The preeminent English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham wrote in his memoirs the following regarding Handel’s music: “Since his time mankind has heard no music written for voices which can even feebly rival his for grandeur of build and tone, nobility and tenderness of melody, scholastic skill and ingenuity and inexhaustible variety of effect…Handel…is the undeniably great international master of all time. He wrote Italian music better than any Italians; French music better than any Frenchman; English music better than any Englishman; and with the exception of Bach, out-rivaled all other Germans.”

Messiah is one of the greatest musical masterpieces of all time, and very possibly the greatest work ever written in England. It is also, in all probability, the most performed work in the history of classical music. In virtually every city of the free world Messiah is performed at least once every year, and sometimes at multiple Christian holidays during a given year. Messiah, unlike other great choral works such as Brahms’ German Requiem or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, does not require a full symphony orchestra and massed choir to perform. Consequently, any church, school or civic music ensemble can mount a performance of this enduring masterpiece, almost regardless of the resources it has at its disposal. The English composer Michael Tippett once recounted that, while visiting Kenya on holiday, he stumbled onto a small village where Messiah was being rehearsed, led by a missionary from England. The chorus, consisting of twelve singers who could not speak, much less sing in English, simply memorized the sounds of the words, and having little, if any, understanding of the significance of the words. The “orchestra” consisted of a string quartet of battered instruments and a few native wind instruments whose players tried their best to mimic the sounds of the accompanying gramophone recording!

The reason for Messiah’s popularity is that the music, while elegant and beautiful, is relatively easy to play, and the text comes exclusively from familiar biblical sources, the story of Christ being almost universally understood.

Handel frequently altered the musical forces in his stagings of the oratorio, based on which singers and what instruments were available at each venue. Over a period of two and a half centuries music performance standards have changed. Mozart, for example, added flutes, clarinets and trombones to Handel’s sparse scoring, which was basically strings with pairs of oboes, bassoons and trumpets added to simply reinforce the sound. Each generation, it seems, has felt the need to adapt this great work in the prevailing fashion of the day. In the 20th century, instrumental and choral varieties have abounded, from Beecham’s 1959 version for full modern symphony orchestra and chorus exceeding 300 singers, sung at almost operatic proportions, to the recent trend of producing “authentic,” more intimate versions featuring period instruments and small choral ensembles. In England, Messiah is occasionally performed at choral festivals, where the chorus can swell to 2,000 to 3,000 singers (Handel originally called for about 20)!

In addition to the performance variable of personnel, the issue of exactly how much of Messiah is presented is also a question. Seldom is it performed in its entirety, with alternate versions of arias and all the appendices. Conductors still pick and choose exactly which selections of Messiah to program. For example, some conductors choose to end with the “Hallelujah” chorus, even though it is the concluding section of the second part of the three-part oratorio. In some versions, performers change the order of the sections, creating, if you will, a “customized” version of Handel’s most famous work. Because of all these variables, no two performances of Messiah are ever exactly alike. There is no other composition in the repertoire with such a malleable and chameleon-like shape and sound.

The facts surrounding the composition of Messiah are easily chronicled. Handel began shying away from writing operas in the 1730s, his attention turning to writing concert oratorios, usually on historical or biblical themes. Messiah was the third mature oratorio composed, and in the ten years after it Handel wrote eleven more, none of them resembling Messiah in theme or treatment. Handel’s frequent librettist, Charles Jennens, compiled the text, drawn from the Bible and the Prayer Book Psaltery.

In 1741 Handel was invited to give a series of oratorio concerts in Dublin and realized that an oratorio with a special message could be offered for the final performance, which was intended to be for charitable purposes. Handel’s season in Dublin turned out to be all that he could wish for, and the premiere of Messiah (on April 13, 1742) was the season’s triumphant conclusion, a large sum of money being raised for charities. The oratorio was then presented in London less than a year later, but its production faced great controversy when it was discovered that Handel intended that this most sacred work would be staged at a popular theater, which clerics declared anathema. It was at these performances where one of the great traditions of Messiah performances began, even though the story is probably apocryphal. Handel’s patron, King George II, attended one of the performances, and according to legend, stood up in respect to the Almighty when the “Hallelujah” chorus began. As he was the monarch, the audience respectfully followed his lead, ad to this day the tradition of standing during this unforgettable chorus remains.


"Messiah A Sacred Oratorio"  Stephen Aechternacht 2004.  Austin Symphony.  <>

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