Handel’s Messiah

Who doesn’t instantly recognize the chorus from Handel’s “Messiah”? “The Messiah is Handel’s most famous composition, and its Hallelujah chorus is familiar to people all over the Western world. Written in 1741, it is one of the most frequently-performed large works for choir in the world today, most often performed at Christmas and Easter” (quote source here).

The “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah” is performed by The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra in the YouTube video above. The following information is provided from an article published on December 16, 2020, titled, The Story Behind Handel’s Messiah,” by John Stonestreet, President of The Colson Center and BreakPoint Radio co-host, and Roberto Rivera, senior fellow and columnist for the Charles Colson Center and Breakpoint:

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was mainly a composer of operas. In fact, he composed dozens of them. Though his productions were popular in 18th century London, Handel had his enemies — he was a foreigner, born in Germany, by many accounts not a very likeable fellow, and his rivals detested his style of opera. He was also kind of a large, awkward man, rough and hot-tempered enough to earn the nickname “The Great Bear.” 

When his operas and his health began to fail, Handel sank into bankruptcy and despair, believing his career was over. In 1741, he was invited to Ireland to direct one of his works at a charity performance. Handel decided to write a new oratorio. 

A deeply religious man, he turned away from the human foibles common to his operas and chose his text and themes from Scripture. It was then that something remarkable happened. He began composing with a super-human zeal and energy. People thought he was mad, or even under a spell. One servant reported that Handel seldom ate or slept and worked with such frenzy that his fingers could no longer grip his pen. He was, in fact, in the grip of divine inspiration. The result is one of the world’s great masterworks, Messiah. 

Handel finished Part I in only six days. He finished Part II in nine days, and Part III in six days. The orchestration took him only a few days more. In other words, in all, two-and-a-half hours of the world’s most magnificent music was composed in less than twenty-five days. When he finished, he sobbed: “I think that I did see all heaven before me, and the great God Himself!” 

Immediately, from its premiere in Dublin in 1742, Messiah was pronounced a masterpiece. Messiah recounts the prophecies of Christ and his triumphant birth, utilizing an amazing amount of Scripture including passages like, “For unto us a child is born . . . and the government shall be upon His shoulders.” And “His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God . . . the Prince of Peace.” In fact, Messiah pulls from the Psalms, Job, Isaiah, Lamentations, Haggai, Malachi, Zechariah, Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Hebrews, and Revelation.

At its London premiere, King George was so moved by the “Hallelujah Chorus” that he spontaneously rose from his seat. The entire audience followed his example and, for the past 250-plus years, audiences have continued to do the same. 

After the success of Messiah, Handel continued to write religious music. Beethoven said: “To him I bend the knee, for Handel was the greatest, ablest composer that ever lived.” Even after his eyesight failed, Handel continued to perform until, at age 74, he collapsed while conducting a performance of Messiah. He was put to bed saying, “I should like to die on Good Friday.” 

Instead, he died on Holy Saturday, April 14th, 1759. Handel’s grave, at Westminster Abbey, is marked by a statue of him with a score of Messiah opened on the table. The page that is visible is, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” 

It is a work that retains the power to move us. My wife starts listening to Messiah each year during Advent, or even a bit earlier. Like King George, our hearts still rise at that great triumphal chorus. We sing “Hallelujah” to the King who will reign forever and ever.

 A version of this commentary by Chuck Colson first aired December 22, 2000. (Quote source here.) Also available at this link is audio version of the above script as well as a print friendly pdf.

In an article published on December 16, 2011, titled, Why Handel’s ‘Messiah’ Endures,” by Jennifer A. Marshall, a former Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and Director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation at the time this article was published, she writes:

It’s one of the most famous and widely shared pieces of music in history.

Handel intended his oratorio “Messiah” for Lent, and it was first performed just after Easter 1742. But over the centuries, public performances of the masterwork became a rite of Christmas…. 

What explains the enduring attraction of Handel’s “Messiah”?

For one thing, the sheer beauty of the music. For another, the incredible skill of the composer. In one of history’s most astounding creative feats, Handel produced the 260-page score in just 24 days.

Beethoven—whose Ninth Symphony’s final movement (“Ode to Joy”) rivals the Hallelujah Chorus of “Messiah” for widespread emotional appeal—is said to have revered Handel as the greatest of composers.

The lasting popularity also owes to the work’s moving text, drawn from the Bible. From prophecy to incarnation to death and resurrection, the life of Christ has been called the greatest story ever told. Indeed, Leland Ryken and other Christian literary scholars have noted how the narrative qualities of biblical revelation are finely tuned to the way we’re made as humans.

Together, the music and subject of Handel’s “Messiah” reach the sublime status of great art that speaks to “what is permanent in the human soul,” as the 19th-century poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold wrote. No wonder we love to hear it at Christmas, the time of year that calls us back to the permanent things….

Nearly three centuries since its debut, crowds continue to gather for Handel’s “Messiah” because the stunning crescendos and familiar choruses draw us toward answers to “the hopes and fears of all the years.” (Quote source and the complete article are available at this link.)

The entire score of Handel’s “Messiah” is available from many sources on YouTube, and the link provided below is from The Queen’s College in Oxford, England.

YouTube Video: “Handel’s Messiah” by Academy of Ancient Music AAM & Choir of The Queen’s College, Oxford:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

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