Handel's Messiah

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On April 13, 1742, the music hall in Dublin resounded to the applause of an enthusiastic audience. For the first time in history, the great musical oratorio, Messiah, had been presented and the conductor on that occasion was none other than the composer himself, George Frederic Handel. Since then the Messiah has been performed time and again throughout the world. Thousands have been enthralled by its majestic choruses and moving solos.

Handel was born in Halle, Germany, in 1685, within a month of Johann Sebastian Bach. Handel’s parents had decided that he pursue a career as an Attorney of Law and he received an early education to that end. Since he had no interest in law and was a born musician, he was finally permitted to develop his talent. English music would have suffered a great loss had Handel’s genius been denied.

Handel traveled Europe enjoying considerable success from the various operas he composed. In 1711 he immigrated to England and became a naturalized British subject in 1726. His London years were up and down so much that he considered returning to Germany. Successful in music, he was a failure in business. A financial loss in 1737 brought on an attack of paralysis that led him to abandon opera for the great oratorios for which he is now known.

Handel worked on the Messiah at great speed, completing the work within 24 days without once leaving the house. During this time, his servant brought him food and quite often when he returned the meal was untouched. While writing the Hallelujah Chorus, his servant discovered Handel with tears in his eyes. He exclaimed, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself!” As Newman Flower (author of George Frederic Handel: His Personality and his Times) observed, “Considering the immensity of the work and the short time involved in putting it to paper, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of musical composition.”

The Messiah was first performed in Dublin at the Foundling Hospital in 1742, and immediately received audience accolades. To ensure enough room for the large audience, it was requested that “The favour of the ladies not to come with hoops this day to the music hall in Fishamble Street. The gentlemen are desired to come without their swords.”

The Dublin newspaper reported the event thusly: “…The best judges allowed it to be the most finished work of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic, and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear…” Proceeds from this first and future performances of the Messiah were designated to charities.

Messiah, a Hebrew work, is usually translated in the New Testament as Christ. It means ‘the Anointed’ of God. The oratorio aims to present the life and mission of the Lord Jesus Christ as taken from scriptural texts. The oratorio dramatizes the two advents of Christ. First when he appeared as the Lamb of God, for the sin of the world, 1,900 years ago (John 1:29), and second when he shall again appear to set up on earth the Kingdom of his Father, and to reign at Jerusalem over a world at peace (Acts 1:11; 3:19-21; Rev. 1:7; Jer. 3:17; Luke 1:32-33). The well known and universally acclaimed Hallelujah Chorus celebrates this latter event.

The Hallelujah Chorus is intended as a hymn of praise commemorating the time when the Messiah shall reign as King on earth. In recognition of this fact, the custom of the audience standing dates from the time of King George I. So moved was the King that he rose to his feet, and the audience rose with him. This has remained a custom of people in English-speaking countries. In following this tradition, we acknowledge the Messiah is yet to return to “take up his great power and reign” as “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

Handel died in 1759 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He was recognized in England and by many in Germany as the greatest composer of his day. The wide range of expression at his command is shown not only in his operas, with their rich and varied arias, but also in the form he created: the English oratorio. He had a vivid sense of drama but, above all, he had a resource and originality of invention. The extraordinary variety of his music in which melodic beauty, boldness, and humor all play a part, places him and J.S. Bach as the masters of the Baroque era.

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Last updated: 11/10/11.