Few would dispute that George Frideric Handel was one of the greatest composers of his generation, but his modern-day popular fame rests on a small number of works. He is best known as the inventor of the English oratorio, and the most famous of those is Messiah, one of the best-loved choral-orchestral works in history. Though he contributed to every genre then current and was one of the great composers of Italian opera, this one piece has cemented his reputation in the modern mind and has become an annual ritual for an untold number of concert goers.

Handel was not a native Englishman. Born in Halle, Germany in 1685, Handel was early inspired by Italian opera in Berlin and moved to Hamburg to pursue it. Only 18 upon his arrival, he quickly came to realize that his professional future depended on greater international exposure, and he resolved to finance a trip to Italy for himself. At 21, he traveled to Italy and immediately made his name as an organist and as a composer of both sacred music and opera. Handel returned to Germany in 1710, his fame already spreading, and was appointed Kapellmeister to the electoral court in Hanover. Before the end of the year, however, he had made a trip to London to oversee the performance of one of his operas. That trip proved to be the first of several and eventually led to a complete relocation to England.

In London, Handel rode the waves of popular opinion, composing Italian operas for a fickle public. His support sometimes wavered, but his successes were significant and installed him as an important force in the city's musical universe. His stature was further increased by his appointment to the Chapel Royal, and an opera company with royal patronage was created to advance the cause of Italian opera in England. The venture eventually failed, however, and Handel was faced with an unsure future, both artistically and commercially.

In 1741, Handel planned a series of oratorios and other concert works in Dublin. The invitation from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to present a concert in Dublin to benefit local charities came at a good time for Handel, who was tiring of the contentious London audiences. He had been experimenting with the oratorio form, creating a few using the English language instead of Italian. Combining his strengths in dramatic music and in choral composition, the idea of a uniquely English oratorio style began to take shape through his compositions.

Before leaving London for Ireland, one of his collaborators, Charles Jennens, presented Handel with a libretto for an oratorio based on Old and New Testament scriptures. The text was an unusual creation, a retelling of the story of Christ through indirect reference. With the exception of the Nativity, none of the story was directly narrated. Instead, the libretto utilized Old Testament prophesies that were vindicated by Christ's life, triumph over death, and ascension into heaven. Parts I and II covered the earthly life of Christ, and Part III served as a reflection on the redemption won by Christ's death.

Handel set this text to music in a blizzard of activity, composing the entire Messiah between August 22nd and September 14th, 1741. His notes indicate that Part I took six days, Part II nine days, and Part III six days, leaving three days to complete the orchestration for the 259 pages of score. The work is unique in his output, the only biblical oratorio to use texts from both the New Testament and the Old. It is also unusual in that almost all of the music was composed specifically for this piece, unlike most of Handel's other large-scale works which were often a combination of new composition and existing sections from other works.

Handel packed this new score (along with the scores of seven other major works and a small organ) and headed for Ireland. There he was warmly received, presenting first a very successful series of six subscription concerts and then a follow-up series of an additional six, without performing the oratorio he had composed especially for the trip. After five months in Dublin, Handel finally announced a major public performance of his new oratorio that would provide proceeds for the residents of a debtors' prison and a hospital. The city was heavily involved in the preparations, as can be noted by the fact that tickets were not available at Handel's residence, as they had been for the subscription series, but at the music hall itself. The choirs of both local cathedrals were invited to participate and the local orchestra was hired. A large crowd was expected and so the women were asked not to wear hoops and the men, swords, so as to make room for an extra 100 audience members. In the end, nearly 700 attended the premiere performance of Messiah, with Handel directing from the harpsichord.

Public reaction was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. The premiere was the high point of the Dublin season. Proceeds from the concert provided for the release of 142 inmates from debtors' prison and there was popular demand for a repeat performance. After ten months away, Handel returned to London refreshed and confident in the future of what he called "the Oratorio way."

Once back in England, though, Handel was concerned about possible public reaction to his new work before its London premiere. Supporters of opera had already criticized his earlier efforts at oratorio and there was widespread resistance to the use of biblical texts outside of church. Omitting a title and announcing the work as “a New Sacred Oratorio,†Handel hoped to present the work without causing offense. His efforts were in vain. The oratorio was decried as blasphemous even before its opening and was a public failure at its first London performance. A sacred text depicting (even indirectly) Christ performed by operatic singers in a playhouse was too much for many Londoners, especially without the association with charitable causes the work enjoyed in Dublin. No score was published in Handel's lifetime. Even Jennens complained that the poor reception was due in part to the low quality of the music Handel had produced to accompany his libretto. (Jennens had expected Handel to spend at least a year composing the score.)

Despite this reception, Handel persevered with the English oratorio, seeing in it great promise for his own artistic growth and for commercial gain. The Messiah, though itself not a success in London, was the first in a string of significant English oratorios that reestablished Handel's fame as a composer of great power and popularity. He never composed another opera.

In 1750, nine years before the composer's death, Handel conducted The Messiah as part of a benefit for the Foundling Hospital. The success of this concert lead to an annual tradition lasting through the remaining years of Handel's life and beyond, steadily increasing in popularity. Thus began the unbroken tradition of annual Messiah performances that extended eventually throughout the world. When Haydn attended a performance in 1791, the performing forces numbered over 500. Clearly the work had taken hold of the popular imagination by then and has since become immortal through the enthusiasm of singers and audience members alike for the singular musical experience of Handel's Messiah.


 "Program Notes" Anonymous. 2007. The Masterwork Chorus.  <>

The Compleat Messiah All Content Copyright © 2009 Bret D. Wheadon
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