Handel’s Messiah is one of those masterpieces we like to call “timeless” because we are so used to them that it is sometimes hard to imagine that they weren’t always with us.  Also, being by far the composer’s most popular composition, some people might assume it is the quintessential Handel oratorio. The truth, however, is that Messiah is very much a product of its time, and it is actually a rather unusual case among Handel’s works. Handel turned to oratorio-writing in the 1730s, after the Italian opera company he had founded and directed in London was forced out of business by the competition. Replacing secular subject matters by sacred ones was not in itself the most far-reaching element of change – after all, Italian opera and Italian oratorio were stylistically not very far removed.  More important was the switch from the Italian language to English, which directly affected musical style – not to mention the fact that Handel now had to rely on local singers, not great stars imported from the continent.

Handel had practically no precedents to build on when he wrote his first English oratorios. His first essay in the new genre was Esther, first conceived as a shorter work back in 1718, during what was only a temporary break in Handel’s Italian opera production. Esther was considerably revised and expanded for a 1732 revival, now quickly followed by Deborah, Athalia, Saul, and Israel in Egypt. All these oratorios (as well as many of the later ones) are based on dramatic stories from the Old Testament, with the exception of Athalia, which is an adaptation of a tragedy by Racine. Messiah is unusual in that it is based on both the New and the Old Testaments, and that it has no dramatic action or named characters: it is a retelling of the life of Christ through a judicious selection of Bible verses, compiled for Handel by a gentleman named Charles Jennens. (A son of a wealthy family who owned large estates in the country, Jennens devoted himself to literary, artistic, and political pursuits in London. A great admirer of Handel’s music, he served the composer as librettist not only in Messiah but in Saul, Belshazzar and, possibly, Israel in Egypt as well.)  Messiah is also the only Handel oratorio whose first performance took place outside England (namely, in Dublin, Ireland), although we don’t know for sure whether it had been intended for Handel’s Dublin season from the start. What we do know is that Handel left London for Dublin about two months after completing Messiah, and stayed there for nine entire months, during which time he gave two full subscription series of six concerts each, consisting of earlier oratiorios and even one of Handel’s Italian operas in concert form.
Messiah, performed on April 13, 1742 at the end of the season, completed this “baker’s dozen” of Dublin concerts.

The capital of English-dominated Ireland had a fairly rich artistic scene at the time, with considerable local talent complemented by artists coming from London. Handel found a grateful and receptive audience there, packing a “Great Music Hall” on Fishamble Street that was not nearly large enough for an event of this magnitude. The most prominent members of Dublin high society were all there, among a crowd of about 700 people. The Dublin Journal, which had called the work “the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard” after the public dress rehearsal, wrote after the official premiere: 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.

Soon after his return to London, Handel produced Messiah at Covent Garden and, due to the great success, revived it every few years for the rest of his life. He led his final Messiah performance on April 6, 1759, eight days before his death and long since completely blind.  After his death, the tradition of annual Messiah performances continued, and spread to the European continent and the United States. It never needed to be revived, for it never went out of fashion during the 267 years of its existence.

From 1742 until his death, Handel made many revisions in the score, transposing arias to different vocal ranges, even deleting numbers and adding new ones, so that the work now exists in a multitude of versions, forcing performers to make choices that are not always easy. The Watkins Shaw edition, based on a careful study of all sources, is the most widely
used version today.

The three parts of Messiah correspond to Nativity, Passion and Resurrection, making the work equally suitable for performance during the Lenten and Easter season (in fact, the first performance took place about two weeks after Easter in 1742). In this country, Messiah has long been a special Christmas tradition, with churches often presenting performances or sing-alongs of Part I alone. Yet the work only takes its full meaning in its entirety, surveying Christ’s entire life story in which birth, death and eternal life become inseparable.

After the overture, the first half of Part I deals with “God’s Promise.” Within that section, the joyful news (“Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted”) is contrasted with the fearful challenge this news may represent to the world (“But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?”). Feelings of joy again predominate in “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings in Zion.” Then, after an image of “the people that walked in darkness” seeing “a great light,” the “Promise” section
culminates in the proclamation of the “Wonderful Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Part I then continues with the famous Pifa or “Pastoral Symphony,” an instrumental movement symbolizing the birth of the Child, followed by the angels’ hymn of praise. The message of joy and comfort is reiterated as Part I closes.  This message contrasts dramatically with the opening of Part II, where the Lamb of God is seen suffering, “despised and rejected,” and the world, “gone astray like sheep,” becomes aware of the price of redemption. Part II then reflects on the Passion without literally recounting its events, anticipates Resurrection and – after a powerful portrayal of the forces of evil – moves on to the final defeat of those forces and the proclamation of victory in the celebrated Hallelujah chorus.

The main motive of Part III is the conquest of Death by Life, expressed in turn through an individual’s confession of faith (“I Know that My Redeemer Liveth”), a communal statement (“Since By Man Came Death”) and the glorious announcement of Judgment Day complete with the angel’s trumpet (“The Trumpet Shall Sound”). One last time we turn to a personal reflection in the aria “If God Be For Us,” before the chorus makes its final proclamation in “Worthy Is the Lamb.” We see, then, how Jennens’s Biblical collage makes both theological and dramatic sense as it provides a logical train of thought by arranging a large number of religious topics in a unified and highly compelling sequence. This dramatic logic, which makes up for the absence of a “plot” in the conventional sense, enabled Handel to write music that illustrated each topic, but also did infinitely more than that. One could say that the text takes its full meaning only when joined by the music.  Handel placed his contrapuntal virtuosity in the service of drama in the great choral fugues (“And With His Stripes,” and “He Trusted in God,” and bent the strict rules of fugue-writing in numerous ways to suit his dramatic purpose. Often, as in “And He Shall Purify” or “For Unto Us A Child Is Born,” the first voice drops out when the second, imitating voice enters. It is an unorthodox practice that reduces the counterpoint and even eliminates it completely at times, yet it emphasizes single parts from the chorus almost as if they were individual characters in a drama. The arias have obvious links to the style of Italian opera in which Handel worked for so many years; yet Handel tended to move away from the standard “da-capo” form which, with its insistence on repeating the entire first half after the middle section, could impede the dramatic flow. There is only one aria with a full repeat of its first section: “He was despised.” “The Trumpet Shall Sound” has an almost full repeat, with the instrumental introduction omitted the second time.

Maybe the most unique quality of the music of Messiah is its combination of religious feeling with uncommon vigor and natural robustness. Despite moments of grief and tragedy which are by no means downplayed in the music, Messiah, from the opening Overture to the final “Amen,” really bursts with life. Which may well be one of the reasons why we don’t want to be without this work, especially during a time of year traditionally associated with the celebration of life and renewal.

Those who desire a detailed, movement-by-movement description of Messiah can be referred to Jens Peter Larsen’s classic study (Handel’s Messiah: Origins, Composition, Sources. 2nd edition: New York: W. W. Norton, 1972). Donald Burrows published a more recent and concise discussion of the work in the Cambridge Music Handbook Series (1991). Richard Luckett’s Handel’s Messiah: A Celebration (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1992) is a richly illustrated and highly readable account, while Thomas F. Kelly tells the story of the first performance based on a large number of contemporary documents in his delightful book First Nights: Five Musical Premieres (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).


"Messiah Program Notes" Anonymous. Pacific Symphony.  <>

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