Handel's Messiah

Program Notes

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George Frideric Handel
(Born 23 February 1685; Halle, Germany; Died 14 April 1759; London, England)

Composed: 1741

First performance: 13 April 1742; Dublin, Ireland

In a manic white heat, the 56-year-old Handel composed his beloved, best-known work in just over three weeks: Messiah was written between 22 August and 14 September 1741. Despite the appropriation and adaptation of music written earlier – most notably, several Italian love duets from July 1741 – the feat remains a miracle in the history of Western music. The master himself led the Dublin premiere the following spring. The proceeds went to several worthy causes, including the Charitable Musical Society for the Relief of Imprisoned Debtors. To this very day, Messiah continues to impact the social and cultural fabric of society.

When he penned Messiah, Handel had been a part of London musical life for some 30 years, mainly as a composer of Italian opera. With the growth of the middle class, that genre started to fall into disfavor, a clear sign of opposition to the nobility, its principal patrons. Handel – a German in England creating stage works in Italian – then began also to write oratorios in English. Success came, though not immediately, with Messiah.

Among Handel’s oratorios, Messiah is an anomaly: 1) There are no characters such as one finds in, say, Sampson or Saul or Solomon; 2) There is no plot in the ordinary sense; in other words, Messiah is not a sequence of scenes from the life of Jesus linked together to form a dramatic whole; 3) The words are taken entirely from the Bible, a characteristic shared only with Israel in Egypt (1739).

The Scripture selections, compiled by art collector and music patron Charles Jennens (1700-1773), are divided into three parts.

  • Part I: The coming of the Messiah is foretold by the prophets and brought to fruition in the birth of Jesus.
  • Part II: Humanity is redeemed by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.
  • Part III: The power of death is destroyed by Christ’s mighty resurrection.

In Messiah, Handel uniquely fuses several musical traditions: Italian opera, the English anthem, and the German passion. He gleans the fruits of a lifetime’s musical experience, writing masterfully for the soloists and orchestra. But arguably it is the astonishing power and variety of the choruses that raise the work to a higher level altogether. A man of the theatre, Handel knew how to lay hold on the dramatic potential of a given text, cogently pointing up its significance.

More than 275 years after its first performance, Messiah remains one of the greatest oratorios of all time, an icon in the history of European music. Its ability to speak to millions of people – regardless of culture or creed – remains forever undiminished.

Recommended Recording: Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists (Philips)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.