Meaning of a Monument

Messiah is a monument. The world’s favorite oratorio—though much more dominant in English-speaking cultures than elsewhere—Messiah continues to receive (or endure) far more performances than any other concert-length work.

Yet it remains, on the whole, misunderstood and, paradoxically, under-appreciated. It is treated like a seasonal tree—hacked back to a small fraction of its full beauty, then festooned with distracting, tasteless ornaments: extra instruments, gargantuan choirs, sluggish tempos and gushily romantic swells of pseudo-emotion. Subjected to the most devastating degradation, Messiah remains unscathed—a towering masterpiece of art fully deserving its popularity and undimmed despite all abuse.

For Messiah is more than a monument; it is a miracle. Created in but twenty-four days in a single, inspired burst of creativity (after which the composer rested a week before dashing off his even longer oratorio Samson in a month), Messiah speaks eloquently, sensitively and profoundly to the essential faith of a large part of the world. Other works, some of equal artistry, reach as deeply into the faith they expound, but no other so comprehensively summarizes the essence and totality of that faith. To those who have taken the trouble, intimate familiarity with the entire Messiah has led only to greater admiration and, for those open to it, deepening faith.


Unlike his compatriot and contemporary Bach, whom he never met, Handel was a cosmopolitan musician.  At the age of twenty-two he traveled to Italy to develop his talents as a composer of opera seria, the style of Italian music drama quickly becoming the rage of Europe.  His motives were professional: as a musician he loved opera; ambitious, he knew that the shortest route to musical fame and fortune was to become a successful opera composer. In Italy he encountered oratorio, the musical telling of a religious—usually biblical—story either as inspiration in places of worship or as a substitute entertainment in aristocratic palaces during Lent, when opera was proscribed.

Handel produced his first two oratorios in Italy, in Italian, but several years later found himself pursuing operatic success in the most up and coming, wheeling and dealing capital in Europe—London. At first he was brilliantly successful. But opera was a risky venture—he earned and lost two fortunes at it—and by the 1730’s he was looking toward other musical forms for his livelihood. Handel’s acumen for drama combined with the public’s need for entertainment in a language they could understand led him back to oratorio, but in English, not Italian.

Both the original Italian style of oratorio and Handel’s primary focus to this point in his career, opera seria, had emphasized the solo voice in arias that were to be not only dramatic but vocally virtuosic. The homegrown style of the English anthem, in contrast, was primarily choral, calling upon soloists rarely, if at all. Handel’s success in all three genres allowed him to synthesize them into a form that was musically and dramatically satisfying. His roots in Germany gave him a far stronger sense of counterpoint for his choruses than any of his competitors possessed; his Italian training and natural lyric gift lifted his aria melodies into a class of their own.  

Handel’s oratorio subjects were nearly all scriptural: Deborah, Saul, Israel in Egypt, Samson, Joshua, Judas Maccabeus, Solomon. Handel’s librettists would expand the original story related in the Bible or the Apocrypha, adding characters and scenes, even events, to flesh out the sketchy scripture with greater emotion and human interaction.

At times, the efforts succeeded with the public; at times, they did not. One of the problems lay in Handel’s insistence that he use only the best singers and they, he felt, were the Italians he had brought to London to headline his operatic productions. (Before Handel, London had been content with primarily homegrown talent.)  Unfortunately, Handel’s Italians did not in general translate well from opera in their own tongue to oratorio in English. Handel may not have noticed—his English remained rudimentary and heavily accented.  But the crowd noticed. One writer of the time was especially sarcastic:

This being a new thing set the whole world a-madding. “Haven’t you been at the Oratorio?” says one. “Oh, if you don’t see the Oratorio you see nothing,” says t’other; so away I goes to the Oratorio, where I saw indeed the finest assembly of People I ever beheld in my very Life but to my great surprize, found this sacred Drama a mere Consort, no scenery, Dress or Action, so necessary to a Drama.... Senesino and Bertolli made rare work with the English Tongue, you would have sworn it had been Welsh. I would have wished it had been Italian that they might have sung with more ease to themselves since, but for the name of English it might as well have been Hebrew.


In January, 1741, Handel produced his last opera, Deidamia, like its predecessor Imeneo two months earlier, a flop. His career in England had come to an end and it was rumored that, at the age of fifty-six, he would be leaving the country for good.

The summer brought heartening news: the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Third Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, was extending an invitation to visit Ireland. It was understood that Handel would bring new music with him, so in the space of two months he churned out Messiah and Samson before departing for Dublin.

For the Messiah text Handel turned to Charles Jennens, with whom he had collaborated twice before. A well-heeled aristocrat with no apparent profession, Jennens was one of a not altogether rare breed in 18th-century England: an amateur with the taste and skills of a professional.  He was also very full of himself: he offered Handel no end of unsolicited advice; but it must have been good advice, for Handel in letters that have been preserved (we have nine—the largest number for any of Handel’s correspondents) solicited Jennens’ opinion re musical matters on more than one occasion.

Actually it was Jennens who suggested the idea of Messiah, turning up one day at Handel’s doorstep with the completed libretto in hand. It took nerve to synthesize and paraphrase the Bible in this most sacred of subjects, but Jennens’ ego and skill were equal to the task.  He fashioned an evocative, dramatic text based solely on passages from the scripture—no dramatic or emotional embellishments: the only libretto Handel ever had that took no such liberties. Jennens seemed aware of the special gravity of his task.  As much as possible, he cleaved to the King James Bible, diverging only as musical phrasing required. Apparently the composer meddled little with the text; he trusted his collaborator and, in any case, could hardly rely on his own shaky command of English.

With complete libretto in hand, Handel fell into his normal creative state— composing at fever pitch from August 22 through September 14, pausing only for the barest essentials of sustenance and rest.  Nearly all the music was new. Handel was a notorious borrower, using his music over and over again, or even lifting others’ creations when they fit his purpose.  His primary borrowings in Messiah are four choruses reshaped from soprano duets on light Italian love lyrics he had tossed off a month earlier. It is striking how few changes Handel needed to transform his frothy, amorous duets into his four most nimble choruses (“And he shall purify,” “For unto us a child is born,” “His yoke is easy” and ”All we like sheep”), though each contains newly composed passages—most often climactic phrases in which the entire chorus peals out together.

The score complete (plus the score for Samson, by the end of October), Handel set off for Dublin. He arrived November 18, but the premiere did not take place until the following April.  It was an unequivocal success.  

[Two logistical tidbits: First, a fascinating announcement appeared in the Dublin Journal on April 10, three days before the debut performance, which was offered as a charity supporting three good causes:

        Many Ladies and Gentlemen who are well-wishers to this Noble and Grand Charity for which this Oratorio was composed, request it as a Favour, that the Ladies who honour this Performance with their Presence would be pleased to come without Hoops, as it will greatly encrease the Charity, by making room for more company.

A later announcement requested that gentlemen eschew their swords for the same reason.

Second: Handel almost had no choir for the premiere. He requested the best in town: the choir of the Dublin cathedral. But the dean of the cathedral, Jonathan Swift—creator of Gulliver’s Travels sixteen years earlier—proved willfully stubborn about lending his choristers. At the last minute he relented, or one of his subordinates relented for him. The stroke he had recently suffered was sapping his reason; he was eased from office only months later.]

London was less receptive: the first three performances there (1743, 1745 and 1749) were greeted indifferently. Not until a 1750 benefit performance for Handel’s favorite charity, the Foundling Hospital, did Messiah catch fire.  (Perhaps the spark was the famous castrato Guadagni, who sang the major alto arias.)  From then until Handel’s death in 1759 Messiah was revived nearly every season to ever increasing acclaim. Handel’s last public appearance, just eight days before he died, was at a Messiah benefit at the Foundling Hospital.


It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that Messiah, like the Bach passions or the masses of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, is a religious work intended for performance during worship services. True, its subject is supremely sacred, but Messiah was written as an oratorio for performance in the same theaters where opera was customarily presented. Some of Handel’s contemporaries, like Messiah lovers today, had trouble with this setting. A theater like Covent Garden worked well for, say, the seduction and mass mayhem of the Samson story but was hardly appropriate for the central drama of Christianity.

Regardless of its original theatrical setting and the operatic nature of some of its arias, Messiah is profoundly sacred. Yet it is emphatically not, as most people seem to believe, the story of Jesus Christ and his ministry.  As dramatic and moving as that story is, Handel and Jennens were aiming higher. They sought to depict the fulfillment of mankind’s redemption through the Messiah. Their focus was less on the particular events of Christ’s life than on the need for, purpose of, and achievement through that life.

Since he wanted, for the most part, not to dwell on Jesus personally but on the role of the Messiah generally, Jennens looked for texts that deal with the Messiah without specifying Jesus. Thus he drew his text primarily from the Old Testament, where the projections about the Messiah that will be fulfilled in the New Testament portray the theosophical essence of the Messiah in powerful prophecies.  Though there are inevitable specifics from the New Testament, it is the poetic rhetoric of the Old that shapes Handel’s drama. His presentation of the Christmas story, for example, involves but a few verses from Luke about the angels and the shepherds—no journey to Bethlehem, no crowded inn, no manger, no swaddling clothes, no magi, no flight to Egypt. The message of “Glory to God” is enough.

Handel’s treatment of the Crucifixion is longer—”He was despised,” “He gave his back to the smiters,” “Surely he hath borne our grief,” “And with his stripes,” “All they that see him laugh him to scorn,” “He was cut off out of the land of the living”—but is couched entirely in Old Testament passages, primarily from Isaiah and the Psalms.

The point that Messiah is more theosophical than narrative is made clear by textual references to the
key individual. Although “Redeemer,” “Messiah,” “Savior” and “Christ” are found throughout the text, the name “Jesus” appears but once—in a chorus (“But thanks be to God”) that is nearly always omitted in performance.

In the words of Danish scholar Jens-Peter Larsen:

            We are not dealing with a presentation of the story of the Messiah. The greatness of the Messiah text is due to its clever arrangement of indirect light falling on the Messiah who lives in prophecies and is announced through the shepherds’ vision, the Messiah who struggles with and conquers Death, and whose work of redemption is the basic theme of the last part of the work.

Like nearly all Handelian oratorios, Messiah is divided into three parts. Each of these parts can be seen to consist of subsections that elaborate a specific concept in the Messiah story. Part I, for example, deals with the need for redemption through the ministry of Christ.  The first of six subsections that elaborate this theme consists of a tenor recitative and aria (“Comfort ye” and “Ev’ry valley”) plus a chorus (“And the glory of he Lord”); this subsection could be titled “God’s Promise of Comfort.” Though subsections, each closing with a chorus, are much more clearly delineated in Part I than in later parts, the entire work is more easily understood through an attempt to perceive these structures. Accordingly, the complete text of Messiah is given elsewhere in this program with interpretive divisions into subsections.


Much of the greatness of Messiah lies in its purpose, in its very text and message. But its glory, its artistic impact, resides in its music. Handel, it is clear from the start, has packed Messiah with lovely melodies, trenchant harmonies and athletic counterpoint. Whatever the text, this is extraordinarily beautiful music.

Still, the true splendor of Messiah—what lifts it to its pre-eminence and immortality—is its phenomenal fusion of text and music. Or, to be more precise, the inspired way that Handel brings the words to life through the music.

At the very beginning, for example, the overture paints a stark picture in its unrelenting E minor—a foreboding view of the world and its sin. An abrupt change to E major for the following recitative—with a gently caressing repetition of G-sharp, the very note that converts dark minor to sweet major—delivers the message musically long before the tenor sings it: “Comfort ye.” When he finally gives the words, he does so alone, peacefully and without hurry—truly comforting.  In the following aria, as he sings “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” the word “exalted” climbs or even leaps upward time after time.  At “ev’ry mountain and hill made low,” the line falls; at “the crooked straight,” a series of awkward intervals (“crooked”) resolves to a single note (“straight”).

Such “word painting” permeates Messiah.  When the angel appears to the shepherds (in the soprano recitative “There were shepherds”), the gentle flapping of an angel's wings can be heard softly in the violins. At “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,” violins render a multitude of wings.  When the angels sing “Glory to God,” the choral basses are left out—these angels are truly singing “on high”; the basses rejoin, in low register, when the focus drops earthward for “And peace on earth.” During this chorus, Handel instructs the trumpets to be positioned “da lontano” (from afar, i.e., offstage), where heavenly trumpets would be stationed.  At the end, the orchestra fades upward as the angels return to heaven.

The chorus “All we like sheep” displays remarkable word painting despite its musical origin in an Italian duet.  As a single-minded flock, the chorus gives out the opening line in block chords, only to wander apart in delicious counterpoint on “have gone astray.” “We have turned” evokes a maze of twisting, turning sixteenth notes, followed by the sevenfold repetition of a single note in each choral part for “every one to his own way.” (We almost expect to hear the chorus sing “every one to his own note.”)

Handel’s musical descriptions can be subtle or overt, lyric or dramatic, thoughtful or even gruesome.  Throughout the scenes of scourging (the words “he gave his back” in “He was despised” and, later, “Surely he has borne our griefs”), a snappy dotted rhythm can be heard symbolizing the lash of the whip.

Grislier still, the opening ritornello (introduction) to “I know that my Redeemer liveth” includes an enigmatic passage in which the violins leap down to the bottom of their range in an agitated dotted rhythm. That motive disappears until the middle section of the aria, just when the soprano sings, “And though worms destroy this body.” The motive repeats and repeats: Handel can’t seem to get enough of the worms’ flesh-devouring work. Closing ritornelli by common practice merely repeat the opening ritornello. [That’s why it is called a ritornello, which means “something that returns.”] Here, for the only time in Messiah, Handel changes the ritornello for its final appearance. He omits the worm motive: the soprano has just sung, “For now is Christ risen from the dead”; resurrection has taken place and the worms have no more work to do. 


Handel, above all, was a practical professional, shaping his career and his compositions to meet changing needs and tastes. The dogged fidelity to the score that has been an article of faith for so many composers and performers in the last two centuries would have seemed to him to be at least queer, if not stultifying.  Handel would rework a passage, even an entire movement, as occasion demanded.

Since Messiah was the work he presented most often during his lifetime, Handel made many such changes, nearly always to accommodate new soloists. The differences between the work’s premiere in Dublin in 1742 and his last Messiah performances in the late 1750’s are far too numerous to mention. Scholars have been kept busy sorting out which soloists performed when and which version of each movement was used. The resultant recordings  [most new recordings are of a specific year’s version] give a fairly full account of how Messiah grew and changed.

Messiah’s second aria (“But who may abide”) went through an especially complex sequence of changes.  Originally Handel wrote it for bass, but at the first performance shortened it drastically to a simple recitative.  Apparently the bass in Dublin was not up to Handel’s standards. The original aria was reinstated for the first three London performances, though for at least one of these, it was transposed up a step to be sung by a tenor. The arrival in 1750 of Guadagni, the spectacular alto castrato and opera star, led Handel to rewrite the aria, adding a fast middle section with operatic vocal pyrotechnics on “For he is like a refiner’s fire.” Guadagni departed London after 1753, leaving Handel with a dilemma: how to use his new, preferred version of the aria when English (female) altos, or basses for that matter, were not trained to sing such demanding coloratura. In the end, he decided to transpose it even higher for soprano, since he always had available an Italian opera diva able to handle its difficulties.

Today we have a performance dilemma no less daunting than Handel’s. Castrati being in short supply, we seem to have two choices: return to the original aria for bass, a solution Handel obviously rejected, or perform it in the second version in one of the soprano keys, as some Handelians prefer.  In such high keys, however, the aria tends to sound bright and brittle, without the depth of the alto version. Modern tradition until recently assigned the florid alto version to the bass, though few basses can articulate clearly the fiendishly rapid sections. Female alto voices are generally too dark to cut through the orchestral accompaniments. [English conductor Colin Davis has used a compromise in live performance—an alto on the slow section and a bass for “refiner’s fire”—but has not dared to record it that way.]

What then to do? One solution is to use one of the new wave of non-castrato male altos—called countertenors—whose voice is considered by some today’s closest equivalent to the castrato tone. But Handel wrote the alto part originally for a woman and may well have used a woman for his later version if he had one who could sing it. Today’s female altos are trained to do just this kind of singing, so our solution is obvious.

More than a quarter of Messiah’s movements pose this sort of version puzzle, though few are as complicated as “But who may abide.” In the end, there can be no definitive Messiah. An ultimate, ideal blueprint would have been an alien concept to Handel; ever flexible and resourceful, he thrived on the challenge of the occasion. In many ways the challenge of changing versions helps keep Messiah a living testament.

For, after two and a half centuries, Messiah is very much alive. It remains a challenge not just to musicologists but to performers and listeners.  Its depth and breadth, as with any truly great work of art, continue to exceed our grasp.  

To ears that think they know it too well and have heard it too often, the response of the Dublin Journal might prove a worthy reminder. After the public rehearsal on April 9, 1742, the Journal declared Messiah “to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard.” After the premiere on the 13th, its words waxed even more ecstatic: “On Tuesday last Mr. Handel’s Sacred Grand Oratorio, the MESSIAH, was performed at the new Musick-Hall in Fishamble-street; the best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience.The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.”

True in 1742; true today. May Handel’s Messiah, in the words of it most famous moment, “reign for ever and ever.”


"Program Notes"  Jere Lantz.  2009.  Rochester Symphony Program Notes for Messiah. November 24, 2009. <>

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