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Messiah (HWV 56) Composed by George Frideric Handel

Handel's most famous and most often performed work is the oratorio Messiah, composed in 1741 and first performed in Dublin in 1742. Many individual numbers within the work have become independently familiar.

As it comes to us in the twenty-first century, Messiah is unusual in several respects. Its text suggest that it is a sacred work, but it has enjoyed a substantial life as concert fare. A north German in the service of the British crown, Handel's oratorios were symbols of the (protestant) Church of England and its stature in British society. Dublin, which we know today as the capital of Eire (Ireland), was heavily dominated in Handel's time by English gentlemen.

The First Messiah

Although Handel had imagined when he composed the work in the summer of 1741 that Messiah would be performed in London. An invited stay in Dublin began in November led to a series of subscription concerts that were wildly successful. 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.

Messiah's first performance was an open rehearsal of Messiah that took place the day after the second series finished. Its official premiere the following Tuesday (April 13, at noon) was an anticlimax, and the open rehearsal caused Messiah to be declared "the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard." The premiere simply confirmed this lofty evaluation.

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.

The Architecture of Messiah

The oratorio was structured in three parts: (1) music narrating highpoints from the prophecy of Isaiah to the early life of Jesus; (2) Jesus's death and resurrection; and (3) the sins and judgment of mankind. Each of these can be parsed into several scenes. Handel's choruses serve as a good guide to the many segments of the work.

In Part One the choruses are these:
       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 in easy

All are present in the autograph manuscript of 1741. All are scored for four-voice choir (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), and all have string accompaniment. Trumpets are required in "Glory to God in the highest," and oboes were added in later revisions.

The same principles pertain to the remaining choruses of the work: all of them originate in the 1741 autograph. Part Two has the largest number of choruses and culminates with the great "Halleluiah" chorus. Where they overlap with choruses, adjustments to solo parts caused some variability of scoring from version to version.

       2.1     Behold the Lamb of God
       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
     2.21     Hallelujah

The movement we term 2.16* is our edition exists in five versions. The segmentation of the text and the portions assigned to soloist and chorus vary from case to case. That detail is expanded in the downloadable list of versions.

Part Three is much simpler in its structure. Its choruses are these:
       3.2     Soli, Chorus: Since by man came death (with soloists)
       3.7     But thanks be to God
       3.9     Worthy is the Lamb
      3.10    Amen

Performance History

It had one persistent detractor: Charles Jennens, its librettist.

The Messiah Phenomenon

Because of the immediate popularity of individual choral and vocal numbers in Messiah, the work was rapidly circulated and adapted to varying circumstances. The rise of choral societies in the third quarter of the century had a symbiotic relationship with Handel's masterpiece. The more the work was performed, the greater the number of groups performing it. Inevitably, each new venue created its own opportunities and limitations. Soloists and sometimes keys of particular pieces could be altered. Orchestration accommodated the resources available. On the whole, the size both increased.

These trends continued in the nineteenth century such that by the time of the Crystal Palace Exposition (in London in xx) the proportions reached what seems to have been their maximum extent: xx.

Two of the most durable milestones of eighteenth-century dissemination were the Foundling Hospital parts (xx) and the Samuel Arnold edition (178xx).

The Foundling Hospital Parts

Tinted illustration by Thomas Rowlandson et al., 1809

London's Foundling Hospital, established on Bloomsbury Fields in 1739, mirrored in its aims the well established institutions for orphans in Italy and France. The famous of these was the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where all the orphans were female and where a select group reached the stature of musical professionals under the tuition of such maestri as Antonio Vivaldi.

Such institutions fostered strong musical allegiances because the noble families who supported them believed that music bettered the soul. They 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.

The Arnold Edition

Score and Parts

  • Full Score (2003 version), 280 pages.
  • Choral score (1990 version). Movements with vocal parts, plus first violin and basso continuo parts.
  • Continuo part (2003 version), with figured harmony based on the Samuel Arnold Edition of 1790, 101 pages.
  • Expanded Continuo part (2003 version), with figured harmony based on the Samuel Arnold Edition of 1790, 197 pages. Included continuo part plus treble staff with melodies and primary voices.