, and was warmly received. Mrs. Cibber’s rendition of “He Was Despised” so moved one member of the audience, Dr. Patrick Delaney, a friend of Jonathan Swift’s, that he cried out, “Woman, for this thy sins be forgiven thee!” Delaney may have had some very specific sins in mind since rumors concerning Susannah Cibber’s amorous affairs had made her the talk of London. In the days that followed, several Dublin newspapers printed the following review:
On Tuesday last Mr. Handel’s Sacred Grand Oratorio, the Messiah, was performed in the New Musick Hall in Fish-amble-street; the best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.
The review also praised Handel for donating the proceeds from this performance to three Dublin charities.

Encouraged by Dublin’s warm reception Handel returned home to London and arranged for performances to take place in that city. London rewarded his best efforts with rejection. Church officials objected to staging a work on a sacred theme in the profane space of a public theater. In spite of these objections, Covent Garden Theater hosted the first London performance of Messiah on March 23,1743. The audience and the critics responded with indifference. In addition, Handel’s friend Jennens, who had supplied the libretto for Messiah, faulted the composer in a letter to a friend. With blind conceit Jennens wrote, “His Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great hast, tho’ he said he would be a year about it, & make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Works into his hands thus to be abused” (Jacobi, 1982,41-42).
Apparently, King George II attended one of the early performances of Messiah. Some writers believe this occasion gave birth to the tradition whereby the audience stands during the “Hallelujah” chorus. (Others believe that King George III started this tradition). In any case, one of these kings rose from his seat at this point in the piece. Whether he was reacting to the exuberance of the music or simply attempting to stretch his legs cannot now be determined. In those days etiquette demanded that no one remain seated when the king stood up. As a result, the entire audience rose to its feet, creating a tradition still observed today.
During the decade of the 1740s Handel aired Messiah only a few more times. The work teetered on the edge of obscurity until 1750 when Handel began to perform it in a series of annual concerts to benefit charity. Over the next nine years the work achieved widespread popularity.

On April 6,1759, two days before Palm Sunday, Handel conducted what was to be the last performance of his life, a presentation of Messiah at Covent Garden. He collapsed upon leaving the theater and had to be carried home. In the days that followed, Handel passed in and out of consciousness. The elderly composer recognized the seriousness of his condition. In one of his clear moments he expressed his wish to die on Good Friday, as did Jesus, “in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of his Resurrection.” On Good Friday, April 13,1759, seventeen years to the day from the premiere performance of Messiah in Dublin, Handel lay dying at his home in London. He passed away quietly sometime between that evening and the following morning.
A few days before his death Handel requested that he be buried in Westminster Abbey and set aside money to pay for his funeral monument. The artist who created the monument depicted the composer at work on one of the arias from Messiah. Visitors to Westminster Abbey may note that the monument dedicated to the composer’s memory misspells the word “messiah.”

Although later generations attributed a kind of milktoast piety to the famed composer of Messiah, Handel’s friends and contemporaries described him as a somewhat gruff yet amiable man. He rejoiced in the consumption of large quantities of food and drink, earning himself a reputation for gluttony. Stubborn, arrogant, and irritable when it came to the correct interpretation of music, he acquainted many musicians with the rough edge of his tongue. He could, and often did, swear fluently in four languages. On the other hand, Handel possessed an excellent sense of humor combined with a flair for telling funny stories. He won a reputation for honesty in financial dealings, so much so that musicians accepted his occasional IOUs without a qualm. Finally, friends, family, musicians in his employ, and charities all benefited from his generosity.
Although Messiah stands as perhaps the composer’s best-known work, Handel himself did not count it as his greatest achievement. He judged the chorus “He Saw the Lovely Youth” from his oratorio Theodora to be far superior to the “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah. Neither proud nor self-effacing, Handel evaluated his own accomplishments fairly and was capable on occasion of belittling some of his less-distinguished pieces of music. Later composers paid tribute to his brilliance. Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827) once exclaimed “He was the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), after hearing Messiah for the first time, reportedly exclaimed of Handel, “He was the master of us all.”

Add comments

American business