The Untold Story: Handel’s Messiah


I love to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah each Christmas. Handel

So where did it begin?  Actually, although the oratorio is most often performed at Christmas time, the premiere took place at Easter time.

The oratorio was composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel.   An oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir and soloists.

Charles Jennens

Charles Jennens

Charles Jennens compiled the scriptural text from the King James version of the Bible.

Messiah was Handel’s sixth oratorio.

The text has three parts.  Part one is the prophecies of Isaiah and the annunciation of the shepherds.  Part two concentrates on the Passion, or the life of Jesus, and ends with the well-known Hallelujah Chorus.  Part three covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in Heaven.

George Frideric Handel was already a popular composer of opera, oratorio’s, chamber music, cantata’s,  and other musical compositions.

Handel received Jennen’s text after July 10, 1741 and began work on the piece on August 22.  He completed the entire composition in 24 days.  He is reported to have written from morning to night each day.  The original score was 259 pages.

George Fridrich Handel

George Fridrich Handel

“At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote the letters “SDG”—Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone the glory”.This inscription, taken with the speed of composition, has encouraged belief in the apocryphal story that Handel wrote the music in a fervour of divine inspiration in which, as he wrote the “Hallelujah” chorus, “he saw all heaven before him.”   Many of his other works were also written in the same time frame.

Handel made numerous revisions before the first performance.   He continued to make various revisions throughout his life, often to better suit the singers and orchestra of a performance. For this reason there is on official version and many various ways the oratorio can be played and performed.

The Duke of Devonshire, and current Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, invited Handel to Dublin, Ireland in the winter of 1741-42.   Messiah was performed there on April 13, 1742 as an Easter offering and received a warm reception.

That Dublin performance is reported to have been a benefit for charity, “freeing 142 men from debtor’s prison.”

The same warm reception was not repeated later in London.  London audiences took longer to warm up to the oratorio.

King George II

King George II

Charles Wesley, who saw one of the first performances, wrote in his journal “there were some parts that were affecting, but I doubt it has staying power”.   However, he must have changed his mind, because another source states that he wrote in his journal on August 17, 1758 that Handel’s Messiah “exceeded my expectation.”

King George II decided to attend the first performance in London.  Various reports state he fell asleep, was moved by the power of God or was tired of sitting.   What we do know is that at the opening of the “Hallelujah” Chorus, he rose to his feet, thinking it was his cue to leave.   He remained standing and this became the cue for the rest of the audience.  Tradition stated that when the King stood, everyone else in his presence stood.  This began the custom that continues to this day of standing during the “Hallelujah” Chorus.

Handel gave an annual performance of Messiah for the London’s Foundling Hospital.

Handel died in 1759 at the age of 74.

Mozart re-orchestrated Messiah in 1789.  According to the Smithsonian Magazine,   Mozart “confessed himself to be humble in the face of Handel’s genius. He insisted that any

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria

alterations to Handel’s score should not be interpreted as an effort to improve the music. “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect,” Mozart said. “When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”

One report says, “About 100 years later, even the aged Queen Victoria, who sat in her wheelchair as the chorus began, struggled to her feet as the choir sang, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” She said, “No way will I sit in the presence of the King of kings.”

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.

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