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Handel's Messiah - HWV 56 (1741)

A Classical Music Profile of Handel's Messiah


George Frederic Handel

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Facts About Handel's Messiah:

  • George Frideric Handel's Messiah is more often than not referred to as The Messiah. Although it is officially incorrect and should simply be called Messiah, it is widely accepted and used.
  • Handel's Messiah was intended as a thought provoking work for Easter and Lent, but became more of a Christmastime tradition.
  • Messiah became so popular during the 19th century, musicians began making their performances larger than Handel had intended by writing parts for added instruments and bringing in larger amounts of performers, unfortunately, losing the core of the original work.

Excerpts from Handel's Messiah:

Not familiar with the music of Handel's Messiah? Have no fear! The famous oratorio has over 50 movements within its three act structure, so it's understandable to be overwhelmed by it. I've put together a small list of of highly enjoyable excerpts from this famous piece of music. See my list of lyrics and excerpts from Handel's Messiah.

Origins of Handel's Messiah:

The creation of Handel's Messiah was actually induced by Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens. Jennens expressed in a letter to his friend that he wanted to create a Scriptural anthology set to music by Handel. Jennens' desire quickly turned into reality when Handel composed the entire work in only twenty-four days. Jennens wished for a London debut in the days leading to Easter, however, a doubtful Handel anticipated such a wish would not be granted. A year after the work was completed, Handel received an invitation to perform his music in Dublin to which he joyously agreed.

About the Librettist and Libretto:

Charles Jennens, a literary scholar, editor of Shakespeare's plays, and an admirer of Handel's work, received his education from Balliol College, Oxford. Before working on Messiah, Jennens had previously worked with Handel on Saul and L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il moderato. Jennens chose the Old and New Testament texts from the King James Bible. While a large portion of the libretto comes from the Old Testament, specifically the book of Isaiah, the few Scriptures from the New Testament include Matthew, Luke, John, Hebrews, First Corinthians, and Revelations.

About the Music:

Throughout Messiah Handel employs a technique called text painting, where the musical notes mimic the lines of text. (See an example of Handel's text painting.) Jennens divided Messiah into three acts, giving the audience a better understanding of the music while simultaneously retaining its opera-like qualities. The most famous and recognizable piece form Handel's Messiah is the "Halleluja" chorus, ending the second act.

Messiah's First Performance:

Messiah was met with eager ears at its debut on April 13, 1742. He had staged a public rehearsal the day before its premier, creating quite a buzz. It is said that hundreds of people were turned away due to lack of space. At its debut, Messiah was actually titled A Sacred Oratorio and all its proceeds were donated to local charities and hospitals for the mentally ill at the request of Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Today's Messiah:

Since its debut, there are many versions of Handel's Messiah. Handel himself reworked and edited his score countless times to fit the needs and abilities of his performers. While the true original is lost in a sea of variations, today's Messiah is as close to the original as music historiographers can agree upon.

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