Handel's Messiah

Primo le parole, poi la musica: first the words, then the music. Ask a roomful of people to identify the composer of Messiah, and a roomful of hands will go up. Ask that same gathering to name the librettist, and puzzled silence is likely to follow. To be sure, Messiah is not a setting of a freshly-written, original book; the text is a compilation of passages from the Old and New Testaments. But that makes it no less impressive an achievement. The work of a perceptive and passionate writer, Messiah’s libretto is just as noteworthy in its own way as Handel’s immortal music. So before that music, a look at those fine words—and their curator—is very much in order.

Charles Jennens’s palatial home at Gopsall, North West Leicestershire—near Bosworth Field where the War of the Roses was conclusively ended—was demolished in 1951 after years of neglect and abuse. Much the same can be said about Jennens himself: glamorous in his day, his star faded rapidly and his posthumous reputation was gutted by commentarial wrecking balls. “Suleyman the Magnificent”, japed 18th-century Shakespeare scholar George Steevens. “A vain fool crazed by his wealth” sniped Samuel Johnson.

Prickly, prissy, snippy, snooty, and waspish, Jennens was manifestly not a man of the people. But charges that he was an intellectual featherweight are unfounded. The sharpest barbs are products of Steevens’s malicious envy of Jennens’s classy Shakespeare editions, and as such deserve permanent retirement. Christopher Hogwood duly notes Jennens’s “self-importance and intolerance, the high-handed manner of a wealthy country gentleman, opinionated and cruel in his criticism, whose ostentation made many of his contemporaries enemies.” But he also points out Jennens’s many accomplishments, his educated taste, his passionate dedication to Handel’s music, his well-designed libretti, and his often splendid editorial advice—such as restoring an excised “Allelujah” to the Part I finale of Saul.

Messiah is a child of the Enlightenment, that revolutionary mindset that promoted reason over unexamined belief, but Charles Jennens was no Edward Gibbon, Thomas Paine, or Thomas Jefferson proclaiming a humanistic philosophy based on rational inquiry. Quite the contrary: Jennens disdained, dismissed, and distrusted the freethinking theology of his age. He sought instead to defend his deeply-felt and conservative Anglican Christianity against what he saw as intellectual attacks on the core of the Christian message. The very title of his libretto—Messiah—throws down a gauntlet to those who would deny the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, or who would question the inerrancy of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures. Even more to the point, Jennens blended passages from both Old and New Testaments in support of his stance that the Messiah promised by the Hebrew prophets was indeed Jesus of Nazareth. In July 1741 Jennens wrote to his friend Edward Holdsworth:

Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion Week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.
Jennens did indeed manage to “perswade” his eminent friend and colleague, but victory was tempered with disappointment, as we hear in another letter to Holdsworth, from December 1741:

I heard with great pleasure at my arrival in Town, that Handel had set the Oratorio of Messiah; but it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing it here he was gone to Ireland with it. However, I hope we shall hear it when he comes back.
These letters reveal that Messiah represents a departure from Handel’s customary active and collaborative relationship with his librettists, including Jennens in previous projects such as Saul, L’Allegro, and (probably) Israel in Egypt. Handel apparently set the completed Messiah libretto as handed to him, without the usual rounds of editorial negotiations. That speaks well of Jennens’s literary skill, for his elegantly structured libretto deserves a full share of the credit for Messiah’s perennial popularity. Jennens based his scriptural selections on both theological and musical considerations; Messiah is first and foremost an oratorio libretto, not a religious tract. Consider the very first section, drawn from the first five verses of Isaiah 40, which Jennens structured as recitative-aria-chorus, a formula that will repeat itself—sometimes with significant expansion—throughout the entire oratorio.

Wheels within wheels: sections combine to make up a complete part; three parts (corresponding to acts in an opera) make up the whole. Part I (numbers 1–18 in the Barenreiter score) concerns itself with the prophecy of the coming Messiah, drawing the text of its five sections largely from the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Malachai, and Zechariah. Sections 1–3 tell of the one who shall purify the sons of Levi (Malachi 3:3) and that unto the people who walked in darkness (Isaiah 9:2) a child is born (Isaiah 9:6). Section 4 flashes forward to the New Testament Gospel of Luke 2:8–14, recounting the story of the shepherds in the fields who are visited by an angel proclaiming the birth of the Messiah. The final section symbolizes Jesus of Nazareth’s ministry, ending with a restrained chorus taken from Matthew 11:30: “His Yoke is Easy, His Burthen is Light”.

Part II (numbers 19–39) concerns itself with Jesus’s suffering and death, introduced by John 1:29 and Isaiah 53:3—”Behold the Lamb of God…He was despisèd and rejected of Men”, set unforgettably by Handel in a sorrowfully dignified chorus followed by an extended aria that ranks amongst his most heartfelt creations. The long first section touches on Psalm 22 (“All they that see him laugh him to scorn”) and ends with Lamentations 1:12—”Behold, and see, if there be any Sorrow like unto his Sorrow!” The second section moves on to the crucifixion: “He was cut off out of the Land of the Living” (Isaiah 53:8) but hints at the resurrection to come (“But Thou didst not leave his Soul in Hell”, Psalm 16:10). Sections three and four celebrate the resurrection (“Let all the Angels of God worship him”, Hebrews 1:6), then sections five and six announce the preaching of the gospel (“Their Sound is gone out into all Lands”, Romans 10:18). Part II ends with unabashed joy, its text skillfully assembled by Jennens from three separate verses from Revelation: “Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.”

The overall mood of Part III (numbers 40–47) is one of thanksgiving. Jennens combined Old and New Testaments for the opening text, drawn from Job and First Corinthians: “I know that my Redeemer liveth…For now is Christ risen from the Dead.” First Corinthians continues to provide much of the remaining text, including the prophecy that “The trumpet shall sound, and the Dead shall be rais’d incorruptible” (15:52–4.) Towards the end a long contemplative aria “If God be for us, who can be against us?” takes its reassurance from Romans 8:31–4, and Revelation 5:12–14 provides the closing peroration “Worthy is the Lamb…Glory and Pow’r be unto Him that sitteth upon the Throne.”

Thus the words. Now it was Handel’s turn to clothe Jennens’s masterful compilation with music that was not only entertaining, but also compelling. He was more than up to the task. By 1741 George Frideric Handel was an English institution, resident for thirty years, citizen for the past fourteen years, a robust (if not always altogether healthy) man in his mid-fifties. As a self-employed freelance musician, responsible to the dictates of the public rather than the directives of courtly or clerical patrons, he had seen his full share of triumph and failure, boom and bust, hits and flops. As recently as 1737 he had suffered a sickening financial loss from the collapse of an opera season in which he was a partner, followed by a ‘palsy’ (probably a stroke) that left him temporarily without the use of his right hand. Showing his customary powers of recuperation, he not only regained his health but also his financial footing. Nothing seemed to keep him down for long; Handel was tough, resilient, and supremely confident in his ability to produce music that met public approval.

He had good reason for that confidence. As far back as 1710 his first London visit had resulted in the blockbuster hit Rinaldo and, for decades, he had produced a steady stream of Italian operas in addition to a sizeable catalog of instrumental music, including the beloved Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, concerti grossi, keyboard suites, chamber works, church music, chamber cantatas, and more. His non-theatrical enterprises kept him afloat during the 1730s as the Italian opera craze subsided, leaving Handel searching for another high-profit genre that could restore his endangered fortunes. He didn’t have to look very far: the oratorio stood ready to provide him with the next stage in his career. He was no newcomer to the genre; as far back as 1707 he had written Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno for his Roman patron Cardinal Pamphili, and the flamboyant La Resurrezione the following year. Early in his English residency he wrote Acis and Galatea and Esther for the Duke of Chandos. As the 1730s progressed, oratorios made up a steadily expanding share of his output: Deborah and Athalia in 1733, Alexander’s Feast and Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day in 1736, Saul and Israel in Egypt in 1739, and most recently 1740’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, to texts adapted from John Milton by Charles Jennens.

So it was a seasoned veteran who determined that Jennens’s new libretto would be ideal for a forthcoming Dublin concert series scheduled to begin in late 1741. Handel started composing Messiah on August 22 and completed the manuscript on September 14—that’s 24 days, or three and a half weeks. Such speed has typically left commentators nonplussed if not downright confounded: how could anybody write a work of Messiah’s length in such an incredibly short time? That Messiah contains quite modest amounts of recycled or borrowed material only exacerbates commentarial befuddlement. Here and there awkward scansion betrays a repurposed melody, such as “For unto us a Child is born”—originally “Nò, di voi non vo fidarmi”, a duet from a recent cantata. But on the whole, Messiah is original work. So how did Handel write it so quickly?

The answer is far simpler than one might expect, and has nothing to do with romantic notions of divine inspiration, sleep deprivation, starvation, or tearstained manuscripts. Handel always composed quickly; speed is a basic survival skill for any hardworking theatrical composer in any era, and Handel was nothing if not a survivor. He was a past master at turning out yards upon yards of finished manuscript on schedule and to specification, and even considering the unusual challenges posed by Messiah, a libretto fundamentally unlike any he had ever set before, three and a half weeks from start to finish is impressive but altogether believable. Nor did he find the process particularly tiring, given that he wrote the gigantic oratorio Samson in a mere six weeks immediately after completing Messiah.

Speedy, yes; formulaic, no. Messiah is no dutiful progression of recitatives followed by arias but rather a skillful blend of vocal forms and genres, sometimes blurring the customary boundaries between recitative, aria, and chorus. Consider Part I Section 4, in which an instrumental Pifa, or pastoral serenade, introduces the angels announcing the Messiah’s birth to the shepherds, from Luke 2:8–14. Two traditional operatic secco recitatives (chords punctuate line endings) alternate with accompagnato style, the orchestra mimicking the fluttering of angel wings, leading directly into the chorus “Glory to God.” Part II’s “How beautiful are the feet” explores the possibility of blending chorus with soloist, especially in Handel’s original 1742 Dublin version, set as a duet with choral interjections. Throughout Messiah, Handel changes key, tempo, meter, and mode as best serves the text—such as the dramatic shifts throughout “But who may abide the day of his coming” in Part I. Saving the best for last, Handel treats the concluding numbers—44 through 47—as one sustained movement, almost in the manner of a recitative-free operatic finale.

For his Dublin series, booked in the city’s shiny new Music Hall on Fishamble Street, Handel planned an ambitious program of recent hits as well as old favorites. He presented L’Allegro on December 23, Acis and Galatea and the Ode on January 20. Esther and Alexander’s Feast followed on January 30 and February 13, respectively. For the March concert version of Imeneo the company was joined by singer/actress Susannah Cibber, shortly to achieve immortality as the first contralto ever to perform Messiah: that came about on Tuesday, April 13, 1742.

…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.
Thus the Dublin Journal, snagging the honors of posting the very first of uncountable Messiah reviews, on April 17, 1742. Another less formal appraisal came from the Reverend Dr. Delaney, so taken with Mrs. Cibber’s performance of “He was despisèd” that he exclaimed “Woman, for this, be all thy sins forgiven!” Dublin heard Messiah twice more, in May and June; Handel departed for London on August 17, determined to recapture the affection of a London public that had cooled towards him in recent years.

Handel returned to a London that was riding a wave of religious piety, thanks to the energies of John and Charles Wesley, Anglican revivalists whose influence ran towards the puritanical, in particular regarding that perennial scapegoat of evangelical reformers, the popular theater. Handel, ever sensitive to the overall public temperature, decided to hold off from introducing Messiah and chose instead to re-establish his London presence with the new Samson, given six performances starting on February 18th, 1743. Handel had become fed up with the verbal transgressions of Italian-born singers whose glutinous English diction morphed his libretti into a gummy mishmosh of vowels, so he preferred to cast actor-singers such as Susannah Cibber and Kitty Clive, whose clear diction and stage skills made up for any perceived vocal shortcomings. Despite a few brickbats tossed by an unamused Horace Walpole on just that issue (“he has hired all the goddesses from farces and the singers of Roast Beef from between the acts at both theaters”), the Samson performances were warmly received. Thus emboldened, Handel scheduled another series of six oratorio concerts featuring the same company; they would begin on March 16 with a repeat of Samson followed by a revival of L’Allegro on the 18th, with Messiah set for its London premiere on Wednesday, March 23. In a fit of uncertainty about potential backlash from Anglican right-wingers, Handel chose to advertise it only as ‘A New Sacred Oratorio’, rather than referring to it by name.

But the oratorio’s identity and subject matter were known about town nonetheless, and the same day (March 19) as Handel’s advertisement appeared, the Universal Spectator published a letter signed with the pseudonym ‘Philalethes’—i.e., lover of truth.

But it seems the Old Testament is not to be prophan’d alone, nor God by the Name of Jehovah only, but the New must be join’d with it, and God by the most sacred the most merciful name of Messiah; for I’m inform’d than an Oratorio call’d by that Name has already been perform’d in Ireland, and is soon to be perform’d here: What the Piece itself is, I know not, and therefore shall say nothing about it; but I must again ask, If the Place and Performers are fit?
The tone is respectful but the message is clear enough: the objection was not so much to the oratorio, but rather to the blending of theater with religion. Philalethes’s prissy squeamishness was not necessarily shared by all London, made clear enough by a tart rejoinder that appeared in the Spectator on March 31:

Cease, Zealots, cease to blame these Heav’nly Lays,
For Seraphs fit to sing Messiah’s Praise!
Nor, for your trivial Argument, assign,
‘The theatre not fit for Praise Divine.’

The issue was to dog London’s reception of Messiah for years to come. Whether the London premiere was even successful or not remains a bit uncertain, although the Earl of Shaftesbury states firmly that Messiah “was but indifferently relish’d.” Subsequent outings were few and far between during the 1740s—only twice for a 1745 revival, and then in 1749 a single Maundy Thursday performance at Covent Garden. But in May 1749 Handel arranged a midday charity concert for the “Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children”, better known as the Foundling Hospital. At this point fortune suddenly smiled on Handel’s undervalued oratorio. Handel had donated an organ to the Hospital’s chapel, and it was for the instrument’s dedication that he arranged a performance of the complete Messiah for May 1, 1750. The association with charity proved to be the oratorio’s turning point, as sellout crowds cheered. From then on anti-Messiah grumbling faded away. Handel would produce Messiah at both Covent Garden and the Foundling Hospital on a yearly basis for the rest of his life; he died on April 14, 1759 in the interval between the April and May concerts. Thus the Covent Garden performance of April 6, 1759 was Handel’s last time to hear his ugly duckling turned swan. By then, Messiah had become a cherished fixture of the Easter season; only during the 19th century did it become traditional Christmas fare.

There can be no single, absolutely authoritative version of Messiah. Handel was quick to revise, rewrite, and rework as necessary to meet the needs of a particular performer or venue, and from 1742 through the early 1750s the oratorio underwent numerous and often significant changes. To take one particularly notable example, for the 1743 London premiere Handel replaced Part I’s accompanied recitative “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them”—it leads up to the “Glory to God” chorus—with an arioso custom tailored for Kitty Clive. Since Mrs. Clive was not featured in Handel’s later performances, neither was the arioso; nowadays one encounters it only in the appendices of the better editions. Other performers necessitated other changes, for example the substantial revisions Handel made to accomodate the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, who performed the work from 1750 onwards. Although the Messiah revisions are convoluted and confusing (John Tobin devoted an entire monograph to the subject, 1964’s Handel at Work), a standardized Messiah has evolved that generally conforms to the score as Handel performed it in the 1750s. But the variants offer abundant opportunity for exploration, such as a recent recording that proudly declares itself as reproducing the 1742 Dublin original.

So, finally, the question: why Messiah? Why wasn’t Bach’s Christmas Oratorio adopted for sing-it-yourself festivals, or the St. Matthew Passion at Eastertime? Those pieces are revered and respected—but it is Messiah that has joined hands with Santa Claus, Messiah that everybody can whistle, Messiah that inspired the Hallelujah Hustle. That’s actually quite understandable, for alone of the great sacred choral works of modern music—Bach’s masses and passions, Mozart’s and Haydn’s masses, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and the Verdi Requiem—Messiah stands apart as having at least one foot in homey, popular theater. Messiah does not call upon us to repent, to anguish, or to ponder: its raison d’être is to offer reassurance. It was created to provide pleasure and entertainment, and if it managed to tuck a bit of spiritual renewal into the mix, so much the better. The theatricality that caused so much consternation in the 1740s has proven to be Messiah’s greatest strength in the long run. There’s something fundamentally friendly about it, something instinctively loveable and approachable. So it thrives—in churches, community centers, concert halls, and high school gymnasiums; on records, on the radio, in movies, on TV, even on YouTube. Eighteenth-century historian Charles Burney recounts an incident at the Dublin premiere in which orchestra leader Matthew Dubourg became hopelessly lost during a solo in one of the arias. Somehow he stumbled back to the proper key, at which point Handel bellowed out lustily: “You are welcome home, Mr. Dubourg!”

You are welcome home. That’s the key to Messiah—beloved, reassuring, and familiar, it offers living proof that great art is for all people, in all times, and in all places. The Roubiliac statue on Handel’s tomb in Westminster Abbey shows him holding the score to Messiah. He needs no other epitaph.


 "Handel's Messiah'" Scott Foglesong, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. 2013. Nov/Dec. 2013 <>.

The Compleat Messiah All Content Copyright © 2013 Bret D. Wheadon
All Rights Reserved.