Handel's Messiah

Messiah is an English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frederic Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible and from the Coverdale Psalter, the version of the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer. It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.

Handel's reputation in England, where he had lived since 1712, had been established through his compositions of Italian opera. He turned to English oratorio in the 1730s in response to changes in public taste; “Messiah” was his sixth work in this genre. Although its structure resembles that of opera, it is not in dramatic form; there are no impersonations of characters and no direct speech. Instead, Jennens's text is an extended reflection on Jesus as the Messiah called Christ. The text begins in Part 1 with prophecies by Isaiah and others, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds the only "scene" taken from the Gospels. In Part II Handel concentrates on the Passion and ends with the "Hallelujah" chorus. In Part III he covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ's glorification in heaven.

Handel wrote “Messiah” for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual numbers. 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 (Der Messias). In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the trend has been towards reproducing a greater fidelity to Handel's original intentions, although "big Messiah" productions continue to be mounted. A near-complete version was issued on 78 rpm discs in 1928; since then the work has been recorded many times.

George Frederic Handel, born in Halle, Germany in 1685, took up permanent residence in London in 1712, and became a naturalised British subject in 1727. By 1741 his pre-eminence in British music was evident from the honours 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 honour in Vauxhall Gardens. Within a large and varied musical output, Handel was a vigorous champion of Italian opera, which he had introduced to London in 1711 with “Rinaldo”. He subsequently wrote and presented more than 40 such operas in London's theatres.

By the early 1730s public taste for Italian opera was beginning to fade. 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. 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 he spent large sums of his own money in doing so.

Although prospects for Italian opera were declining, Handel remained committed to the genre, but as alternatives to his staged works he began to introduce English-language oratorios. In Rome in 1707–08 he had written two Italian oratorios at a time when opera performances in the city were temporarily forbidden under papal decree. 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” & “Athalia"). All three oratorios were performed to large and appreciative audiences at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in mid-1733. Undergraduates reportedly sold their furniture to raise the money for the five-shilling tickets.

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, after opening at the King's Theatre in January 1739 to a warm reception, was quickly followed by the less successful oratorio “Israel in Egypt” (which may also have come from Jennens). Although Handel continued to write operas, the trend towards English-language productions became irresistible as the decade ended. 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; 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”.

In Christian theology, the Messiah is the saviour of humankind. The Messiah who is called Christ, 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 Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible, and from the Psalms included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

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 Luke’s gospel. Part II covers Christ’s passion and His death, his resurrection & ascension, the first spreading of the gospel through the world, and a definitive statement of God's glory summarised 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 Donal 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.