Handel's Messiah - HWV 56 (1741)

A Classical Music Profile of Handel's Messiah

George Frederic Handel
George Frederic Handel (1685-1759). Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Facts About Handel's Messiah:

  • George Frideric Handel's Messiah is more often than not referred to as The Messiah. Although it is officially incorrect and should simply be called Messiah, it is widely accepted and commonly used.
  • Handel's Messiah was intended as a thought-provoking work for Easter and Lent, but it became more of a Christmastime tradition.
  • Messiah became so popular during the 19th century, musicians began making their performances larger than Handel had intended by writing parts for additional instruments and bringing in greater numbers of performers, while unintentionally losing the core of the original work.

Origins of Handel's Messiah

The creation of Handel's Messiah was actually induced by Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens. Jennens expressed in a letter to his friend that he wanted to create a Scriptural anthology set to music by Handel. Jennens' desire quickly turned into reality when Handel composed the entire work in only twenty-four days. Jennens wished for a London debut in the days leading to Easter, however, a doubtful Handel anticipated such a wish would not be granted. A year after the work was completed, Handel received an invitation to perform his music in Dublin to which he joyously agreed.

About the Librettist and Libretto

Charles Jennens, a literary scholar, editor of Shakespeare's plays, and an admirer of Handel's work, received his education from Balliol College, Oxford. Before working on Messiah, Jennens had previously worked with Handel on Saul and L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il moderato. Jennens chose the Old and New Testament texts from the King James Bible. While a large portion of the libretto comes from the Old Testament, specifically the book of Isaiah, the few Scriptures from the New Testament include Matthew, Luke, John, Hebrews, First Corinthians, and Revelations.

About the Music

Throughout Messiah Handel employs a technique called text painting (the musical notes mimic the lines of text). Listen to this excerpt of Handel's "Glory to God" on YouTube and notice how the sopranos, altos, and tenors sing the line "Glory to God in the highest" highly and triumphantly as if in heaven followed by the bass and baritone line "and peace on earth" sung in low tones as if their feet are firmly planted on the ground.

If you listen to Messiah while reading the libretto, you'll quickly discover just how many times Handel employs this technique. Though it's been in use since the emergence of gregorian chant, it's a fantastic way to convey meaning and provide emphasis to certain words or phrases.

Jennens divided Messiah into three acts, giving the audience a better understanding of the music while simultaneously retaining its opera-like qualities. When performed in its entirety, the concert can last well over two and a half hours. 

Excerpts from Handel's Messiah

Not familiar with the music of Handel's Messiah? Have no fear! The famous oratorio has over 50 movements within its three act structure.  So not to be overwhelmed by the copious amount of music, I've put together a small list of highly enjoyable excerpts from this famous piece of music. See my list of lyrics and excerpts from Handel's Messiah with links to YouTube recordings.

Messiah's First Performance

Messiah's debut performance was met with eager ears in Dublin, Ireland's Great Music Hall on Fishamble Street on April 13, 1742. However, at its premiere, Handel's masterpiece was presented as A Sacred Oratorio. It is unknown if Handel had planned to debut his oratorio there, but six months prior he had arranged to present a series of six concerts after receiving an invitation from the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The winter performances were so popular, Handel arranged to continue presenting concerts in Dublin. Messiah was not performed in any of these concerts. 

In March 1742, Handel began working with a few committees to present Messiah as a charity concert in April with three beneficiaries receiving the performance's earnings: debt relief for prisoners, Mercer Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary. With the permission of two local churches, Handel obtained two choirs. He found his male soloists within the choirs and contracted two female soprano soloists, Christina Maria Avoglio and Susannah Cibber. 

The day before the premiere, Handel held a staged rehearsal and opened it to the public. A critic from the Dublin News-Letter in attendance was blown away by what he had heard. With a gleaming write-up in the following day's paper, the entire city was abuzz. Before opening the Great Music Hall's doors, women were asked not to wear hooped dresses, and men were asked to leave their swords outside or at home in order to allow the maximum amount of people inside. Roughly 700 people were in attendance, but it is said that hundreds more were turned away due to lack of space. It goes without saying that the first performance of Handel's Messiah was an absolute success.

Today's Messiah
Since its debut, there are many versions of Handel's Messiah. Handel himself reworked and edited his score countless times to fit the needs and abilities of his performers. While the true original is lost in a sea of variations, today's Messiah is as close to the original as music historiographers can agree upon. Watch a full-length performance of The Messiah on YouTube.