Without question, one of the most famous pieces of music ever written or performed is Handel’s Messiah. Note that the title of this work is not ‘The Messiah’, but simply Messiah. Above you will see one of the more flattering portraits of Handel. Handel was a German born in Halle in 1685. When he was old enough, because he wanted to compose opera, he moved to Italy at the invitation of the D’Medici family, but unfortunately for him, the Pope had banned opera at that time, and he found himself scrambling to compose occasion pieces. Eventually the ban was lifted and Handel had a successful opera entitled Agrippina, but by then he had become more famous for composing sacred music, for example his Dixit Dominus (‘Thus says the Lord) composed in 1707 became a very famous composition in due course.
In the beginnings of the 18th century there was much ferment and furor over what counted as sacred music and what counted as secular music. Handel got caught in the crossfire to some extent. Discouraged with the musical situation in Italy, Handel moved first to Germany and then to England in 1712 and by 1727 had become a naturalized citizen of the British realm. His timing here was better than in Italy because England came to have a King from Hanover in Germany, namely King George– the one the American colonists had so much trouble with. In fact Handel had returned to Germany and had become the Kapellmeister for George the Elector of Haonver before he ever became King of England. This augured will for his future and indeed Handel In fact Handel’s relationship with King Geroge was an up and down affair. In 1717 he composed the famous Water Music which was well liked, but in the what have you done for me lately department, it only brought Handel some temporary recognition and remuneration.
In 1725 Handel moved into a newly built flat on Brook Street in London where he was to live the rest of his life, dying in 1759. This house is today the well known Handel House museum, and well worth a visit too. To the left you will see its picture. The building has a shop on the first floor called Regina Rubens.
In April of 1737 at 52 Handel seems to have suffered from a stroke which incapacitated him, making it impossible for him to perform (he played the spinet or keyboard) or conduct, because it had paralyzed his right arm and he was right handed. He also complained of blurred vision. The truth was as well, that falling in and out of favor with royalty left him alternately in and out of money, and because he was not a wise businessman he in fact lost a fortune in the opera business and, depressed and in debt, decided to give it up in 1741.
But 1741 proved to be the turning point. On the one hand, he gave what he feared was his farewell concert. On the other hand, a friend of his, Charles Jennens, Jr., gave him a libretto (a text) for a sacred work.
Jennens was concerned with the emergence of Deism within the Church of England. Deism rejected the idea of God’s intervention in human affairs and, with it, the inspiration of scripture. His response to the threat was what he called a “scripture collection” that demonstrated that the Scriptures had predicted the coming of the Messiah, which he desired Handel to set to music. Unlike his other “scripture collections,” every word in the Messiah’s libretto is taken directly from scripture. The libretto of “Messiah” consists of 73 verses from the King James Version of the Bible – 42 from the Old Testament, 31 from the New – all pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ … the Anointed One … the Messiah.
Handel was deeply affected when he read this libretto. It was divided into three parts: 1) prophecies about the coming messiah (largely drawing on Isaiah); 2) the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection of Christ; 3) the End times with Christ’s final victory over sin and death, largely based in the book of Revelation. Inspired, Handel decided he must compose an oratorio based on this libretto. As the director of the Handel House said a few years ago, “Without Jennens there would be no Messiah.”
As Albert Mohler wrote a few years ago, “Jennens understood the Bible to reveal a comprehensive and unitary story of God’s salvation of his people.” But Jennens knew that it would take more than a pamphlet to combat Deism. He had to appeal to people’s emotions and imaginations, as well as their intellect. In other words, he needed art.
The music for Messiah was completed in 24 days of swift composition. Having received Jennens’s text some time after 10 July 1741, Handel began work on it on 22 August. His records show that he had completed Part I in outline by 28 August, Part II by 6 September and Part III by 12 September, followed by two days of “filling up” to produce the finished work on 14 September. The autograph score’s 259 pages show some signs of haste such as blots, scratchings-out, unfilled bars and other uncorrected errors, but according to the music scholar Richard Luckett the number of errors is remarkably small in a document of this length. The original manuscript for Messiah is now held in the British Library’s music collection. It is scored for 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, and basso continuo (cello, double bass, and harpsichord).(Wikipedia)
In his book, “Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers,” Patrick Kavanaugh tells how Handel barely ate during the 24 days he wrote “Messiah.” When he got to the Hallelujah chorus, his assistant found him in tears saying “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God”. Today of course it is the first two parts of this work that mostly get performed. The Hallelujah chorus is in fact the conclusion of part two, but in performances today it regularly is used to climax and conclude the Christmas performance of the first part of the oratorio.
Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1742. Seven hundred people attended the premiere. It was a benefit concert for charity. According to one source, proceeds freed 142 men from debtors’ prison. Handel’s masterpiece, now a Christmas and Easter tradition, was written for a greater purpose for his hearers: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.”
Interestingly enough John Wesley was one of the ones who saw an early performance of this work. In his Journal he commented “there were some parts that were affecting, but I doubt it has staying power”. It’s a good thing he didn’t go into the music business. His brother Charles actually got to know Handel a bit before Handel died, and visited him in his London home on more than one occasion. Charles of course composed two well known Christmas hymns— Lo he Comes with Clouds Descending, and the more familiar Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Unlike Handel he was a writer of lyrics not primarily a composer of music, which was Handel’s forte.
“Handel conducted Messiah many times and 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 Mozart, translated into German. In the Mozart version a French horn replaces the trumpet on ‘The Trumpets shall sound’, even though Luther’s bible translation speaks of a last trombone. In fact of course the libretto was based on the Authorized or King James Version, except the portions from the Psalms which were extracted from the Great Bible as it was found in the readings in the BCP, the Book of Common Prayer.
Fortunately for Handel, King George decided that this work was worthy of being attended and supported, and this in turn led to one of the most interesting traditions connected to this masterpiece. When the Hallelujah chorus began to play in the performance the King attended he abruptly stood up, apparently as a way of indicating he recognized that Christ was the King of Kings. Now it was normal protocol that if the King stood at any time, no one in his presence sat, and so the entire audience stood for the performance of the Hallelujah Chorus. This tradition has been maintained even until today. Handel could never have anticipated that this work would become perhaps the most performed piece of classical music in all of history, all to the glory of Christ. And he certainly could not have anticipated the many and various versions of the performance of Messiah.
In December 2015, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir tells the story of the writing of “The Messiah” by George Frideric Handel by combining the story and music together. Guest artist Martin Jarvis narrates The Messiah Story, with the accompaniment of Metropolitan Opera Soloists Tamara Mumford, Erin Morley, Tyler Simpson, and Ben Bliss, along with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.
Below, a playlist: