Messiah, A Sacred Oratorio Completed in 1741

During the second decade of the eighteenth century, Handel settled in England, there to win his greatest fame and influence. One of his reasons for locating there was the current popularity of a type of music with which he was already quite familiar, and through which he had won great success: Italian-style opera. Over the next 30 years, he devoted the major portion of his creative energies to supplying English audiences with that type of piece. London’s music lovers received his operas enthusiastically; Julius Caesar, Ariodante, and Serse proved especially popular. Listeners found Handel’s purely instrumental music very much to their liking as well.

As time passed, fashions in music changed. The English public grew tired of Italian opera’s absurd plots, posturing soloists, and ornate vocal style. Another reason for its decline stemmed from the unending stream of satiric assaults launched against it by such widely read wits as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.

They found what they were looking for on several fronts. One source was comic stage pieces based on the popular melodies of the day, such as The Beggar’s Opera (1728). The most important new entertainment style, however, was oratorio. It represented not only a change from opera, but also a chance for audiences to hear and to relish presentations given in their own language–a powerful inducement to enjoyment on several levels.

Handel, to his great financial distress, caught on to this trend only slowly. He had actually contributed to the decline of Italian opera by throwing together too many pieces too quickly, thus allowing the quality of his output to decline. But once he finally did recognize the direction the musical wind had shifted, he began producing a most successful series of English language oratorios. They gradually helped him regain his title as his adopted country’s favorite composer.

In structural terms, opera and oratorio have a great deal in common. They both involve casts of solo singers, a chorus, and an orchestra, performing a sequence of recitatives, arias, ensembles, and instrumental interludes. But in oratorios there are no costumes, scenery or props, and this type of piece is performed in concert halls and churches, rather than in opera houses. Another important difference lies in subject matter. Operas deal strictly with secular topics; oratorios frequently treat sacred ones as well.

By 1741, the waning of interest in opera had reduced Handel’s financial stature dramatically. It had also left him deeply depressed and in sore need of stimulation. During the summer of that year, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland offered Handel the opportunity to visit Dublin to stage a series of concerts featuring Handel’s music. Shortly after receiving this request, and in the period of just over three weeks, the composer created a new oratorio. Charles Jennens prepared the libretto, drawing on sources from both the Old and New Testaments. Handel took along Messiah, as he had named the piece, to Dublin when he journeyed there in December 1741.

He staged a dozen successful concerts over the following months, then announced with great fanfare that his new oratorio would receive its première on April 13, 1742. He cannily arranged for a public rehearsal to take place the day before. It caused a sensation. As a result, hundreds of eager listeners had to be turned away from the official first performance. Since then, performances of Messiah have been countless, its impact incalculable. As English musicologist Charles Burney wrote 40 years after the première, "this great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan, and enriched succeeding managers of the oratorios."

The first London performance of Messiah took place in 1743, a year after the première, but nearly a decade passed before it began to find favor with that city’s audiences. British soldiers first occupied Pensacola in 1763 at the close of the French-Indian War. The eighteen years that the British flag flew over Pensacola was a period of prosperity. In London during this same period, Handel’s Messiah became so popular that in 1784, audiences heard two significant performances in Westminster Abbey as part of a festival known as a "Commemoration of Handel." Huge performing forces—possibly as many as 500 musicians—were gathered together for this occasion, setting a standard for large-scale stagings that endures, in many circles, to the present day.

Messiah cemented its popularity in Britain even further during the nineteenth century, at a time when amateur choral societies, spurred on by the new availability of inexpensively printed vocal scores, began to spring up throughout the land. In 1836, Messiah was the first full-length oratorio which London’s Sacred Harmonic Society took into its repertoire. Other amateur choral groups followed suit, until Messiah became the one piece which virtually all of them performed, usually on an annual basis.

Many elements have won Messiah its enduring popularity: the richness and variety of the music, the insightful matching of word and sound, and the consistently inspired evocations of such universal emotions as pathos, serenity, and joy. It is also a deeply satisfying work to perform, whether the artists are seasoned professionals or enthusiastic amateurs.

Messiah is unusual as an oratorio, as it does not relate a specific story. Nor do the soloists sing particular roles. Jennens designed the work as a contemplation. Messiah consists of three sections. Part One tells of the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah, and the nativity. Part One ends with the chorus singing "His yoke is easy, His burden is light."

Part Two describes the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It concludes with the familiar "Hallelujah" Chorus. One of Handel’s servants is said to have come upon him directly after he had composed this portion and heard him exclaim, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself!" It was at this point, during one of the early London performances, that King George II spontaneously rose to his feet in a spirit of exaltation. Audiences have traditionally repeated this practice ever since.

Part Three considers the Word that is left behind. The spiritual messages represented by Christ’s teachings are set forth for the instruction and benefit of all. It opens with the moving soprano aria "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth," and concludes with a final chorus of "Amen."

Although purists may object that the number of singers at our performance strays far from the size chorus for which Handel composed, one suspects that he, the consummate showman, would have been delighted to marshal such forces, as long as they did justice to his music. Tonight’s "Legacy from London" performance of Messiah continues, with affection for this beloved masterpiece, the tradition begun so long ago.


"Program notes for Handel's Messiah"  Anonymous.  Choral Society of Pensicola. <>

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