Handel's Messiah

Program Notes


George Frideric Handel


Born the son of a court “barber-surgeon,” Handel’s musical talent was not nurtured at home, and as a child he would sneak a small keyboard up to the attic to practice. He studied organ in Halle — and briefly law, to appease his father — before accepting a local organist post in 1702. Never truly satisfied with the musical culture in Northern Germany, Handel worked and composed in Hamburg before moving to Italy in 1706. While there, he adopted the contemporary Italian style that shaped all of his forthcoming compositions and solidified his lifelong love for Italian opera — a love that, later in his life, caused him to continue to produce such operas long after they had fallen out of style with the public. He returned to Germany in 1710 to serve as the Kapellmeister for the Elector of Hanover, but due to his success with the opera Rinaldo, and his desire to return to England, Handel moved to London in 1712.

Although he established himself as a court composer and musician early, Handel yearned to focus exclusively on opera. He was given the opportunity after being placed in charge of the newly formed “Royal Academy of Music,” a group founded in the winter of 1718 by British nobility to produce high-quality opera performances. During the company’s eight-year run, nearly half of the performances featured Handel operas, many of them quite successful. As with all trends, by 1728 English musical preference had begun to shift away from the Italian opera style that Handel favored, and although he continued to write and produce opera (against the advice of his colleagues), Handel was exhausting himself in a failing effort and eventually suffered a breakdown in April 1737. He returned to writing and performing quickly and began to explore the oratorio style, very similar to opera but with the absence of staging and interaction that opera employs. Handel also produced a number of instrumental works over the next few years, although he was still hoping to lure the English public back to the opera.

As of 1741, Handel had failed at his final opera revival attempt and was rumored to be preparing to leave England in despair. Fortunately, an offer from William Cavendish, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to participate in the upcoming oratorio season in Dublin coincided with the completion of a libretto for

Messiah by Charles Jennens, Handel’s former Saul collaborator, who was also pressuring Handel to return to the more popular oratorio style. The brilliant Handel completed this enormous work in just over three weeks’ time, and it was premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742 to great acclaim. Different from oratorio of the time, Messiah was not dramatized at all and never names any specific characters, drawing instead completely from Jennens’ blend of Old and New Testament text; interestingly, despite the sacred nature of Messiah, it was performed more often in theaters than churches during Handel’s time.


Messiah became one of the most well-known of Handel’s works and helped revive his career spectacularly. It was revised two more times — causing later problems for conductors who wished to remain true to Handel’s original intentions — and often updated for contemporary performances, most notably by Mozart. The popular trend was to “amplify” the arrangement by increasing the number of musicians and chorus, and as the modern orchestra grew so did Messiah: a commemoration concert in 1784 employed 500 performers, a Handel centennial performance in 1859 used a combined 3,100 musicians, and there are reports of 5,000 or more performing the work in the early 1900s — quite a departure from the original 60 members!

Always the cosmopolitan composer, Handel was well-loved and often gave charity concerts —the most famous of these was a yearly performance of Messiah to benefit the Foundling Hospital — and he also donated regularly to many charities, including an organization that helped impoverished musicians and their families. His funeral was held at the Westminster Abbey and over 3,000 mourners attended. Handel’s musical legacy was rich indeed, and he rightfully garnered high praise: Beethoven thought Handel to be the greatest composer, worthy enough to “bare my head and kneel at his grave,” and Mozart was known to have said, “Handel understands affect better than any of us. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt.”

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.