George Frideric Handel's oratorio Messiah is one of the most widely played pieces of music during the Christmas season every year. Since its first performance, in 1742, many myths and misconceptions about this popular masterpiece have accumulated.  Here are some of them, along with clarifications.

The title is Messiah, not The Messiah.

The work did not originate by divine inspiration or for a specific occasion. The German-born Handel (1685-1759), after working for some years in Germany and Italy, settled in London, England, in 1712 and, though he composed a wide variety of vocal and instrumental music, focused his attention at first mainly on Italian opera. When Italian opera went out of favor, he turned to oratorios as a way to make money. To ensure the popularity of his oratorios, he included many numbers for chorus, being well aware of England's rich choral tradition. When one of Handel's librettists, Charles Jennens, sent him the libretto for Messiah, based on various books of the Bible, the composer set it to music because he thought it had commercial possibilities.

Theater, Not Church
Despite its religious text, Messiah, like other oratorios of the time, was intended for performance in a theater or concert hall, not a church. An oratorio had arias, recitatives, choruses, acts, scenes, and so on, just like an opera. In essence, an oratorio was a theatrical work that could be performed inexpensively because it required no staging (such as scenery and costumes). Some oratorios had religious texts, but others were secular.

No Story
Unlike almost all other baroque oratorios, including Handel's own works in the same genre, Messiah does not tell a story. Instead, it presents a series of contemplations on the Christian idea of redemption, from Old Testament prophecies through the life of Christ to his final triumph over death.

Focus on Old Testament
Despite its Christian message, Messiah has more text from the Old Testament than the New Testament.

Dublin, Not London
Handel, though cosmopolitan in musical style, lived most of his life in England and wrote Messiah in London in 1741. However, the work's premiere occurred not in London but in Dublin, Ireland, where he had been invited to perform during the 1741-42 winter season. Jennens, the librettist, was upset because he wanted the first performance to take place in London.

Premiere Almost Prevented
Jonathan Swift, the famed author of Gulliver's Travels, was now the cranky old dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. He nearly prevented the premiere of Messiah by threatening to forbid his church's singers from participating in the performance, which was to take place at a music hall. Swift, like many ecclesiastics of that time, believed that theaters and theater music, including Handel's, subverted religion. Ultimately he relented, and his singers took part in the premiere.

Hoops and Swords
Despite clerical reservations about the music, the Dublin premiere, on April 13, 1742, was a great success, with seven hundred people showing up at a theater that normally seated only six hundred. To squeeze in as many audience members as possible, concert officials published a notice before the performance, requesting women to wear skirts without hoops and men to come without their swords.

Cool Reception in London
Handel's Messiah met with a cool reception in London. Both clerics and middle-class theatergoers damned the work as blasphemous for presenting a Christian theme in a secular theater environment. Earlier religious oratorios, such as Handel's Israel in Egypt (1739), consisted of Old Testament stories, and people regarded them as history lessons with a moral. Christ and Christianity, however, were more sensitive subjects. To avoid giving offense, Handel advertised the work without any title at all, calling it simply a "Sacred Oratorio." Nevertheless, the London debut, on March 23, 1743, fell flat.

Popular Success
Handel's Messiah finally became a popular success in London late in his life, not through regular commercial or religious performances but through its use in annual benefit concerts for underprivileged children at the Foundling Hospital, beginning in 1750.

Handel's Own Favorite
Most of the world knows Handel mainly by Messiah, but the composer himself thought his best oratorio was the operalike Theodora.

Easter, Not Christmas
Handel himself associated Messiah with Lent and Easter. The text--organized into three principal parts and subdivided into scenes with arias, recitatives, and choruses (much like the acts and scenes of an opera)--summarizes Christian doctrine and faith. Only the first part relates to the birth of Christ, but as the decades went by, the work came to be performed mostly at Christmas.

The second part of Messiah ends with a chorus, whose text begins "Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth" (Revelation 19:6); after some other biblical text, the number ends by repeating "Hallelujah." Hallelujah choruses were common at that time, and while Handel was alive, the chorus was referred to as "For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth." Eventually, however, this particular chorus became so famous that it came to be known as the "Hallelujah" chorus.

Standing during "Hallelujah"
Audience members traditionally stand during a performance of the Messiah "Hallelujah" chorus. The origin of the tradition is uncertain, but the custom started early in the history of the piece. The first documented case of standing occurred during the May 15, 1750, performance of Messiah at the Foundling Hospital charity concert. However, the first published explanation of the custom did not come till 1780, when people began repeating an anecdote that King George II had stood during the "Hallelujah" at the London debut of Messiah in 1743. But historians are not sure that the king even attended that performance.

No Definitive Messiah
After the premiere of Messiah, Handel prepared many different versions of the work for later occasions. He recomposed some numbers to improve their musical quality, but he customized many pieces simply to accommodate the singers available for particular performances. As a result, there is no such thing as a truly "definitive" score for Messiah.

Ironically, the tremendous popularity of Messiah almost destroyed it. From the late 1700s to the early 1900s, musicians who loved the work tried to "update" it to make it suitable to contemporary tastes. People reorchestrated the work to add modern color, enlarged the size of the vocal and instrumental ensembles to symbolize the importance of the music, and performed the oratorio with romantic musical gestures. Overblown nineteenth-century London peformances of Messiah with huge ensembles, including choruses of five thousand singers, were common. For generations, those "improvements" completely distorted Handel's musical conceptions in Messiah.

Old Is New
Since the movement to revive authentic early-music styles began in the 1960s, Messiah performances have largely returned to Handel's original conceptions in terms of orchestration, ensemble size, and performance practices. The old way has become the new way to perform Messiah. Today conductors often select numbers from different Handel versions to create their own composite Messiah.


"Myths and Misconceptions About Handel's Messiah" Darryl Lyman, Associated Content. 2007. 07 Nov. 2007 <>

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