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Handel's Messiah: An Extensively Fascinating History


The delight of Christmas is always enhanced by seeing the ballet The Nutcracker Suite or enjoying a Christmas music concert featuring either part or all of George Frideric Handel's Messiah. This oratorio, composed by Handel in 1741, with lyrics written by Charles Jennens, is a notable favorite of symphonies, choirs, and churches every holiday season. Many churches even print the lyrics to some of the movements to allow the congregation to participate with the choir on this great work.

George Frideric Handel

Handel leads the way for famous Baroque composers. This form of music originated in Italy, but as the 1700s progressed, other composers such as German natives Bach and Handel defined the core of the music, a study in contrasts between loud and soft, elaborate and delicate.

From the Organ to Operas

Handel (1685-1759) was born in Halle, Germany. Although his family was not particularly musical, Handel's musical prowess as a child was quite evident. However, his only formal training growing up was lessons that a local organist thought to provide him. By the age of 18, he crafted his first opera, Almira. Handel then moved to Italy to soak up the operatic influences of the time and was quite prolific, styling another five operas.

In 1710, he moved to London, where he spent the next 30 years composing a string of operatic works recognized by nobility and commoners alike, albeit not consistantly. Handel's fortunes ebbed and flowed like many musicians of his day, and if he didn't have favor with the current court, his work could languish for months or years at a time.

Expanding on Music and Lyrics

It was during a particular low point in his operatic career that he became fascinated with the oratorio. Webster's defines an oratorio as "a musical composition for voices and instruments, narrating usually a sacred text without costumes or dramatic action." After his death, fellow composers and critics would praise Handel's use of dramatic scenes and imaginative lyrics, so aptly demonstrated in the Messiah. Various biographical accounts credit Handel with greatly inspiring other composers, including Beethoven, Mozart, Hayden, Mendelssohn, and Rossini. In the history of classical music, Handel was the first composer to have a complete catalogue of his music available to others, similar to today's "box set", in the late 1700s. It included more than 40 volumes of his work.

The Story of Handel's Messiah

In 1741, while in his mid-50s and taking stock of his life and work, Handel was at the down end of court and public favor. Some stories even suggest he was on the edge of financial ruin. A deeply religious man, he was despondent when he started this new commission, intended for an Easter performance. Yet somehow Handel persevered to create, in less than a month, his most famous composition.

Handel worked with literary scholar Charles Jennens, an editor of Shakespeare's plays and frequent collaborator with Handel, to design the lyrical story, or libretto. The two believed this score to be very spiritual, so Jennens chose passages and allegories from both the Old and New Testaments, especially the King James Version.

Handel completed the score in 24 days. Gossips of the time said that his valet often found him weeping silently at his desk while he wrote, overcome by the majesty and beauty of the music that was flowing from him.

Surprisingly, considering the known depth of Handel's faith, the Messiah was one of his very few spiritual works.

Over time, there were many changes to the text of the composition, but the basic story is divided into three parts:

  • Part I: The coming of the Messiah indicates the full realization of God's plan for the world.
  • Part II: How Jesus sacrificed for mankind's redemption and the effect on the world as a result of mankind's rejection of and opposition to God's plan.
  • Part III: The Resurrection.

A more comprehensive view of the story in Handel's Messiah with full lyrics can be found at Christian Classics Etherial Library.

The premiere performance of Messiah took place in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The oratorio was an immediate hit.

The most famous movement of the oratorio is the Hallelujah chorus, which ends Part II. In many countries, it is customary for the audience to stand for this section of the performance. Tradition has it that King George II was so moved that he rose to his feet on first hearing the chorus. When the king stands, so do all his subjects in the room. Modern scholars may doubt the story, but the tradition of rising for the Hallelujah chorus continues.

Messing with the Messiah

In 1993, jazz and pop virtuoso Quincy Jones released "Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration". Jones asked friends Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau and the Boys Choir of Harlem, among others, to perform a gospel adaptation of the composition, and won a Grammy Award for his effort.

In October 2006, Eric Idle of the Monty Python comedy group announced the development of a new satirical stage show of Handel's Messiah titled Not the Messiah. Like the troupe's 1975 movie The Holy Grail, which laughingly told the story of a child born in the stable next to Jesus, Not the Messiah jokes around with a few of Handel's movements within the masterpiece.

The show is set to debut in Canada sometime in 2007, featuring a full orchestra, choir, and star soloists.


No one really knows what the original classical Messiah should sound like now, as scores of versions have been performed since the Dublin debut centuries ago. Each conductor takes a bit of liberty to fuse together his or her favorite pieces into a new concert while keeping the story intact.

In fact, audiences considered the famed Leonard Bernstein both notorious and brilliant for his 1956 version, featuring the New York Philarmonic and the Westminster Choir. Bernstein made a deliberate departure from the way the piece was usually performed, and his alleged reply to criticism was that the composition could, all kidding aside, "handle it." With this comment, Bernstein simply meant that Handel wrote the work to be interpreted, not duplicated.

The one part that remains in almost every performance is the "Hallelujah!" chorus. Even if only that movement is heard, nearly everyone can recognize it as part of the famous Handel's Messiah.

Handel's Messiah: An Extensively Fascinating History