Messiah (1741)
George Frideric Handel
Born February 23, 1685 in Halle, Germany
Died April 14, 1759 in London

George Frideric Handel’s sacred oratorio Messiah is without question one of the most popular works in the choral/orchestral repertoire today. In what has become an  indispensable Christmas tradition, amateur and professional musicians in almost every city and town throughout the country perform this work as a seasonal entertainment, and are rewarded with the satisfaction of taking part in one of the great communal musical events.  The text for Messiah was selected and compiled from the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible by Charles Jennens, an aristocrat and musician/poet of modest talent and exceptional ego. With Messiah, Jennens seems to have outdone himself in compiling a libretto with profound thematic coherence and an acute sensitivity to the inherent musical structure. With the finished libretto in his possession, Handel began setting it to music on August 22, 1741, and completed it 24 days later.  He was certainly working at white-hot speed, but this didn’t necessarily indicate he was in the throes of devotional fervor, as legend has often stated.  Handel composed many of his works in haste, and immediately after completing Messiah he wrote his next oratorio, Samson, in a similarly brief time-span.

The swiftness with which Handel composed Messiah can be partially explained by the musical borrowings from his own earlier compositions. For example, the melodies used in the two choruses “And He shall purify” and “His yoke is easy” were taken from an Italian chamber duet Handel had written earlier in 1741, “Quel fior che all’ alba ride.” Another secular duet, “Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi,” provided material for the famous chorus “For unto us a Child is born,” and the delightful “All we like sheep” borrows its wandering melismas from the same duet. A madrigal from 1712, “Se tu non lasci amore,” was transformed into a duet- chorus pair for the end of the oratorio, “O Death, where is thy sting,” and “But thanks be to God.”  In each instance, however, Handel does more than simply provide new words to old tunes. There is considerable re- composition, and any frivolity that remains from the light-hearted secular models is more than compensated for by the new material Handel masterfully worked into each chorus.

Over-enthusiastic “Handelists” in the 19th century perpetuated all sorts of legends  regarding the composition of Messiah. An often-repeated story relates how Handel’s servant found him sobbing with emotion while writing the famous “Hallelujah Chorus,” and the composer claiming, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself.” Supposedly Handel often left his meals untouched during this  compositional period, in an apparent display of devotional fasting and monastic self-denial. Present-day historians more familiar with Handel’s life and religious views tend to downplay these stories. It’s been suggested that if Handel did indeed have visions of Heaven while he composed Messiah, then it was only in the same manner in which he visualized the Roman pantheon of gods while he composed his opera Semele. Handel’s religious faith was sincere, but tended to be practical rather than mystical.

The tradition of performing Messiah at Christmas began later in the 18th century. Although the work was occasionally performed during Advent in Dublin, the oratorio was usually regarded in England as an entertainment for the penitential season of Lent, when performances of opera were banned. Messiah’s extended musical focus on Christ’s redeeming sacrifice also makes it particularly suitable for Passion Week and Holy Week, the periods when it was usually performed during Handel’s lifetime. But in 1791, the Cæcilian Society of London began its annual Christmas performances, and in 1818 the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston gave the work’s first complete  performance in the US on Christmas Day—establishing a tradition that continues to the present. The University Musical Society is a direct result of this tradition. In 1879, a  group of local university and townspeople gathered together to study Handel’s Messiah; this group assumed the name “The Choral Union” and, in 1880, the members of the Choral Union established the University Musical Society.

Following the pattern of Italian baroque opera, Messiah is divided into three parts. The first is concerned with prophecies of the Messiah’s coming, drawing heavily from  messianic texts in the Book of Isaiah, and concludes with an account of the Christmas story that mixes both Old and New Testament sources. The second part deals with Christ’s mission and sacrifice, culminating in the grand “Hallelujah Chorus.” The final, shortest section is an extended hymn of thanksgiving, an expression of faith beginning with Job’s statement “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and closing with the majestic chorus “Worthy is the Lamb” and a fugal “Amen.” In its focus on Christ’s sacrifice.

Messiah resembles the great Lutheran Passions of Schütz and Bach, but with much less direct narrative and more meditative commentary on the redemptive nature of the Messiah’s earthly mission. Handel scholar Robert Myers suggested that “logically Handel’s masterpiece should be called Redemption, for its author celebrates the idea of Redemption, rather than the personality of Christ.”  For the believer and non-believer alike, Handel’s Messiah is undoubtedly a majestic musical edifice.

But while a truly popular favorite around the world, Messiah aspires to more than just a reputation as an enjoyable musical event. After an early performance of the work in London, Lord Kinnoul congratulated Handel on the “noble entertainment” he had recently brought to the city. Handel is said to have replied, “My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.”  Certainly Messiah carries an ennobling message to people of all faiths and credos, proclaiming “peace on earth, and goodwill towards men”— a message that continues to be timely and universal.


"Program Notes"  Luke Howard.  2009.  UMS Choral Union Program Notes for Handel Messiah. <>

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