Handel’s Messiah

On April 13, 1742, Handel presented his oratorio to the public for the first time. Two hundred seventy-seven years later, Messiah remains one of the best-known and frequently performed choral works in Western music. Handel’s masterpiece may be a tradition for some audiences as part of the holiday season, but many might not know how it came to be. 

1) Many at the time thought it was blasphemous

British society in the 1700s revolved around two intermingling but distinct circles: the Church and Royal Court. (Three: if you count the rise of Britain’s merchant empire.) Despite Messiah’s subject matter, the world of music & theatre and the artists who inhabit it were often regarded as debauched. Handel’s Esther opera drew criticism from the Bishop of London, who thought it absurd that the same theatre hosting a religious work one day would then have carousing comedy the next.

Handel’s Messiah was not premiered in the cultural capital of London but in Dublin. Though he hoped to have his work far from the critical eyes of bishops from the Church of England, the piece still drew criticism from Catholic officials. The Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Jonathan Swift (yes, that one), initially refused to have choral singers under his domain perform the piece. 

2) Messiah was written incredibly fast

Beethoven spent two years composing his Third Symphony. Mozart, by comparison, was given ten months to complete Don Giovanni. Handel finished Messiah in 24 days! Based on the quarter of a million notes in the composition, Handel was writing at a pace of 15 notes a minute! What could be even more impressive? There were minimal edits and mistakes in the original composition. 

3) Messiah was a dual effort

Though we often give credit to George Friedrich Handel in creating this magnificent masterpiece, we often forget another person responsible for this composition. Born into a wealthy landowning family, Charles Jennens was devoutly religious. His knowledge of the Bible and broad literary interest contributed to the libretti in some of Handel’s masterpieces – Saul, Israel in Egypt, and, most importantly, Messiah. When Jennens inherited his wealth in 1747, he rebuilt his residence Gopsall Hall and maintained an extravagant lifestyle. He was also a patron of the arts and built a music collection of manuscripts and published music by Handel and other composers, including an early manuscript of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

4) Messiah was not intended as a Christmas piece

The first third of the work is about the birth of Jesus, while the second and third acts focus on his death and resurrection. When invited to premiere the piece in Dublin,  Messiah was initially intended to coincide with Lent. The April performance was also intended as a charity concert for prisoners’ debt release funds. Messiah was praised by many, with one paper stating “words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded to the admiring and crouded [sic] Audience.” It also raised enough funds to release 142 prisoners. 

Across the pond, Messiah became a regular during December performances during the 1800s. Why? Laurence Cummings, Music Director of the London Handel Orchestra, told Smithsonian Magazine it was in part due to the lack of sacred music written specifically for the season.

5) The King may not have been inspired…

Today, audiences often stand for “Hallelujah.” This practice originates from a letter written in 1756. The story goes that King George II was so moved with the chorus at the 1743 London premiere that he stood up – royal etiquette (still) dictating one does not sit in the presence of royalty. But we don’t know if this actually took place, let alone if King George was in attendance (War of the Austrian Succession was taking place at the time, and the King may have been on the continent then). 

Messiah remains a great oratorio masterpiece in classical music. And, with good reason, it continues to enthrall audiences two centuries after its original premiere. 

Thursday, December 12, 7:30 PM
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre

Tickets can be purchased here, by phone at 454-2100, or in person at our new Patron Services Center at 255 East Avenue in the back of the building. Free parking in the adjacent garage off of Union Street, between East Ave & Broad Street.

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