This article gives some background information on GF Handel's composition of the Messiah.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1984. 3 pages.

Handel's Messiah

And without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.

1 Timothy 3:16

In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Colossians 2:3, KJV

With these words, a new composi­tion was introduced to the concert-going public of Dublin in 1742. The name of the work...? Messiah. The name of its composer…? Georg Frideric Handel.

Georg Frideric Handel was a big man with an explosive temperament; a man of the world and a true business­man of music; a naturalized British subject who spoke English with a heavy accent; the owner of a good art collec­tion, including some Rembrandt paint­ings; a great organ and harpsichord player; a man with a simple, uncom­plicated faith, and an equally simple and uncomplicated view toward life.

Handel was born in 1685 at Halle, Germany. He was the son of a prosper­ous barber-surgeon. Father Handel took a jaundiced view of young Frid­eric's interest in music and was able to persuade his son to enroll as a student in Law at the University of Halle. Georg Frideric wasn't too happy. He used the first opportunity, the death of his father, to leave Halle and law, in order to take up music in Hamburg.

In 1706, Handel travelled to Italy, the sanctum sanctorum of music. His stay brought him in contact with com­posers such as Arcangelo Corelli and Dominico Scarlatti, with the sunny and virtuosic style of Italian opera. Handel wrote several operas and cantatas, and conducted their performances in Rome, Florence, Naples, and Venice. The young man from Saxony, II Sassone, as he was called, made a great impression on his Italian colleagues.

When Handel was twenty-five years old, he went back to Germany, to the city of Hanover. Here he served as music director at the Court of Georg Ludwig the Elector.

Shortly after his arrival at the Court in Hanover, Handel received permis­sion to travel to England in order to conduct his new opera Rinaldo. This work, clearly influenced by the Italian style, became a huge success. Handel could not resist the temptation to ask permission for a second trip to England. The Elector granted him the request, provided Handel would return within reasonable time.

Upon his return to England in 1712, Handel composed another opera and a grand official piece to celebrate the Peace of Utrecht. For Queen Anne, he wrote a composition on the occasion of her birthday. Handel thoroughly en­joyed his stay in England and showed no signs of going back to the Electoral Court at Hanover. As it turned out, the Elector came to him. When Queen Anne died in 1714, the Elector of Hanover succeeded her. In the autumn of that year, the coronation of Georg Ludwig took place at Westminster Abbey.

The arrival of King George I must have led to a few uncomfortable hours on Handel's part. But, as the tale goes, the reconciliation between the new king and his truant music director took place during a boating party on the Thames River. Handel had composed a work to be performed by groups of musicians placed on barges in the river. This Water Music is said to have softened the heart of King George, and thus it assured Handel's permanent stay in England. A nice story…!

The British people enjoyed Handel's music. They liked the Italian, Ger­man, and French trademarks which Handel used throughout his works. Yet, a change could be noted. Slowly but surely, the concertgoers demanded truly English music, music based on the traditions of their own native composers, such as Henry Purcell. Handel was a good listener. He realized that the days of Italian opera were counted, and he hastened to find a genuine English substitute.

Handel found the answer in the oratorio form. The word oratorio stems from a religious order founded by Philip Neri in the 16th Century. The Congregazione dell' Oratorio devoted much time to prayer. Each morning, the members of the order would get together for a prayer meeting in the "ora­torio." During the meeting, scenes from Scripture would be enacted, complete with musical accompaniment. Gradually, the term oratorio indicated the composition itself.

In 1720, Handel had composed a musical drama, Haman and Mordecai. Seventeen years later, the composer re­vised the work and used it to introduce the oratorio form. There were several advantages to this type of performance. The costs were considerably lower than those incurred with opera performances. Expensive, true Italian soloists and lavish sets depicting various backgrounds were no longer needed.

At the first announcement of the new oratorio, the Bishop of London forbade the representation of Biblical characters in the theatres, but Handel quickly reassured him that there would be no acting, no stage settings, etc. — just plain vocal music with an instru­mental accompaniment.

The London audiences were very enthusiastic. Finally, the middle-class concertgoer was able to understand the plot. The Italian-style operas had been favored by the aristocracy; the oratorio found its following among the common people.

Handel couldn't produce his oratorios quickly enough. The Jewish community in London was very pleased with Works such as Saul, Israel in Egypt, Jephtha, and Judas Maccabaeus. The composer/businessman added a few organ concerti to the programs and performed them himself as intermission features. A full house was guaranteed!

In 1741, Handel received an invi­tation to visit Ireland. His fame had spread, and the Irish wanted to expe­rience this oratorio man firsthand. Various charitable organizations orga­nized concerts, and in April 1742, one of Dublin's leading newspapers carried the following announcement:

For the relief of the Prisoners in several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen's Street, and for the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn's Quay, on Monday the Twelfth of April will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel's new Grand Oratorio called Messiah, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertos on the Organ by Mr. Handel.

Handel had begun the composi­tion of his "Grand Oratorio" in August 1741. Some scholars suggest that Charles Jennens, an eccentric millionaire, a pompous man who had a very high opin­ion of himself, presented Handel with a new libretto, a new text for an orato­rio. Others suggest that someone else had selected the Biblical passages, and Jennens merely passed them on, taking all the credit. Whatever the case may have been, Handel was confronted with the raw material for a new oratorio.

It took the composer twenty-four days to complete the entire work. From the manuscript, which is still kept in the British Museum, we may conclude that some passages were written at an in­credibly high speed. Notes are flung on the paper, blobs of ink are found in several places, while other sections sug­gest ripped paper in an effort to scratch out mistakes. Numerous anecdotes de­scribe Handel's intensity throughout the weeks in which he composed Messiah. He is said to have stayed in a tiny room. Plates of food were returned un­touched, and a servant once found his master sobbing emotionally upon the completion of the aria "He was De­spised." Handel himself has been quoted as saying, "I did think I did see all the Heavens before me, and the great God Himself."

Throughout Messiah, Handel used two types of song: the recitative and the aria. The recitative is used to tell the lis­tener the basic lines of the plot or story and the aria provides additional comments. Musically, the melody of a rec­itative is straightforward, but the tune of an aria is elaborate and quite embellished.

The oratorio Messiah is divided in­to three parts.

  • Part One deals with the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah and the birth of Christ.

  • Part Two speaks of Christ's suffering, death, and resur­rection, and the spreading of the gospel to the ends of the earth.

  • Part Three tells us of Christ's final triumph and His second coming.

At this time of the year, it is usual­ly Part One that receives most attention, and we will limit our discussion to this part only. The text of this section can be subdivided into six parts.

  1. The or­chestra opens with an overture, and leads into section A. The words are taken from Isaiah 40, and prophesy the coming of the Messiah, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." A tenor sings the recitative, but continues with a more descriptive aria in which we hear that "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain." Note how the word crooked is set to a very angular melody, in contrast with the long note used on straight. The entire choir continues with a song of praise: "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed."

  2. Section B starts with a recitative in the minor mode. It describes the terrible aspects of the Lord's appearance. The sea, earth, heavens, and nations will shake. Again Handel elaborates on the word shake. The first time, the soloist sings the shaking melodic line alone, then the orchestra takes it over. The section ends once again with a choral outburst, leading us back to the joy with which the first section concluded.

  3. Section C is in the major mode and describes the coming of the Lord, bringing the light of His glory to the earth.

  4. Section D provides contrast. The people who walked in darkness will see a great light. "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given." Handel ends the prophecies with the names of the Messiah: "Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!"

  5. A gentle orchestral interlude sets the scene for the shepherds. They were also dwelling in the darkness of the night when they saw the light of the angel. Section E closes with a hymn of the angels praising God.

  6. The last section, section F, con­cludes Part One. Here two themes are suggested.

  • First of all, there is Christ the King who will come to Jerusalem, the daughter of Zion. An aria for the soprano voice emphasizes the joy which stems from the coming of the King, the righteous Savior. Praise and joy are also expressed by the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the dumb.

  • The second theme shows us Christ as a Shepherd, carrying the lambs and leading those that are with young. The section closes with another choral selection. "His yoke is easy and His burthen is light." The part is treated with some restraint, preparing the listener for Part Two: the passion of the Lamb.

Although the public in Dublin reacted very favorably to the first performance of Messiah, its London counterpart was very critical. The work was not performed for years, and it took until 1750 before Handel dared to give it one more try. He had made a number of changes in the original score and prepared it for a public concert organized by the Directors of the Foundling Hospital in London. Once again Messiah was performed as a fund-raising effort at a benefit concert. In an attempt to raise a maximum amount of money for the hospital, ladies were requested to take the hoops out of their wide dresses, while the gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home. The more people, the more money! This time, the audience was quite pleased. The performance of Handel's Messiah became a tradition at the Foundling Hospital.

When we hear the strains of Handel's Messiah, let it be more than just a tradition at Christmas time. Let us re­member the mystery of godliness; God was manifest in the flesh...

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