Handel's Messiah: An Extensively Fascinating History

Updated May 25, 2021
Choir with notes in hands,

Traditional Christmas songs marry the brevity of the season with the intensity of its merriment, and the jubilant exaltations of Handel's 18th century Yuletide oratorio, Messiah, are still just at home in cathedrals, living rooms, and community squares today as they were two centuries ago. You're probably familiar with the impressive choral arrangement that closes out the second act with proclamations of "Hallelujah, Hallelujah," but far fewer people are well versed in the nearly two and a half hour-long piece and the story behind its creation.

The British Isles and the Mid-18th Century

It's important to understand the sociocultural context that Messiah was born out of so that you can get a better sense of the world that was in awe of this shocking piece of music. In 1740, a famine spread throughout the European landscape due to successively bad weather and poor harvests, with Ireland facing the most severe effects. Ireland fought to allay its people of this turmoil, and one way they sought to raise money was scheduling a charity musical event. Hosted by Dublin's Charitable Music Society, renowned composer George Frideric Handel was invited to perform at the newly built Neal's Music Hall on Fishamble Street.

In April 1941, Handel, fleeing an increasingly poor reputation in London and a severe depression, was set to perform a series of works in Dublin, one of which was a composition he'd been working on since that summer, entitled Messiah. With all 700 seats of the theater filled with Ireland's aristocratic elite and prominent businessmen, Handel set about releasing his work into the room, a composition which hadn't taken long to create, but manifested in several different forms in the coming years.

Where Messiah Begins: The Libretto

Charles Jennens, a patron of the arts and talented writer, was intensely interested in both religion and the artistic pursuits. Taking important scripture from both the Old and New Testaments, Jennens wrote the libretto, or lyrical story, for Handel to create a musical work around. On giving the work to Handle, Jennens said, "I hope [he] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject."

Jennens intended his libretto to be performed for the wayward souls and wanted it to be so moving that it'd immediately inspire these sinners to convert back to a devoted life of piety. While it took Handel a while to start on the project, once he began it only took him about three and a half weeks to fully compose the first edition of his famous oratorio.

Messiah's Musical Composition

Unfortunately, there's no universally accepted version of Handel's Messiah because he made various changes over the course of his life to the piece. Once he'd arrived in Dublin and began to work with the vocalists there, he shifted sections of the work to better feature their individual talents. For example, in one of Handel's earliest revisions, he wrote the contralto arias for famed singer Susannah Cibber to perform. According to the Handel's Messiah - The Advent Calendar podcast, there were at least ten different versions of the composition created in Handel's lifetime.

The version that is most frequently performed includes three parts and fifty-three movements, the most famous of which, entitled Hallelujah, closes out the second part. Here's a brief overview of the nearly three-hour narrative that Handel's musicians and vocalists weave throughout the piece:

  • Part 1, Movements 1-21: This third of the oratorio describes Jesus Christ's birth, from prophecy, to annunciation, to his discipleship.
  • Part 2, Movements 22-44: This third of the oratorio follows Christ's execution, resurrection, and ascension. Movement 44, the Hallelujah Chorus, completes Christ's acceptance into heaven with the chorus singing in worshiping exaltation.
  • Part 3, Movements 47-53: This final third of the oratorio speaks to revelatory themes of eternal life, judgement day, and the return of the Christ on Earth.
Messiah-autograph composition draft-Amen Chorus

Messiah Premieres and Becomes Legend

On April 13th, 1742, to 700 Dublin citizens, Handel performed Messiah for the first time, and it became immediately popular. Quickly, that popularity transferred across to England, and Londoners clamored to see the performance. Interestingly, despite being written as an Eastern anthem, it has since become a Yuletide tradition. This is due in large part to the substantial number of impressive Easter compositions that had been written thus far as well as because a third of the oratorio deals with the birth of Jesus Christ - the sacred act that's celebrated every Yule.

Messing With the Messiah

Along with famous pieces from Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, composers, conductors, and classical musicians all want to have their own moments with these fabulous works of art like Handel's Messiah. Whether they put a modern spin on the arrangement or try to stick with a performance that's as historically authentic as possible, artists across the world have been interpreting Handel's Messiah for audiences for hundreds of years. From Quincy Jones's 1993 Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration, which was a gospel adaptation that won a Grammy Award, to Leonard Bernstein's controversial 1956 interpretation featuring the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Westminster Choir, Messiah continues to be transformed, gaining new meaning with each subsequent reinterpretation.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

It's all too easy to overlook the features of your life that seem omnipresent; why think of something's beginning if you can't even remember the first moment it entered into your life? Many people can say this about the classical pieces whose notes are imprinted into their brains but whose stories have been overlooked. This Christmas season, think back to Ireland in the 1740s the next time you hear Handel's Messiah, and let it take you to on a trip to past if but for a brief moment.

Handel's Messiah: An Extensively Fascinating History