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Background – Handel and the Messiah

Messiah (HWV 56) is an English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer (which are worded slightly differently from their King James counterparts).

Smithsonian Magazine described the opening night – “George Frideric Handel’s Messiah was originally an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses “without Hoops” in order to make “Room for more company.” Handel’s superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then embroiled in a scandalous divorce.”

“The men and women in attendance sat mesmerized from the moment the tenor followed the mournful string overture with his piercing opening line: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Soloists alternated with wave upon wave of chorus, until, near the midway point, Cibber intoned: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” So moved was the Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

Why Dublin and not London ? There were several reasons for the choice of Dublin for Messiah’s debut. Handel had been downcast by the apathetic reception that London audiences had given his works the previous season. He did not want to risk another critical failure, especially with such an unorthodox piece. Other Handel oratorios had strong plots anchored by dramatic confrontations between leading characters. But Messiah offered the loosest of narratives: the first part prophesied the birth of Jesus Christ; the second exalted his sacrifice for humankind; and the final section heralded his Resurrection.

Dublin was one of the fastest-growing, most prosperous cities in Europe, with a wealthy elite eager to display its sophistication and the economic clout to stage a major cultural event.

Messiah’s success in Dublin was in fact quickly repeated in London. It took time for Messiah to find its niche as a Christmas favorite. “There is so much fine Easter music—Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, most especially—and so little great sacral music written for Christmas,” says Cummings. “But the whole first part of Messiah is about the birth of Christ.” By the early 19th century, performances of Messiah had become an even stronger Yuletide tradition in the United States than in Britain.

So what type of piece is an oratorio ?

An oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists. Like most operas, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an instrumental ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. However, opera is musical theatre, while oratorio is strictly a concert piece – though oratorios are sometimes staged as operas, and operas are sometimes presented in concert form. In an oratorio the choir often plays a central role, and there is generally little or no interaction between the characters, and no props or elaborate costumes.

A particularly important difference is in the typical subject matter of the text. Opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder, whereas the plot of an oratorio often deals with sacred topics, making it appropriate for performance in the church. Protestant composers took their stories from the Bible, while Catholic composers looked to the lives of saints, as well as to Biblical topics. Oratorios became extremely popular in early 17th-century Italy partly because of the success of opera and the Catholic Church’s prohibition of spectacles during Lent. Oratorios became the main choice of music during that period for opera audiences.

Handel’s Messiah is different from many of his other oratorios. Messiah is not a story out of usually the Old Testament made up into poetry. Messiah has– instead of having poetical texts, it has texts that are drawn directly from the Bible or from the Book of Common Prayer, the service book of the Church of England.

It’s designed for English or Anglican, anyway, audience members. And it’s not poetical, therefore. A man named Charles Jennens extracted texts from the Bible.

Most of the texts are from the Old Testament, but they’re meant to reflect also prophecies of the New Testament. So when it says “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed–“the words come from the prophet Isaiah– yes, it’s talking about– it’s a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, but it’s all in very beautiful biblical prose, not poetry. Also, messiah essentially doesn’t have characters the way almost all of Handel’s other oratorios do, where David kills Goliath and King Saul is jealous because the people love David and so forth. There are not any characters in Messiah with a couple of really interesting exceptions.

George Frideric Handel in 1733, by Balthasar Denner (1685–1749)

George Frideric Handel ( February 23, 1685- April 14, 1759) was a German-born British Baroque composer, famous for his operas, oratorios, anthems and organ concertos.

He wa born in 1685 in Germany in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg, to Georg Händel and Dorothea Taust. His father, 63 when his son was born, was an eminent barber-surgeon who served to the court of Saxe-Weissenfels and the Margraviate of Brandenburg. His father wanted him to study law

According to Handel’s first biographer, John Mainwaring, he “had discovered such a strong propensity to Music, that his father who always intended him for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. He strictly forbade him to meddle with any musical instrument but Handel found means to get a little clavichord privately conveyed to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep”. At an early age Handel became a skillful performer on the harpsichord and pipe organ

An acquaintance, the Duke of Weissenfels, heard Handel, then barely 11, playing the organ. The nobleman’s recognition of the boy’s genius likely influenced the doctor’s decision to allow his son to become a musician. By 18, Handel had composed his first opera, Almira, initially performed in Hamburg in 1705. During the next five years, he was employed as a musician, composer and conductor at courts and churches in Rome, Florence, Naples and Venice, as well as in Germany, where the Elector of Hanover, the future King George I of England, was briefly his patron.

In 1710, Handel became Kapellmeister to German prince George, Elector of Hanover, who in 1714 would become King George I of Great Britain. He visited Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici and her husband in Düsseldorf on his way to London in 1710. With his opera Rinaldo, based on La Gerusalemme Liberata by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, Handel enjoyed great success, although it was composed quickly, with many borrowings from his older Italian works. This work contains one of Handel’s favourite arias, Cara sposa, amante cara, and the famous Lascia ch’io pianga.

In 1712, Handel decided to settle permanently in England. He received a yearly income of £200 from Queen Anne after composing for her the Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, first performed in 1713

The Smithsonian distinguishes Handel from Bach – “Handel’s restless independence contrasted him with the other great composer of the age, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), whom he did not meet. “Bach never moved out of the cocoon of court patronage or church employment,” says Harry Bicket, a conductor, harpsichordist and London-based director of The English Concert chamber orchestra. Handel, on the other hand, rarely attached himself to any benefactor for long, although he would compose court music when asked. He wrote The Water Music (1717), one of the few of his pieces other than Messiah recognizable to the average concertgoer, for George I, to be performed for the monarch as His Majesty’s barge navigated through a London canal on a summer evening. “But [Handel] didn’t hang around palace antechambers waiting for his lordship or royal highness,” says Jonathan Keates, author of Handel: The Man and his Music.

Handel’s reputation in England had been established through his compositions of Italian opera which he had introduced to London in 1711 with Rinaldo. He had subsequently written and presented more than 40 such operas in London’s theatres. By 1741, Handel’s pre-eminence in British music was evident from the honors he had accumulated, including: a pension from the court of King George II, the office of Composer of Musick for the Chapel Royal and—most unusually for a living person—a statue erected in his honor, in Vauxhall Gardens.

He turned to English oratorio in the 1730s, in response to changes in public taste. The popular success of John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch’s The Beggar’s Opera (first performed in 1728) had heralded a spate of English-language ballad-operas that mocked the pretensions of Italian opera. With box-office receipts falling, Handel’s productions were increasingly reliant on private subsidies from the nobility, and such funding became harder to obtain after the launch in 1730 of the “Opera of the Nobility”—a rival company to his own. Handel overcame this challenge, but in order to do so he spent large sums of his own money.

The emotional and financial toll of producing operas, as well as changing audience tastes, contributed to Handel’s growing interest in sacred oratorios—which required neither elaborate scenery nor foreign stars—including, eventually, Messiah. “With oratorios, Handel could be more his own master,” says Jonathan Keates.

His first venture into English oratorio had been Esther which was written and performed for a private patron in about 1718. In 1732 Handel brought a revised and expanded version of Esther to the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, where members of the royal family attended a glittering premiere on 6 May. Its success encouraged Handel to write two more oratorios (Deborah and Athalia), and all three oratorios were performed to large and appreciative audiences at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in the summer of 1733. Undergraduates reportedly sold their furniture to raise the money for the five-shilling tickets.

Although future prospects for Italian operas in London declined during the 1730s, Handel remained committed to the genre; however he began to introduce English-language oratorios as occasional alternatives to his staged works.

In 1735 Handel received the text for a new oratorio named Saul from its librettist Charles Jennens, a wealthy landowner with musical and literary interests. Because Handel’s main creative concern was still with opera, he did not write the music for Saul until 1738, in preparation for his 1738–39 theatrical season. The work opened at the King’s Theatre in January 1739 to a warm reception, and was quickly followed by the less successful oratorio Israel in Egypt (which may also have come from Jennens).

Although Handel continued to write and present operas, the trend towards English-language productions became irresistible as the decade ended, and after three performances of his last Italian opera Deidamia in January and February 1741, he abandoned the genre. In July 1741 Jennens sent him a new libretto for an oratorio, and in a letter dated 10 July to his friend Edward Holdsworth, Jennens wrote: “I hope [Handel] 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”

Messiah was his sixth work in this genre. Although its structure resembles that of conventional opera, it is not in dramatic form; there are no impersonations of characters and very little direct speech. Instead, Jennens’s text is an extended reflection on Jesus Christ as Messiah, moving from the prophetic phrases of Isaiah and others, through the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Christ to his ultimate glorification in heaven.

Handel wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual numbers. His choice of instruments is very limited. So far as we can tell, it’s just for strings with trumpets and drums occasionally for big, rousing moments. Most of his other oratorios had richer orchestration, sometimes with flutes, almost always with horns and oboes and bassoons that don’t appear in the score of Messiah, even though they may have been added in. So it’s different, and it also may have been something that particularly moved Handel. He always used it for charitable purposes. The first performance in Dublin was for a debtor’s prison and for a hospital. And on a regular basis, he gave performances later on in London for an orphanage called the Foundling Hospital for the benefit of this thing.

In the years after his death, the work was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. In other efforts to update it, its orchestration was revised and amplified by (among others) Mozart. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the trend has been towards authenticity; most contemporary performances show a greater fidelity towards Handel’s original intentions, although “big Messiah” productions continue to be mounted.

Background of Messiah


In the Christian tradition, the figure of the “Messiah” or redeemer is identified with the person of Jesus, known by his followers as the Christ or “Jesus Christ”. Handel’s Messiah has been described by the early-music scholar Richard Luckett as “a commentary on [Jesus Christ’s] Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension”, beginning with God’s promises as spoken by the prophets and ending with Christ’s glorification in heaven.

In contrast with most of Handel’s oratorios, the singers in Messiah do not assume dramatic roles, there is no single, dominant narrative voice, and very little use is made of quoted speech. In his libretto, Jennens’s intention was not to dramatise the life and teachings of Jesus, but to acclaim the “Mystery of Godliness”,] using a compilation of extracts from the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, and from the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer (which are worded slightly differently than their King James counterparts).

The three-part structure of the work approximates to that of Handel’s three-act operas, with the “parts” subdivided by Jennens into “scenes”. Each scene is a collection of individual numbers or “movements” which take the form of recitatives, arias and choruses. There are two instrumental numbers, the opening Sinfony in the style of a French overture, and the pastoral Pifa, often called the “pastoral symphony”, at the mid-point of Part I.

In Part I, the Messiah’s coming and the Virgin Birth are predicted by the Old Testament prophets. The annunciation to the shepherds of the birth of the Christ is represented in the words of St Luke’s Gospel. Part II covers Christ’s Passion and his death, his Resurrection and Ascension, the first spreading of the Gospel through the world, and a definitive statement of God’s glory summarized in the “Hallelujah”. Part III begins with the promise of Redemption, followed by a prediction of the Day of Judgment and the “general Resurrection”, ending with the final victory over sin and death and the acclamation of Christ. According to the musicologist Donald Burrows, much of the text is so allusive as to be largely incomprehensible to those ignorant of the biblical accounts. For the benefit of his audiences, Jennens printed and issued a pamphlet explaining the reasons for his choices of scriptural selections.


The music for Messiah was completed in 24 days of swift composition. “He would literally write from morning to night,” says Sarah Bardwell of the Handel House Museum in London. Having received Jennens’s text some time after 10 July 1741, Handel began work on it on 22 August. His records show that he had completed Part I in outline by 28 August, Part II by 6 September and Part III by 12 September, followed by two days of “filling up” to produce the finished work on 14 September. The autograph score’s 259 pages show some signs of haste such as blots, scratchings-out, unfilled bars and other uncorrected errors, but according to the music scholar Richard Luckett the number of errors is remarkably small in a document of this length.

At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote the letters “SDG”—Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone the glory”. This inscription, taken with the speed of composition, has encouraged belief in the apocryphal story that Handel wrote the music in a fervour of divine inspiration in which, as he wrote the “Hallelujah” chorus, “he saw all heaven before him”. In fact, as Burrows points out, many of Handel’s operas, of comparable length and structure to Messiah, were composed within similar timescales between theatrical seasons.

The effort of writing so much music in so short a time was not unusual for Handel and his contemporaries; Handel commenced his next oratorio, Samson, within a week of finishing Messiah, and completed his draft of this new work in a month. In accordance with his frequent practice when writing new works, Handel adapted existing compositions for use in Messiah, in this case drawing on two recently completed Italian duets and one written twenty years previously. Thus, Se tu non lasci amore from 1722 became the basis of “O Death, where is thy sting?”; “His yoke is easy” and “And he shall purify” were drawn from Quel fior che alla’ride (July 1741), “Unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep” from Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi (July 1741). Handel’s instrumentation in the score is often imprecise, again in line with contemporary convention, where the use of certain instruments and combinations was assumed and did not need to be written down by the composer; later copyists would fill in the details.

Before the first performance Handel made numerous revisions to his manuscript score, in part to match the forces available for the 1742 Dublin premiere; it is probable that his originally conceived version of the work was not performed in his lifetime.  Between 1742 and 1754 he continued to revise and recompose individual movements, sometimes to suit the requirements of particular singers. The first published score of Messiah was issued in 1767, eight years after Handel’s death, though this was based on relatively early manuscripts and included none of Handel’s later revisions.

So what was Handel like? (From the Smithsonian):

“Despite his fame, Handel’s inner life remains enigmatic. “We know far more about the environment in which he lived and the sort of people he knew than about his private life,” Keates adds. Part of the explanation lies in the dearth of personal letters. We must rely on contradictory descriptions of Handel by admirers and detractors, whose opinions were colored by the musical rivalries of 1700s London.

“Although he neither married nor was known to have had a long-lasting romantic relationship, Handel was pursued by various young women and a leading Italian soprano, Vittoria Tarquini, according to accounts by his contemporaries. Intensely loyal to friends and colleagues, he was capable of appalling temper outbursts. Because of a dispute over seating in an orchestra pit, he fought a near-fatal duel with a fellow composer and musician, Johann Mattheson, whose sword thrust was blunted by a metal button on Handel’s coat. Yet the two remained close friends for years afterward. During rehearsals at a London opera house with Francesca Cuzzoni, Handel grew so infuriated by her refusal to follow his every instruction that he grabbed her by the waist and threatened to hurl her out an open window. “I know well that you are a real she-devil, but I will have you know that I am Beelzebub!” he screamed at the terrified soprano.

“Handel, who grew increasingly obese over the years, certainly had an intimidating physique. “He paid more attention to [food] than is becoming to any man,” wrote Handel’s earliest biographer, John Mainwaring, in 1760. Artist Joseph Goupy, who designed scenery for Handel operas, complained that he was served a meager dinner at the composer’s home in 1745; only afterward did he discover his host in the next room, secretly gorging on “claret and French dishes.” The irate Goupy produced a caricature of Handel at an organ keyboard, his face contorted into a pig snout, surrounded by fowl, wine bottles and oysters strewn at his feet.

“He may have been mean with food, but not with money,” says Keates. Amassing a fortune through his music and shrewd investments in London’s burgeoning stock market, Handel donated munificently to orphans, retired musicians and the ill. (He gave his portion of his Messiah debut proceeds to a debtors’ prison and hospital in Dublin.) A sense of humanity imbues his music as well—a point often made by conductors who compare Handel with Bach. But where Bach’s oratorios exalted God, Handel was more concerned with the feelings of mortals. “Even when the subject of his work is religious, Handel is writing about the human response to the divine,” says conductor Bicket. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Messiah. “The feelings of joy you get from the Hallelujah choruses are second to none,” says conductor Cummings. “And how can anybody resist the Amen chorus at the end? It will always lift your spirits if you are feeling down.”