An Enduring Legacy

Messiah achieved the status of cultural icon during Handel’s lifetime and its impact has not diminished since the composer’s death. With a history so rich and far-reaching, it is hard to imagine that the oratorio caused a scandal in London. Even in Dublin there were obstacles to the first performance.

In a letter to a friend dated July 10, 1741, Charles Jennens, who had supplied Handel with texts for other oratorios, explains that he sent this collection of scriptural passages to Handel in the hope that the composer would set it. Jennens’ assembled text, from the Old and New
Testaments, does not tell a continuous story; rather, the text refers to the prophecy and birth of Christ (part 1), his death and resurrection (part 2), and the redemption and response of the believer (part 3).

Although Italy was the birthplace of the oratorio, Messiah and other Handel oratorios ensured the genre’s place in the history of music. The term oratorio originally referred to the building in Rome in which the faithful observed spiritual devotions, and then was used to describe the music performed as part of these services. Handel composed his first oratorio, La Resurrezione, while in Rome in 1708. In England, Handel returned to oratorio composition in the 1730s and 1740s. This time, however, he did not write in the Italian style, but fused the dramatic writing he had perfected in his operas with the English tradition of choral anthems.

In London in the early 1740s, Handel’s popularity as an opera composer was waning. It was during this time that two fortuitous events occurred: Jennens sent Handel the word book for Messiah and William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, invited Handel to Dublin to participate in a season of oratorio concerts to benefit local
charities. Handel seized the opportunity to present his works and set Jennens’ text in just 24 days. Dublin was a major cultural center at this time and received Handel with open arms. Anticipation for Handel’s new oratorio ran so high that an announcement in the Dublin Journal requested that ladies “would be pleased to come without hoops [in their skirts] …
making room for more company.”

In January 1742, the deans of St. Patrick’s Church and Christ Church, Dublin, were asked to allow their choir members to participate in what would be the premiere performance of Messiah. Christ Church agreed and at first it seemed that St. Patrick’s Church concurred. However, the dean of St. Patrick’s, Jonathan Swift, then revoked permission, claiming never to have granted it in the first place. This turn of events was potentially disastrous because both churches had to agree in order for the performance to proceed. Eventually, Swift did agree and the work was premiered in Dublin at the Music Hall on Fishamble Street on April 13, 1742.

Handel returned to London and, in 1743, gave that city’s premiere of A Sacred Oratorio; he refrained from titling the work Messiah because of objections to the use of Biblical texts in a concert setting. Some of these complaints were voiced in the press on the same day the
work was advertised. An anonymous letter to the Universal Spectator raised concerns about the use of Biblical texts and the propriety of theater performers, whose morals were assumed to be questionable, singing these sacred texts: “I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it [A Sacred Oratorio] in, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word.”

These first London performances were not as successful as those in Ireland; however, beginning with a 1750 concert to benefit the Foundling Hospital, Messiah

Hallelujah: To stand or not to stand?

The story goes that at one of the first performances of Messiah in London in 1743, King George II was so moved by the “Hallelujah” chorus that he sprung to his feet. In deference
to their sovereign, the crowd was obliged to rise along with the king, and all remained standing through the end of the chorus. This sparked a tradition of standing for the
“Hallelujah” chorus. It is a tradition that has survived centuries. Joseph Haydn is said to
have participated during a visit to London. Throughout the world, audiences regularly take to their feet at the opening bars of the “Hallelujah” chorus.
As it often goes with traditions, however, the true story remains unclear. There is not much evidence that anything like that actually happened in 1743. The first mention of the tradition came in 1780, nearly 40 years after it was said to have started. There are a great deal of
first-hand accounts of Messiah performances from Handel’s lifetime, but none refers to the audience rising en masse for the “Hallelujah”of conductors—including Robert Shaw and Christopher Hogwood—have argued against the tradition, suggesting it is a distraction from
Handel’s powerful opening to the chorus.

Both practices remain very common among Boston’s music lovers. We invite you to make your own choice on how to honor Handel’s outstanding musical legacy chorus. In recent decades, a number of performances became annual events in London. Objections to Handel’s sacred oratorio had subsided and were replaced with descriptions similar to that written by Miss Catherine Talbot in 1756: “The only public place I have been to this winter was to hear the Messiah, nor can there be a nobler entertainment.”  Soon, performances of the oratorio were mounted in the Old and New Worlds.

For the 1742 premiere of Messiah in Dublin, it is estimated that Handel had a combined ensemble of about 50 performers, with almost the same number of vocalists as instrumentalists.  Experienced singers from the better church choirs made up the chorus, and two di!erent soloists shared the roles for each voice part. While the chorus had no female singers, the soprano and alto solo parts were sung by women.  For this performance, Handel may have reworked several soprano solos for Mrs. Susanna Cibber, a well-known actress and alto. One story relates that Mrs. Cibber’s performance of “He was despised” was so moving that one person in the audience shouted, “For this thy sins be forgiven!”

For the London performances, Handel had more singers available to him. He continued to divide the solo numbers between two soloists who would have sung the choruses. After Handel’s death, Messiah performances generally followed a similar pattern. In 1771, at one of the regular performances to benefit the Foundling Hospital, the professional chorus of 30 was augmented by 26 volunteer singers. This is the first known performance of Messiah with a volunteer chorus and the first time the chorus was significantly larger than the orchestra.

The trend of larger choruses, and eventually a larger orchestra to match it, reached new heights with a Westminster Abbey performance of Messiah in 1784. The organizers of this Handel tribute, a five-day festival, wanted to mount performances “on such a scale of
magnificence, as could not be equaled in any part of the world.” They achieved this goal by assembling over 250 singers and a matching number of instrumentalists.

The accuracy of playing impressed music chronicler Charles Burney, who wrote, “When all the wheels of that huge machine, the Orchestra, were in motion, the e!ect resembled a clock-work in everything, but want of feeling and expression.” The excitement generated by Messiah at the 1784 Handel Commemoration inspired other responses as well.  Reverend John Newton, Rector of St. Mary, Woolnorth in London, based a series of 50 sermons on the texts of the oratorio, collectively titled Expository Discourses on the Series of Scriptural
Passages which form the subject of the Celebrated Oratorio of Handel. Newton, who was no lover of Handel’s music and who felt that the oratorio trivialized scripture to a certain extent, concluded his sermons by suggesting “that the next time you hear the Messiah, God may bring something that you have heard in the course of these sermons … to your remembrance.” Still others held a di!erent view, such as Abigail Adams, in reaction to a performance of Messiah in 1785 (see “Lasting Impressions of Messiah”).

The enduring appeal of Messiah lies in the sum of its parts; each solo or chorus is beautiful on its own, but together the numbers create a whole that speaks to each individual in a unique way. Although Jennens, too, expressed disappointment with Handel’s setting of his Scripture collection, posterity has determined that Handel did indeed fulfill Jennens’ wish that the composer “lay his whole Genius and Skill upon it, … as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”

The First 100 Years of Messiah

1741 Charles Jennens sends Handel the word book for Messiah. Handel composes the oratorio between Saturday, August 22 and Monday, September 14. Some music is adapted from other works.

1742 Dublin premiere with a combined ensemble of about 50 singers and players. The concert benefits three charities (Relief of the Prisoners in several Gaols, the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay). The oratorio continues to be performed in Dublin, often during the Christmas season.

1743 First London performance, at Covent Garden. Handel titles the work A Sacred
Oratorio to quell objections from the clerical community.

1745 First London performance using the title Messiah.

1750 First performance to benefit the Foundling Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children, founded in 1740 by Captain Thomas Coram, known today as The Thomas Coram Foundation. Handel conducts Messiah annually at the
Foundling Hospital for the remainder of his life. Handel conducts from the organ and performs organ concertos during the intermissions.

1770 Overture and 16 numbers performed in New York.

1773 Portions performed at Boston’s Faneuil Hall in honor of King George III.

1784 First Handel commemoration at Westminster Abbey, including two performances of Messiah. With about 600 performers, this is the beginning of large-scale Messiah

1786 Selections sung at concerts in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Charleston.

1789 Mozart creates an updated version for performance in Vienna by the Gesellschaft der Associierten Cavaliere.

1803 First performance in Halle, Handel’s birthplace.

1815 Handel and Haydn Society performs selections from Messiah in its first public
performance at King’s Chapel in Boston.

1818 Handel and Haydn Society gives the first performance of the complete Messiah in
the United States on December 25.

1857 Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, sings Messiah in Halle.

Lasting Impressions of Messiah

In 1784, the first Handel Commemoration was held at Westminster Abbey. One year later,
Abigail Adams and her husband, John, now Ambassador to England, moved to London. Abigail, a prolific correspondent, wrote her impressions upon hearing Messiah in 1785:
“... The most powerfull [sic] e!ects of Musick which I ever experienced, was at Westminster Abbey. The place itself is well calculated to excite solemnity, not only from its ancient and venerable appearance, but from the dignified Dust, Marble and Monuments it contains. Last year it was fitted up with seats and an organ loft su"ciently large to contain six hundred
Musicians, which were collected from this and other Countries. This Year the Musick was repeated. It is call’d the celebration of Handles [sic] Musick. The sums collected are deposited and the income is appropriated to the supported of decayed Musicians. There
were 5 days set apart for the di!erent performances. I was at the piece call’d the Messiah, and tho a Guinea a ticket, I am sure I never spent one with more satisfaction. It is impossible
to describe to you the Solemnity and dignity of the Scene. When it came to the part, the Hallelujah, the whole assembly rose and all the Musicians, every person uncoverd. Only conceive six hundred voices and instruments perfectly chording in one word and one sound! I could scarcely believe myself an inhabitant of Earth. I was one continued shudder from the beginning to the end of the performance.”

–Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Cranch
London, September 2, 1785
Grosvenor Square


 "An Enduring Legacy'" Teresa M. Neff, PhD, Handel and Haydn Society. 2012. 2012. <>.

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