Handel drafted Messiah, with what by then had become his usual rapidity of composition, between 22 August and 12 September, 1741 and had the score 'filled out' ('ausgefüllt', as he termed it) by September 14.  Jennens had already written the libretto with the intention "to perswade him to set another Scripture Collection….& perform it for his own Benefit in Passion Week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other subject".  This ambition for Messiah has been amply fulfilled, but its success in England was not immediate.

The first performance was in Dublin, where a strong and well established musical culture had tempted Handel to offer a series of subscription concerts through the late autumn and winter.  He arrived in November, 1741 but did not publicly rehearse Messiah until Friday, 9 April 1742 in preparation for a charity performance at the end of his second series of concerts.  It was first performed  in the Fishamble Street Musick Hall on the following Tuesday to a capacity audience, who had been asked not to wear swords or hooped dresses in order to maximize the seating.  The Hall seated around 600 and Handel had sold 450 subscription tickets, but the final audience was estimated to be about 700.  The performance was so successful that the work received two further performances, each by public demand, on 25 May and 3 June, and both to the sole benefit of Handel himself.

The first performance of Messiah in London was not until 23 March, 1743, at Covent Garden, after the first performances of Samson, which had been completed later in 1742.  There was some public controversy over whether a sacred oratorio should be performed in a secular theatre, but this did not prevent subsequent performances on 25 and 29 March.  As Jennens noted: "notwithstanding the clamour rais'd against it, which has only occasion'd it's being advertis'd without its Name…'Tis after all, in the main, a fine Composition."  It was performed regularly thereafter, but it was not until 1750 that Messiah reached the level of popularity that it has enjoyed since, when it was performed at The Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children - the Foundling Hospital.

Handel agreed to an invitation to give a 'Performance of Vocal and Instrumental  Musick' in 1749, in aid of the completion of the hospital's chapel.  The success of the concert led to a renewal of the invitation the following year, and Handel decided on a performance of Messiah.  The response was overwhelming, and Handel decided on a second performance, two weeks afterwards, because of the inability of so many, even ticketholders, to get into the chapel for the first.  In all, almost 2,000 tickets were sold for the two performances, yielding a considerable contribution to the costs of the chapel, to which Handel had already donated a new organ. He was elected a governor of the hospital in 1750, and bequeathed to it the performing rights to Messiah on his death nine years later.

From this time, his public reputation as  'the great and good Mr Handel' was sealed.  Despite a rather unsuccessful opera season in 1749, the success of the Fireworks Music of that year, followed by the hospital performance of Messiah, established Handel finally in London society. The fortunes of his opera seasons revived and theatre performances of his sacred works were no longer considered controversial.

Messiah is organised into three parts. The first is a joyful pastoral of the Prophecy and Incarnation, the second a sacrificial passion of the Crucifixion and Resurrection and the third a metaphysical contemplation on the Ascension and the promise of Redemption.  The succinctness and coherence of the narrative progression of this account of the divine scheme owes much to Jennens' libretto.  This provided Handel with an imaginative combination of scriptural texts from both testaments of the Authorized Version ('I know that my Redeemer liveth', for example, combines Job with Corinthians) and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (much of the third part is based on New Testament material that is also used in the burial service). It embraces the key festivals of the Christian year, and makes performance of the work as appropriate to Christmas, the contemporary custom, as to Easter, which was the original practice.  Though it lacks a plot with dramatic resolution, Messiah has a thematic unity for Christian cultures which may account in part for its continuing accessibility to wide audiences.  This quality is further reinforced by the high proportion of choral to solo elements - a combination that had already worked well for Handel in L'Allegro. Of all his oratorios, only Israel in Egypt has a comparable choral content.  Above all, Messiah displays Handel's extraordinary ability to fuse vernacular and declamatory cadences of English speech in music.  His accomplishments as a composer of opera, from which the oratorio form had been developed during the eighteenth century, clearly provided him with the skills for this, but the manner in which he achieved it in Messiah especially, puts his genius alongside that of Shakespeare. Each of them linked the popular culture of their time with their own, quite original, ideas in ways which transformed the traditions of artistic practice within which they worked.

Messiah opens with a Sinfony, marked grave, in the form of a simple overture in the French style thoroughly familiar to Handel, the E minor of which leads into the warm E major of  the tenor recitative: 'Comfort ye', followed by the expectant optimism of the lively air: 'Ev'ry valley shall be exalted'.  The pastoral scene of the first part is thus set, and the chorus makes its entry to the cheerful, dance-like rhythms of 'And the glory of the Lord'.  The bass recitative 'Thus saith the Lord' sets a robust, almost operatic tone with its elaborations on 'shake' and 'desire', as does the 'rage' aria which follows, and which is sustained in the solo bass part throughout the work - especially in 'Why do the nations', towards the end of Part Two.  Dance rhythms emerge once again in the choral fugue 'And He shall purify', complemented here by the proclamatory 'offering in righteousness', and in the air and chorus 'O Thou that tellest', with its gathering intensity towards the imperative 'Behold', and the discovery of the expressive motif of 'the glory of the Lord…risen upon thee'. The bass emphasises the visual sombreness of 'The people that walked in darkness' by selective, again operatic, elaborations in sequence on 'darkness', 'light' and 'shadow' before the chorus reassert their dance with the confident joy of 'For unto us a child is born'. This chorus takes, at first, the form of a delicate madrigal, building towards the full, concluding choral burst of : 'Wonderful! Counsellor!…the Prince of  Peace' to end the narrative of advent and celebrate the nativity. For Beethoven, the effect of this was elemental, and Mozart remarked of it that 'When he chooses, he strikes like thunder'.

The pastoral tone is then re-asserted through a short symphony, titled Pifa in reference to the music of Italian mountain pipers (piferrari) which was often incorporated in opera seria.  This is followed by the only dialogue in Messiah, in the form of a recitative ('And the Angel said unto them') reporting on the conversation between the angel and the shepherds, and one of its few 'crowd' scenes as the chorus respond with their declamatory 'Glory to God'. The first part concludes, by now almost characteristically, with the dancing fugual antiphonies of  'His yoke is easy'. In directing tonight's performance, Colin Myles interprets this as a musical realisation of magical verbal conversation.

The contrast in the opening of the second part, though it follows the familiar Christian narrative, could scarcely be more dramatic.  The sustaining gift of Christ's life is replaced by the ecstatic agony of His crucifixion, in the sonorous cry of the chorus to 'Behold the Lamb of God', and its redemptive purpose that 'taketh away the sins of the world'.  This is followed by the deeply sombre lament of the alto aria, 'He was despised', in which the full drama of the passion is embodied.  The choral response to this, 'Surely He hath borne our griefs', is one of trenchant reassertion of the necessity of the Christian sacrifice: 'the chastisement of our peace was upon Him'; followed by the dawning realisation, in 'And with His stripes we are healed', that this allows the possibility of redemption.  The sopranos repeat the initial statement to the faintest echo of the pastoralism of the first part of the work, in a dance rhythm that elaborates into coloratura on 'healed', and which is taken up recurrently by the other parts, concluding adagio and leading immediately, allegro moderato, into the next chorus: 'All we like sheep have gone astray'.

This marks most effectively the beginning of what becomes a gathering transition in mood, as Handel demonstrates his command of the vernacular style to deploy the dizzy waywardness of misled sheep as a metaphor for human folly and confusion, through breathless roulades for all parts on 'turned' and 'astray'. Once again, the image of pastoral is evoked directly, and realised with exquisite musical irony in the rhythms of a tuneful, directionless turning that cannot quite become a dance.  This proceeds, apace and melodically, as a daft ruefulness until, quite suddenly, the basses initiate, in F minor adagio, a sombre, almost sinister reminder of the sacrifice: 'the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all'. The chorus is a particularly significant one, since by closing as it does, it links back, over the preceding fugue, to 'Surely..', thus marking musically, in ways clear enough to engage any audience, the changes of collective mood in the social disorder following the crucifixion. The tenor recit, 'All they that see Him', then sets the scene for the mocking chorus of soldiers: 'He trusted in God'.  Here, Handel modulates the countersubjects of a fast, asymmetrical fugue with consummate mastery, then follows it by expressions of grief, pity and sorrow in a series of tenor solos. These resolve, with the aria: 'But Thou didst not leave His soul in Hell', into an anticipation of the relief of the resurrection to come.  The first half of tonight's performance concludes with a celebration of Christ's triumph over death in the chorus: 'Let all the angels of God worship Him'.

Triumph turns to resolve as the alto aria, 'Thou art gone up on high', begins to explore the ecclesiastical consequences of the ascension. Two choruses, the expansive declamatory anthem,'The Lord gave the word', and its gentle, madrigalesque complement,'Their sound is gone out', are punctuated by the gliding siciliana rhythms of 'How beautiful are the feet'.  All three pieces carry the narrative towards the evangelising of the Christian message, the difficulties of which are represented decisively in the next three numbers. The solo bass's second rage aria asks grimly, 'Why do the nations so furiously rage together', to which the chorus responds in an almost frivolous thematic fugue: 'Let us break their bonds asunder'. Handel's virtuosity matches the lightness of this theme, however, in a contrasting one on 'and cast away their yokes from us', composed of a broken triad and a running figure in semi-quavers, with which, despite our musical expectations, it never resolves.  The tenor aria, 'Thou shalt break them', reinforces this, underpinned by a vigorous orchestral theme.

This provides an appropriate prelude to the conclusion of the second part of the work with what may well be the most famous chorus in English.  Despite being a paean of exhortative religious praise, the Hallelujah Chorus is, as Wilhelm Dilthey has noted, perhaps the greatest and most martial of all Handel's coronation anthems, in which divine triumphalism takes on an almost secular character in the continuously rising pitch of the salute: 'King of Kings and Lord of Lords', and its acclamatory approval: 'for ever and ever, Hallelujah'.  This is balanced both by the lilting jig of the opening incantations of 'Hallelujah' and the insertion of a fugue theme on 'and He shall reign for ever', the bass motif on which, out of unqualified admiration, Beethoven took for the theme of 'Dona nobis pacem' in his Missa Solemnis.  Handel himself, however, did not regard it as his best chorus, preferring 'He saw the lovely youth', the final chorus in the second act of Theodora, as much superior. The curious custom, whereby the audience stands for the Hallelujah Chorus, seems to have developed during the annual performances at the Foundling Hospital after 1750, and to have been as much a mark of respect for the composer as an act of religious homage.  Handel's work was often considered controversial, and he was subjected at times to acerbic comment in the lively musical and theatrical culture of mid-eighteenth century London.  By rising to what they considered his most glorious anthem, his audience may have intended to indicate publicly their refutation of critical comments on Handel's work.

Although Messiah is Handel's only wholly sacred oratorio - perhaps because of this - the first two parts are permeated, nevertheless, by a contemporary enlightenment humanism, through the pastoral evocations that he would use to still greater effect in the heathen choruses of Theodora.  The thematic preoccupations of the third part, however, are wholly theological in their numinous concern with the phenomena of the heavenly afterlife and redemption.  These are announced with gorgeous conviction in the appropriately transcendental beauty of the soprano aria: 'I know that my redeemer liveth'.  The rousing certainties of the preceding chorus are replaced here by a deeply moving sense of quiet, incontrovertible belief, displayed at its most intense in the sweet dialogue between soloist and strings on the two linking phrases, 'and that He shall stand' and 'yet in my flesh'. The overall sense given by this wonderful piece, is of an internal conversation which explores the full metaphysical range of individual Christian belief, in a transcendental combination of ordinary language and sublime music. The chorus which follows, 'Since by man came death', then develops this succinctly into a reasoned article of faith, linking pentateuchal theology - 'as in Adam all die' - with Christian dogma - 'even so in Christ shall all be made alive'.  Musically, Handel uses the simple contrast of tempi between grave and allegro to suggest that a realisation of the Messianic prophecy has only been accomplished for one of the systems of belief involved; for the other, the Judaic, it remains unfulfilled.

'The trumpet shall sound' takes the familiar form of an operatic 'welcome' song, allowing both vocal and instrumental soloist an opportunity to display their virtuosity, whilst reinforcing in descriptive terms the theological resolution of the preceding chorus.  It is followed by the compound finale of Messiah in the composite choruses: 'Worthy is the Lamb', 'Blessing and Honour' and 'Amen'.  The first two are quite straightforward, and lead, with an increasing sense of celebration, into some delightful runs, on 'throne' and 'ever', for all parts in the second, and then onto an excited climax, adagio. Immediately, the 'Amen' then begins to rise, building gently from the basses in a calm legato for five bars, when they are joined by the tenors, followed, also at five bar intervals, by altos and sopranos in a dazzling fugue up to an astonishingly sudden pause, before choir and orchestra together bring the work to its ecstatic close, on two final Amens.

As in so much of his work, and over its enormous range of musical forms, Handel's confident interweaving of musical and narrative themes to such a dramatic climax in Messiah, again states his claim to our continuing attention and enjoyment. Neither changing tastes and practices in choral music, nor even tiresomely recurrent affectations of ennui at his alleged ubiquity or overperformance in English music, are likely to challenge the lasting value of his works and their capacity imaginatively to engage us still. To claim to be tired of Handel, surely, is to be tired of what musical experience can bring to life itself.


"Programme Note" Paul Filmer. North London Chorus. 2002. 07 Dec. 2002. <>  

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