Messiah (HWV 56)
Composed by George Frideric Handel
Handel's famous oratorio Messiah comes down to us as the best known and most widely performed of his compositions. Its fame rests on many factors—its gestation under favorable social circumstances then, its versatility and easy availability in ours. Overriding these extraneous factors is the virtue of the music itself: majestic and contrite by turns, carefully balanced throughout, and within the capabilities of diligent amateurs. This website provides copious performing materials for Messiah, with substantial background information concerning the rubrics on which these materials are based.
2 Handel's Messiah
Composed in the summer of 1741 and first performed in the spring of 1742, Messiah is suspended between sacred and secular spheres. The title Messiah, used for its first performances in Dublin, suggests a sacred work, although it was initially performed as a concert piece. The piece was simply called a Sacred Oratorio for its London premiere (1743), but objections were raised to its performance in the theater. Not until performances began in the chapel of London's Foundling Hospital (1750) was the ambiguous cast of the work matched by a similar ambiguity of space.
All of Handel's oratorios reflected to one degree or another his cultural immersion in an Anglo-Protestant society. When Messiah was first performed Dublin had a substantial Anglo-Irish nobility and maintained strong cultural ties to London. Messiah can be differentiated from most earlier oratorios by Handel in the degree to which the ideas of Charles Jennens, Handel's collaborator, drove the work. It is Jennens's theological views that are projected. Messiah's chameleon ability to transcend social and cultural boundaries continues to expand up to the present day.
2.1 The Architecture of Messiah
1.4 And the glory of the Lord
1.7 And He shall purify
1.10 O Thou that tellest
1.13 For unto us a child is born
1.19 Glory to God in the highest
1.23 His yoke is easy
2.3 Surely, surely; And with his stripes
2.4 All we like sheep
2.6 He trusted in God
2.11 Lift up your heads
2.13 Let all the angels of God worship Him
2.16* Their sound is gone out
2.18 Let us break their bonds
The movement we term 2.16* in our edition exists in five versions and the the chorus indicated here first occurs as a separate one in 1745. The segmentation of the text and the portions assigned to soloist and chorus vary from case to case, both before and after 1745. (Details are given in the downloadable list of versions from Handel's lifetime.) Oboes are also called for in this later accretion. The "Halleluia" chorus includes parts for trumpets and timpani.
3.2 Since by man came death (with soloists)
3.7 But thanks be to God
3.9 Worthy is the Lamb
Trumpets and timpani are required in the final chorus and concluding "Amen."
2.2 The "Halleluia" Chorus
Messiah is especially noted for its choruses. The most famous one is the "Halleluia" chorus that ends Part Two. The choruses are noted for their imitative vocal entries, which contribute to cascades of contrapuntal complexity as various groups of instruments highlight particular passages or counter vocal entries with musically independent passages.
3 Messiah during Handel's Lifetime
Handel thought when he composed the work that Messiah would be performed in London. A visit to Dublin that began in November 1741 enabled him to offer a series of subscription concerts whose success led to a second one.
[In consequence a second series was launched on February 17, 1742. Starting with a performance of Alexander's Feast, the new series continued on Wednesdays through April 7, when the featured work was a revised version of Esther.]
The idea of performing Messiah in Dublin came about as a bonus offering following the second series of concerts. An open rehearsal of the oratorio took place the day after the second series finished. Its official premiere the following Tuesday (April 13, at noon) was an anticlimax, because the open rehearsal caused Messiah to be declared "the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard." The premiere simply confirmed this lofty evaluation.
3.1 Background to Handel's Visit to Dublin
Messiah had come into being at the request of Dublin's Charitable Infirmary to compose a work to encourage contributions to the "Dublin sick." At the time hospitals were used more to separate the sick from the rest of society than to treat their maladies. When Messiah had its final Dublin performance, on June 3, there were some changes of cast, and organ concertos were performed with it. Other concerts filled the intervening weeks. Among them were a benefit for the Dublin music publishers William and Bartholomew Mainwaring, and Handel's oratorio Saul. Its Dead March became an instant favorite.
3.2 Reception and Performance History
Our knowledge of the performance history of Messiah between its composition in September 1741 and Handel’s death in April 1759 is rich and constantly changing. Messiah's most persistent detractor was Charles Jennens, its librettist. Handel’s original setting was weak and unsatisfactory, according to Jennens. He pressed the composer many times to remedy what Jennens perceived as its perceived defects. In January 1743 Jennens wrote to his friend Edward Holdsworth,
Six weeks later he wrote further on the subject,
3.2.1 Dublin Performances
To its first audience in Dublin Messiah was a resounding success, for it achieved a great charitable goal: poor debtors were released from prison in proportion to its financial success. The composer and two singers of the original cohort donated their share of the proceeds to this cause. Nine performances in Dublin can be dated between the premiere on April 13, 1742, and an Advent performance on December 16, 1756. All of them seem to have met with the “universal applause” merited by the subject, the setting, and the qualities of the performances. All were benefits.
Although there was a performance on June 3, 1742, and February 1, 1744, it appears that from 1745 onward Messiah was an Advent work in Dublin. The actual number of special and seasonal performance there within Handel’s lifetime must easily have reached fifteen. Handel was present for the premiere, but in subsequent years others were in charge. G. B. Marella was the conductor in the 1750s. The performing tradition in Dublin is less well documented than in England. We can be sure, though, that Messiah was invariably well received there. Attendees traveled tens of miles to witness the performance, year in and year out.
3.2.2 London Performances: Covent Garden
3.2.3 London Performances: The Foundling Hospital
Such institutions fostered strong musical allegiances because the noble families who supported them believed that music bettered the soul. They particularly cherished music made well by children. The Foundling Hospital's benefactors include such noted painters as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and Handel himself. The composer provided an organ and gave benefit performances at the Hospital. At his death, a valuable set of performance parts fell became the possession of the institution. Today the park known as "Coram's Fields" marks the spot where the original Hospital stood.
3.2.4 Oxford and Cambridge Performances
3.2.5 Performances after Handel's Death
Performances of Messiah remained popular in England throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At Covent Garden Smith and John Stanley continued the oratorio series through the mid 1770s, when the concerts moved to Drury Lane Theater. In 1784 a commemorative performance of gigantic proportions was intended to mark the first anniversary of Handel's birth (erroneously believed to have taken place one year earlier than it had).  More than 500 performers were involved in the Westminster Abbey performance. (A second commemoration in London's Crystal Palace took place in 1884.)
4 Monumental Editions of Messiah
4.1 The Arnold Edition of Handel's Works
His edition of Messiah appeared in 1790. It contains much richer figuration of the basso continuo than earlier manuscript versions. This is likely to reflect the reduced training that accompanists were receiving in the “realization” of the sketch of accompaniment that a continuo part otherwise provided. A more detailed prescription was required. The skills that he brought to the task from long experience as a harpsichordist at Covent Garden suggest that his figuration represented the highest standards of the time.
4.2 The Händel-Gesellschaft (HG) Edition
In 1858 work was began on the more extensively “complete” works that were produced by the Händel-Gesellschaft (Georg Friedrich Händels Werke) under the direction of Friedrich Chrysander. By its completion in 1902 it contained 94 volumes (several in two tomes) and five supplements. Chrysander also edited all the published works of Arcangelo Corelli (now available in PDFs with associated MIDI files at http://corelli.ccarh.org), Bach’s keyboard works, and Palestrina’s motets.
4.3 The Hallische Händel Ausgabe (HHA)
The current effort to publish all known music by Handel resides with the edition managed in Halle, Germany. It was initiated in 1952 with the intention of supplementing HG, but discoveries continue to be made, and in 1958 it was launched as a new edition. Although it was through most of its publication history signaled by the letters HHA, these have now been superseded by the use of Baselt's Handel catalogue of works (HWV for the Händel-Werke-Verzeichnis).
5 The MuseData Edition of Messiah
5.1 Identifiable Versions (1741-1761)
Over time the differences from one version to another can be said most often to reflect changes in voicing or orchestration. A few pieces became shorter with revision. There was a slight increase in the use of choral material, although the choruses were by far the most stable elements of the work. There is no formula by which these tendencies can be broadly applied. Messiah's continuous state of evolution leaves many open questions for today's performers. In the case of Messiah, the number of sources surviving from Handel's own time is fewer than the number of documented productions.
1 Handel's autograph manuscript (1741)
2 Libretto for first public version (Dublin 1742)
3 Covent Garden libretto for first English version (1743)
4 Covent Garden libretto (1745)
5 Covent Garden libretto (1749)
6 Covent Garden libretto (1750)
7 Foundling Hospital performances (1754-59), parts (1759)
8 Handel's conducting score (c. 1758)
9 Manuscript of James Matthews (chorister) (1761)
5.2 Principal Manuscript Sources
|Place: Library||Shelfmark||Date(s)||Copyist(s); Notes|
|1: London: British Library (GB-Lbl)||R.M.20.f.2||1741||Autograph Score by G. F. Handel|
|2: Oxford: Bodleian Library (GB-Ob)||Tenbury MSS 346-7||1742, 1743, 1745, 1750||Single score, multiple versions|
|3: London: Foundling Hospital (GB-Lfm)||Gerald Coke Collection||1759||Parts|
|4: Hamburg: University Library (D-Hu)||MA/1030||1758-1760||Conducting score|
|5: Dublin: March Library (IRL-Dm)||Z.i.2.26||1761||MS of James Matthews (chorister)|
5.3 Listening Materials
The earliest collective use of the the variant material included in the MuseData score and parts was by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (directed by Nicholas McGegan) with the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus (led by Bruce Lamott). Harmonia Mundi recorded a "main version" and most variants in 1991 (HMU 907050.52). The CD-user could, by following a trail through the bands of the CD set, program any of the versions that have survived from Handel’s lifetime (or shortly thereafter). More recently, these materials have been made available online through multiple vendors, e.g. amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Handel-Messiah/dp/B000QQUX1Y) and iTunes (http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/handel-messiah/id82182810). Many other recordings of the work exist, but these are only cases we know of that make alternative versions available for comparison.
5.4 Performance Issues
2 Bassi and Tutti bassi: In a context of strings only, Handel’s bassi were cellos and double basses (violini. In a string-and-wind context, bassi parts could include bassoons: the cues “with bassoon” and “without bassoon” (con or senza fagotto) are the only clues to shifts in the accompanying instruments. Tutti bassi has the overall intent of requiring all available instruments of the bass register, but its instructional value is relative, not absolute.
3 Oboe scoring: Oboe parts and cures are absent in the autograph and other manuscripts of the 1740s, but their use is well documented for the Foundling Hospital performance of the 1750s and may have been used prior to written indications. Parts for oboes are preserved in the Coke Collection (at the Foundling House) and in a manuscript at King’s College, Cambridge, dating from the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
Overall usage clearly varied from place to place. Oboes, horns, and kettledrums (timpani) were all used at the Foundling Hospital performance of the 1750s. Two oboes and one bassoon, with horns, trumpets, and drums in unspecified numbers, played with a string orchestra of 24 at Salisbury Cathedral in 1752. A Foundling Hospital performance in 1754 involved four oboes, four bassoons, two trumpets, two horns, a pair of kettledrums, and a string section of 24. It is consistent with these reports that the Foundling Hospital and Matthews manuscripts provide the clearest indications of what the oboes played.
Variations in content are largely confined to a few numbers in each section of the oratorio. Some were changed over and over. Full details correlating MuseData content with specific versions can be downloaded in Table A.
6 Score and Parts
- Full Score (2003 version), 280 pages.
- Choral score (1990 version). Movements with vocal parts, plus first violin and basso continuo parts.
- Full Score (1990 version), 404 pages.
- The error was based on a failure to reconcile Julian dates falling between January 1 and March 25 with with the Gregorian calendar, which was adopted in England 1752. Handel was born on February 23, 1685, and arrived in England in 1711.
Baselt, Bernd. Dokumente zu Leben und Schaffen, v. 4 of the Händel-Handbuch Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1985.
British Library: Autograph Manuscript [R.M.20.f.2] of Handel’s Messiah (as a “virtual book”): http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/virtualbooks/detect.html?id=38FD72B2-5B98-4FC2-AAAE-98E717E8D512&accessfolder=handel
Burrows, Donald. “'Mr. Harris's score': A new look at the 'Mathews' manuscript of Handel's Messiah,” Music & Letters (2005), 86(4) 560-572.
Burrows, Donald. “The autographs and early copies of Messiah: Some further thoughts, Music & Letters (1985), 66(3) 201-19.
Larsen, Jens Peter. Handel’s Messiah. New York, 1972.
McGegan, Nicholas. "Which Messiah?," Musical Times, 133(1797) 577-579.
Shaw, Watkins. “Handel's Messiah: Supplementary notes on sources,” Music & Letters (August 1995), 76(3) 356-368.
The complete Händel-Gesellschaft edition is available in digital files from the Munich Digitalization Center’s website: http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/ausgaben/uni_ausgabe.html?projekt=1193214396&recherche=ja&ordnung=sig
Published on December 21, 2011 by the Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities at Stanford University. Comments may be sent to esfield ++at++ stanford.edu