It is well known that Handel composed Messiah in a very short period of time—24 days.  The swiftness of the project, or the sacred nature of the text, may have contributed to Handel’s somewhat simple treatment of the orchestra.  Four-part strings and continuo (bass instruments plus harpsichord harmony) was Handel’s foundation. Two oboes were added only in the overture and choruses, always doubling the violins or sopranos (sometimes altos), with no independent parts, and a pair of trumpets strengthened three D-major choruses, two of which included timpani. But even given this rather basic orchestral pretext—indeed, perhaps because of it—Handel’s talent for pulling the dramatic nuances of the text to the surface using instrument and voice conventions has made Messiah perhaps the most popular single musical work of all time. 

Messiah is an unusual oratorio in that, unlike the examples we were treated to in the first concert of the season, “Celebrate Handel,” it is not a narrative, a story.  Rather, it is a three-part outline of the Biblical concept of “Messiah” (note the title is not “The Messiah,” simply “Messiah”), beginning with Old Testament Messianic prophecy, going through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, and concluding with an exegesis on the state of the Christian faith as a result of this Messiah having been among us.  At first glance this seems to fit neatly into a typical three-act format of Prophecy/Christ/Church.  However the first part, sometime referred to as the “Christmas” section, takes us through a series of prophecies, raising our expectations as in an opera, until finally these prophesies receive their dramatic culmination in Christ’s birth at the conclusion of part one.  A most interesting decision in terms of the dramatic shape of Messiah was to make this birth portion at the end of part one the only remotely narrative segment of the entire oratorio.  In a most ingenious maneuver, Handel sets the prophecy and birth narrative portions apart not by a change of acts, an intermission, but by the only instrumental movement in the oratorio other than its overture.  The Christ child, then, has his own “arrival” sinfonia (No. 13 Pifa), as had the Queen of Sheba in Solomon and Iphis in Jephtha (coming to greet her father).  Naturally, rather than a noisy march, it is a simple, sweet lullaby for strings alone based on the sicilienne or pifa, a flowing compound meter type of melody, featuring dotted rhythms on one or two beats of the measure.  To 18th century audiences, the sicilienne (pifa) was associated with shepherds in the areas surrounding Sicily, and not uncommonly was used in instrumental works composed for Christmas (e.g. Corelli’s famous “Christmas Concerto”). With its whispering violin and viola melodies, and rustic, droning bass, we are invited into the fields on that quiet first Christmas night, among the shepherds humming softly or playing the “piffaro” (shepherd’s pipe).  The dramatic effect generated by this music parallels the famous moment in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Linus steps onto the stage, requests “Lights, please,” and begins “And there were shepherds abiding in the fields . . .”; the very text from Luke’s gospel which follows Handel’s pifa in a series of recitatives for soprano (Nos. 14-16; perhaps a shepherd boy’s voice?). These are the first soprano solos in the oratorio, thus their words and consequently the birth narrative itself receive a musical halo.  As recitative was the traditional style for describing action in opera, the use of successive recitatives here underscores the narrative dramatic device.   Handel also drew upon the pastoral sicilienne and solo soprano voice, representing simplicity, innocence and the Good Shepherd, in the arias “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” (No. 20) and “How beautiful are the feet of him” (No. 38), and taken at the proper tempo, the rhythmic flow and sweetness of the soprano solo in “I know that my Redeemer liveth” (No. 45) also suggest the sicilienne, and so remind us of the humble birth of our Redeemer.

The intimate solo recitatives and arias in Messiah demonstrate Handel’s prowess in conveying the meaning of text and shaping the dramatic content using the most basic instrumental materials.  Only one aria, “The trumpet shall sound” (No. 48), features an instrumental soloist, while in seven the violin section accompanies the soloists in conversation, much like in the arias heard in the first concert of the season.  Handel relied more on melodic, rhythmic and ornamental gestures to paint the words in these vocal solo movements, rather than on orchestral colors.  Soprano, alto and tenor received about the same number of solos, with the bass singing fewer.  Although soprano was most often used for texts regarding innocence and shepherding, in “Rejoice greatly” (No. 18) her calm report of the Savior’s speaking “peace to the heathen” in the middle part of the aria is surrounded by the excitement of her clear coloratura voice bidding the daughter of Jerusalem to “rejoice” in long melismatic roulades, and her high “shouts” of praise.  No clear dramatic identity seems to be present for the alto soloist. Because the soprano voice seems to have been held in reserve until the birth narrative, those texts calling for a female character before the pifa movement, such as the prophetic “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” (No. 8), are written for alto. The alto shares in Messiah’s only duets: “He shall feed his flock” (No. 20) with the soprano, which was originally written for soprano alone, and “O death, where is thy sting” (No. 50) with the tenor, one of five Messiah movements that Handel “borrowed” from his own Italian cantatas, rewriting the words.  (The others are the choruses “And he shall purify,” “For unto us a child is born,” “His yoke is easy,” and “All we like sheep.”)  The first solo voice we hear is the tenor, who opens the drama following the overture as his traditional historicus (story-teller) role would have called for, in the recitative-aria pair “Comfort ye—Ev’ry valley” (Nos. 2-3).  The comforting calmness of the throbbing strings and slow, steady vocal line of the accompanied recitative surrenders to the aria’s march-like crispness, with the strings echoing the voice as if off of the mountains surrounding the valley, the rising “exalted” vocal melismas, and the expansive “plain” held notes.  The story-teller tenor returns in “All they that see Him, laugh Him to scorn” (No. 27).  But here, at the half-way point in the oratorio, his role changes, for this recitative begins a series of chorus (“He trusted in God”) followed by tenor solos (“Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,” “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow,” “He was cut off out of the land of the living,” “But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell”) which carries us through the pivotal events of Christ’s crucifixion, descent, and finally emergence from hell, partly as narrative, partly as contemplation.  Thus, the tenor has become the hero, as was frequently his opera and oratorio assignment, claiming “victory o’er the grave.”  The bass soloist, too, has a dual purpose in Messiah.  He is a voice from beyond; God himself in the recitative “Thus saith the Lord” (No. 5), and in the recitative-aria pair “Behold, I tell you a mystery—The trumpets shall sound” (Nos. 47-48), he and the solo trumpet march through the catacombs at the end of time, each with climbing fanfare figures to raise the dead and difficult, twisting passages representing our resurrected bodies being “changed” into their pure eternal state.  But the bass also is assigned the most condemning texts of the oratorio, steadily marching us down into the depths of our sin and ignorance in “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth—The people that walk in darkness” (Nos. 10-11), so that we can be pulled up to the “great light” of salvation, and showing us our own destructive “rage” through long, angry melismas in “Why do the nations so furiously rage” (No. 40).

Indeed, Handel’s solo movements tap the conventional characteristic use of the solo voices to dramatize the more personal, intimate segments of this text.  But it is the many choruses of Messiah, explicating more communal objectives, utilizing the colors of the full orchestra, and in greater numbers than occur in operas, that made oratorio a favorite dramatic genre of 1740s London, and Messiah the popular piece it has remained.  So very exciting are those choruses in which the trumpets and timpani announce heavenly glory, the King of Kings, and Christ’s triumphant placement at God’s right hand. Trumpets are first heard accompanying the chorus of angels in “Glory to God in the highest” (No. 17), immediately following the soprano recitatives of the birth narrative. The high tessitura of the voices on the words “Glory to God in the highest” juxtaposed to low unison voices announcing “and peace on earth” creates for us a vast musical space between the heavenly and earthly realms.  In a typically Handelian dramatic gesture, the two trumpets accompany the former words, not the latter, and are directed to sound “at a distance,” not joined by timpani.  These trumpets are coming from Heaven, not earth, and so are unseen and barely heard by the shepherds.  Trumpets are not heard again until the end of part two, after Christ’s resurrection and his awarding of the final badge of “Prophet, Priest and King” in the famous “Hallelujah” chorus (No. 44).  Handel wants us to associate trumpets and timpani directly with the royal nature of the King of Kings, for even though this movement begins forte in the orchestra followed by shouts of “Hallelujah” in the chorus, the trumpets remain silent until after the words “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,” at which time they play the earlier “Hallelujah” tune, and then they return for the text “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”  Finally, in the very last set of choruses, “Worthy is the Lamb—Blessing and Honor—Amen” (No. 52), the victorious Christ, worthy of powers and riches, etc., receives praise from all of the members of the band, in a most triumphant conclusion. 

These choruses raise us into the joy of worshipping the triumphant King with the textural complexity of the full orchestral and choral forces rendering their own separate lines, in the so-called “new style” or “concerted style” that blossomed in the 17th and early 18th centuries, particularly in opera. During Handel’s time, another “old style” or “a cappella (of the chapel) style” of music, usually associated with sacred works and an earlier tradition, had no independent instrumental parts. The instruments, if present, played along with the voice parts, and these were often contrapuntal, as in a fugue.  Handel effectively used the a cappella texture, in both fugue and hymn-like contexts, to reflect the words and shape this drama in several choral movements. For example, Handel sometimes utilized fugal texture, with very little if any extraneous orchestral material, to represent the confusion of a throng of speakers, such as the crowd at the foot of the cross challenging Jesus “He trusted in God; let him deliver him . . .” (No. 28), or the buzz of the heavenly host’s praises in “Let all the angels of God worship him” (No. 35). “And with his stripes” (No. 25) shows a quite a different use of the fugue texture, as the various contrapuntal lines—voices doubled by instruments—appear as “stripes” on the pages of the score (Augenmusik= “eye-music”; the appearance of an idea in music’s written format).  But perhaps Handel’s most effective use of the a cappella style occurs in choruses where a textual polarity is dramatized by sudden changes between the concerted style and the older church style in a hymnodic rather than fugal setting.  At the end of “All we like sheep” (No. 26) such a change emphasizes the profound principle that despite our straying from God, we are reconciled to Him because “the Lord hath laid on [Christ] the iniquity of us all.”   More shuddering still is the shift back and forth between a cappella and concerted styles in “Since by man came death” (No. 46), where quiet voices alone, painfully stark and dissonant, whisper the opening line, and later “As in Adam all die,” but orchestra and voices together counter this emptiness in recognition of the New Adam: “By man came also the resurrection of the dead” and “Even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”  This is the Old versus the New Way, Death versus Life, expressed in old versus new music styles. 


"Program notes for Handel's Messiah"  Michael Ruhling.  Handel and Haydn Society. <>

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