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Lyrics and Excerpts of Handel's Messiah

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Though Handel intended Messiah to be a thought-provoking work performed during Easter and Lent, it was favored and performed mostly at Christmastime. But despite its popularity, there are many people who have never heard this three-act baroque masterpiece - or at least any part other than the famous "Hallelujah" Chorus. In an effort to introduce you to Handel's somewhat overwhelming classical oratorio, I thought I'd put together a few intriguing and fantastic excerpts.

1. "Comfort Ye" & "Every Valley"

Throughout Messiah, Handel employs a technique called text painting. Classical composers often wrote their melodies in a way that mimics the lyrics or libretto of the piece. For instance, if the lines of text are describing a bird rising higher in the sky as it flies, the music and melody will increase in pitch. If the lines of text are a whisper, the music and melody will be written very softly and quietly. You'll see an example of this in this excerpt when the tenor sings, "Every valley."

Learn the Lyrics
Comfort Ye

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every Valley
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

2. "For Unto Us A Child is Born"

Here is one of my favorite movements from Handel's Messiah. Performed in the first act, this piece for chorus demands a flexible and nimble voice. The florid melody is sung at some point by each voice part. Normally this type of vocal run is written for sopranos and tenors, but the basses and altos must sing it too.

Learn the Lyrics
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given,
and the government shall be upon His shoulder:
and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

3. "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion"

If you're chosen to sing this aria, you must be one heck of a soprano. This stellar aria's insane ornamentation and up-beat tempo demands accuracy, endurance, and impeccable control, while remaining lyrical, expressive, and understandable. When I think of a piece that sums of the entirety of the baroque period, this one always comes to mind.

Learn the Lyrics
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion;
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee.
He is the righteous Savior.
And he shall speak peace unto the heathen.

4. "All We Like Sheep"

In the second act during Christ's passion, the chorus sings another dazzling, ornament filled, quick-tempo, text-painted piece that ends with a striking adagio moment of tightly stacked harmonies.

Learn the Lyrics
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

5. "Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder"

Who would have thought you can make so much music with one line of text taken from the book of Psalms, chapter two, verse three? Another example of text painting, Handel's melodies are performed staccato, as if each lyrical line was broken into pieces and cast away. Brilliant!

Learn the Lyrics
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us.

6. "Hallelujah" Chorus

I know this is the Messiah's most famous piece, and the majority of you have already heard it, but it is just too great not to mention. After all, it is the crown jewel of the entire oratorio. Handel wrote the chorus in the key of D Major, which is notable for its brilliant sound (stringed instruments, due to their construction, resonate greatly in that key). This is a spectacular ending to the 2nd act, and one that generates thunderous applause.

Learn the Lyrics
Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdoms of this world is become the kingdoms of our Lord,
and of His Christ: and He shall reign for ever and ever.
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

7. "Worthy is the Lamb"

After hours of music, the closing piece is a glorious over-the-top composition for orchestra and choir, full of various tempos, counterpoint, fugues, and insightful instrument layering.

Learn the Lyrics
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power,
and riches, and wisdom, and strength,
and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing, and honour, glory and power,
be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne,
and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.
Amen.

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