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Messiah (Handel)

Background Information

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Messiah ( HWV 56) is an oratorio by George Frideric Handel based on a libretto by Charles Jennens. Composed in the summer of 1741 and premiered in Dublin on the 13 April 1742, Messiah is Handel's most famous creation and is among the most popular works in Western choral literature. The very well-known chorus " Hallelujah" is part of Handel's Messiah.


The name of the oratorio is taken from Judaism and Christianity's concept of the Messiah ("the anointed one"). In Christianity, the Messiah is Jesus. Handel himself was a devout Christian, and the work is a presentation of Jesus' life and its significance according to Christian doctrine.

Although the work was conceived and first performed for secular theatre during Lent it has become common practice since Handel's death to perform the Messiah oratorio during Advent, the preparatory period of the Christmas season, rather than in Lent or at Easter. Messiah is often performed in churches as well as in concert halls. Christmas concerts often feature only the first section of Messiah plus the "Hallelujah" chorus, although some ensembles feature the entire work as a Christmas concert. The work is also heard at Eastertide, and selections containing resurrection themes are often included in Easter services.

The work is divided into three parts which address specific events in the life of Christ. Part One is primarily concerned with the Advent and Christmas stories. Part Two chronicles Christ's passion, resurrection, ascension, and the evangelization to the world of the Christian message. Part Three is based primarily upon the events chronicled in The Revelation to St. John. Although Messiah deals with the New Testament story of Christ's life a majority of the texts used to tell the story were selected from the Old Testament prophetic books of Isaiah, as well as Hagaii, Malachi, and others.

The soprano aria "I know that my Redeemer liveth" is frequently heard at Christian funerals. It is believed that parts of this aria have been the basis of the composition of the Westminster Quarters. Above Handel's grave in Westminster Abbey is a monument (1762) where the musician's statue holds the musical score of the same aria.

Although Handel called his oratorio simply Messiah (without the "The"), the work is also widely but incorrectly referred to as The Messiah.

Composition and premiere

In the summer of 1741 Handel, at the peak of his musical prowess but depressed and in debt, began setting Charles Jennens' Biblical libretto to music at his usual breakneck speed. In just 24 days, Messiah was complete. Like many of Handel's compositions, it borrows liberally from earlier works, both his own and those of others. Tradition has it that Handel wrote the piece while staying as a guest at Jennens' country house ( Gopsall Hall) in Leicestershire, England, although no evidence exists to confirm this. It is thought that the work was completed inside a garden temple, the ruins of which have been preserved and can be visited.

It was premiered during the following season, in the spring of 1742, as part of a series of charity concerts in Neal's Music Hall on Fishamble Street near Dublin's Temple Bar district. Right up to the day of the premiere, Messiah was troubled by production difficulties and last-minute rearrangements of the score, and the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Jonathan Swift, placed some pressure on the premiere and had it cancelled entirely for a period. He demanded that it be retitled A Sacred Oratorio and that revenue from the concert be promised to local hospitals for the mentally ill. The premiere happened on 13 April at the Music Hall in Dublin, and Handel led the performance from the harpsichord with Matthew Dubourg conducting the orchestra. Dubourg was an Irish violinist, conductor and composer. He had worked with Handel as early as 1719 in London.

Handel conducted Messiah many times and, as was his custom, often altered the music to suit the needs of the singers and orchestra he had available to him for each performance. In consequence, no single version can be regarded as the "authentic" one. Many more variations and rearrangements were added in subsequent centuries—a notable arrangement was one by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, translated into German.

Messiah is scored for SATB soloists, SATB chorus, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and basso continuo. The Mozart arrangement expands the orchestra to 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings, and organ. In 1959, Sir Thomas Beecham conducted a special arrangement for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra which expands the instrumentation to 3 flutes (one doubling on piccolo), 4 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

Texts and Structure

The libretto was compiled by Charles Jennens and consists of fragments of verses from the King James Bible. Jennens conceived of the work as an oratorio in three parts (or acts), each comprising several scenes:

Part I: The Birth
Scene 1: The prophecy of Salvation
Scene 2: The prophecy of the coming of the Messiah
Scene 3: Portents to the world at large
Scene 4: Prophecy of the Virgin Birth
Scene 5: The appearance of the Angel to the shepherds
Scene 6: Christ's miracles
Part II: The Passion
Scene 1: The sacrifice, the scourging and agony on the cross
Scene 2: His death, His passing through Hell, and His resurrection
Scene 3: His Ascension
Scene 4: God discloses His identity in Heaven
Scene 5: The beginning of evangelism
Scene 6: The world and its rulers reject the Gospel
Scene 7: God's triumph
Part III: The Aftermath
Scene 1: The promise of redemption from Adam's fall
Scene 2: Judgment Day
Scene 3: The victory over death and sin
Scene 4: The glorification of Christ

Much of the libretto comes from the Old Testament. The first section draws heavily from the book of Isaiah, which prophesies the coming of the Messiah. There are few quotations from the Gospels; these are at the end of the first and the beginning of the second sections. They comprise the Angel going to the shepherds in Luke, two enigmatic quotations from Matthew, and one from John: "Behold the Lamb of God". The rest of the second section is composed of prophecies from Isaiah and quotations from the evangelists. The third section includes one quotation from Job ("I know that my Redeemer liveth"), the rest primarily from First Corinthians.

Interesting, too, is the interpolation of choruses from the New Testament's Revelation. The well-known "Hallelujah" chorus at the end of Part II and the finale chorus "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain" (" Amen") are both taken from Revelation.

While performances of Messiah are most common during the Christmas season, it should be noted that the complete text of the work relates to both the Christmas (Part I - "the Birth") and Easter (Part II - "the Passion") seasons of the Christian calendar. It is interesting to note that the "Hallelujah" chorus, often associated with the Christmas season, is found in the middle of Parts II and III -- the "Easter" section. Because of the popularity of this association, it is common for Advent performances to include the first 17 numbers of the work and then follow immediately with the No. 44 "Hallelujah" chorus as a finale.


Handel is famous for employing text painting -- the musical technique of having the melody mimic its lyrics -- in many of his works. Perhaps the most famous and oft-quoted example of the technique is in Every valley shall be exalted, the tenor aria early in Part I of Messiah. On the lyric "...and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain", Handel composes it thus:

Every Valley.jpg

The notes climb to the high F♯ on the first syllable of mountain to drop an octave on the second syllable. The four notes on the word hill form a small hill, and the word low descends to the lowest note of the phrase. On crooked, the melody twice alternates between C♯ and B to rest on the B through the word straight. The word plain is written, for the most part, on the high E for three measures, with some minor deviation. He applies the same strategy throughout the repetition of the final phrase: the crookeds being crooked and plain descending down on three lengthy planes. He uses this technique frequently throughout the rest of the aria, specifically on the word exalted, which contains several sixteenth note (semiquaver) melismas and two leaps to a high E:

Every Valley2.jpg

As was common in English-language poetry at the time, the suffix -ed of the past tense and past participle of weak verbs was often pronounced as a separate syllable as in this passage from And the glory of the Lord:

And the glory.jpg

The word revealed would thus be pronounced in three syllables: [rɪˈviːlɛd]. In many published editions, an e that is silent in speech but is to be sung as a separate syllable is marked with a grave accent, thus: revealèd.

It should, however, be noted that though Messiah is often pointed at as being rife with examples of text painting, Handel was particularly fond of plagiarizing himself and some of the arias and choruses in Messiah are taken directly from material he originally penned in other works (for example the Arcadian Duets). Thus the argument for text painting loses much of its validity because the music was originally composed with different texts set over it, and in many cases in languages other than English.


The most famous movement is the "Hallelujah" chorus, which concludes the second of the three parts. The text is drawn from three passages in the New Testament book of Revelation:

And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. ( Revelation 19:6)
And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. ( Revelation 11:15)
And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. ( Revelation 19:16)

In many parts of the world, it is the accepted practice for the audience to stand for this section of the performance. Tradition has it that King George II rose to his feet at this point. As the first notes of the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus rang out, the king rose. Royal protocol has always demanded that whenever the monarch stands, so does everyone in the monarch's presence. Thus, the entire audience stood too, initiating a tradition that has lasted more than two centuries. It is lost to history the exact reason why the King stood at that point, but the most popular explanations include:

  • As was and is the custom, one stands in the presence of royalty as a sign of respect. The Hallelujah chorus clearly places Christ as the King of Kings. In standing, King George II accepts that he too is subject to Lord of Lords.
  • He was so moved by the performance that he rose to his feet.
  • He arrived late to the performance, and the crowd rose when he finally made an appearance.
  • His gout acted up at that precise moment and he rose to relieve the discomfort.
  • After an hour of musical performance, he needed to stretch his legs.

There is a story told (perhaps apocryphally) that Handel's assistant walked in to Handel's room after shouting to him for several minutes with no response. The assistant reportedly found Handel in tears, and when asked what was wrong, Handel held up the score to this movement and said, "I have seen the face of God".

Because this piece is so often heard separately from the rest of Messiah, it has become popularly known as "The Hallelujah Chorus", which, like "The Messiah", is not entirely correct usage. "(the) Hallelujah chorus" or "'Hallelujah' chorus from Messiah" is more appropriate.

Critical editions

As with most established baroque repertoire, the Messiah is usually performed in one of a number of critical editions. Notable editors include:

  • Ebenezer Prout
  • Watkins Shaw
  • T. Tertius Noble
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