Messiah: History of a Beloved Oratorio

TMC Xmas

Texas Master Chorale, author: second row from top, far left, second from end

handel-messiahDuring the month of December, it is almost impossible to not encounter a portion or all of the Christmas movements of Handel’s Messiah. If you are a member of a choral group, as I am, you either love Messiah and look forward to singing it’s soaring choruses, airs, and recitatives or you have come to loathe it from too many not so wonderful performances. Messiah is not the easiest music to sing. Many of the oratorio’s choruses require serious vocal gymnastics. One cannot sing “He Shall Purify the Sons of Levi” or  “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” without having done considerable warming up. Love it or hate it, there is no middle ground for singers where Messiah is concerned. Personally, I love it and never tire of racing up and down those melismas.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, during his lifetime Handel was not only recognized for his compositions, but enjoyed serious financial success, as well. If his father had had his way, none of this would have happened. Born in Halle, Saxony, Germany in 1685 to a celebrated surgeon, Handel showed his musical promise at an early age, but his father did not consider music a suitable profession and forbade musical instruments in his home. He encouraged his son to go into the law, a career deemed to offer greater financial security. Young George’s mother, however, saw that her son had the training he wanted on the sly.

Talent like Handel’s did not stay hidden away for long. His ability came to the notice of the Duke of Weissenfels when the nobleman heard the 11 year old George playing the organ. Recognizing a prodigy, the duke lent his support to the boy’s musical education, which likely influenced Dr. Handel to relent in his prohibition of a musical career. By age 18, Handel had produced his first opera, Almira, which premiered in Hamberg in 1705. Handel studied, traveled Europe, never staying in one place or with any patron for long, and continued to compose operas as his main form of musical expression for many years. In 1710, he left Europe for London where he hoped to further develop his freelance music career. He met with success when he was commissioned by King’s Theater to write an opera. He completed Rinaldo in just two weeks. It became his most critically acclaimed work to that point and established a renown that would remain for the rest of his life. With the success of Rinaldo, Handel spent the next few years writing and performing for English royalty, Queen Anne and King George I. His Water Music, composed for the king’s barging pleasure trips on the Thames, was produced during this period.Rinaldo_0749-david-bruce

Scene from Rinaldo, Pacific Opera Victoria

In 1726, Handel made London his permanent home and later became a British subject. He might have continued to write operas for the remainder of his life, but by 1730 the complications brought about by the rising costs of evermore elaborate sets, costumes, large orchestras, imported Italian singers, and a shift in the  public’s taste away from the genre eventually led him to abandon opera altogether. At this point, he became interested in composing large orchestra pieces and oratorios based on Biblical texts.


New Music Hall, Dublin

Like so much to which Handel put his hand, his oratorios became all the rage in London, keeping him in the forefront of the music scene. In 1741, Dublin’s Lord Lieutenant commissioned an oratorio based on a libretto put together by the prominent librettist, Charles Jennens.  The result was Messiah, intended for an Easter performance in 1742.

Typical performances of the entire oratorio, which includes both the Christmas and Easter portions, run 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Astoundingly, Handel wrote the work in a mere three to four weeks in the late summer of 1741. Messiah debuted in Dublin’s New Music Hall in April, 1742. Dublin, as opposed to London, was perhaps the better location for its debut because Messiah was a departure from the style of Handel’s previous oratorios. Instead of his usual strong plot line with easily recognizable  main and secondary characters, Messiah offered a loose narrative presenting the birth of Christ, His sacrifice for the redemption of sin, and His resurrection. As with today’s new and/or unusual musicals and plays, premiering in a smaller, less jaded city seemed the safer choice for a work so drastically different from his previous offerings.

Dublin turned out in force of Messiah’s premiere. Its citizens were prosperous and they were delighted for their city to be the location of a major musical event. One source says it was not only the the prospect of an important cultural experience that brought out Dublin’s wealthy elite. Apparently, the soprano soloist was embroiled in a scandalous divorce. Whether it was prudent interest or love of culture that brought out Dublin patrons, Messiah was a great success that was quickly repeated in London.

Handel was not only a musical genius, he was also a shrewd businessman. He amassed a fortune through his successful, well-managed music career and investments in the London stock market. This wealth allowed him to become a philanthropist. The causes most dear to him and to which he donated were for the care of orphans, retired musicians, and the ill. To this end, a portion of the proceeds from Messiah’s Dublin premiere was donated to improve the lives of inmates of a debtor’s prison and a hospital. An institution dear to him and to which he gave significant financial support was London’s Foundling Hospital, founded in 1740 to care for orphans and abandoned children. When conductors compare Handel to his contemporary JS Bach, they often mention that while Bach wrote of the glory of God, Handel wrote about the human response to the Divine.[1] It might be said that Handel was as great a humanitarian as he was a great composer.


London’s Foundling Hospital, circa 1753

A tradition of Messiah performances unique in the world of classical music is that of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus. While there is no historical evidence to support the reason for this tradition, there are two theories that are consistently presented, one more charming than the other. On the side of charm and grace is the belief that during a 1743 performance, King George was so moved by the glory of the music and the exaltation of the Divine, he stood to honor both. The other theory suggests that the King’s royal bum was aching at this point in the 2 1/2 hour performance and so  he stood to gain relief. Whatever the truth, the king stood in 1743 and so today audiences stand at the opening chords of this most famous of Handel’s compositions.

If you have a spare 2 1/2 hours during this busy Christmas season, you might take time to enjoy Messiah in its entirety with this excellent performance: Performance by Collegium 1704, Prague under the direction of Vaclav Lucs

The choir is much smaller than one expects for such a huge work, but their tone, blend, diction, and musical expression are excellent. Rather that the usual full orchestra, the conductor has assembled a smaller chamber orchestra which does not overshadow the soloists and choir. The soloists are superb. This is an overall wonderful performance and the best that I could find of the full oratorio on Youtube.

I have not located any historical fiction that features Handel or his music, but the following biography is reported to be well researched and most entertaining:



Rersources and Notes