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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 (with one exception*): 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* 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.

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

Trumpets and timpani are required in the final chorus and concluding "Amen."

Performance and Reception History

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. He begged the composer many times to remedy its perceived defects. In January 1743 Jennens wrote to his friend Edward Holdsworth,

Messiah has disappointed me, being set in great haste, tho’ [Handel] said he would be a year about it, and make it the best of all his Compositions. I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abus’d.

Six weeks later he wrote further on the subject,

‘Tis still in his power by retouching the weak parts to make it fit for publick performance; and I have said a great deal to him on the Subject; but he is so lazy and so obstinate, that I much doubt the Effect.

Jennens’ allowed in 1743 that “in the main” Messiah was “a fine Composition,” but he continued to pressure Handel to make changes. And Handel did, so much so that the work was never entirely stable until the composer’s death. Some of the changes responded to Jennens’ wishes, but other simply accommodated changes in casting. In August 1745 Jennens reported to Holdsworth

I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition, but he retained his Overture obstinately in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of Messiah.

Reception in Dublin

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.

Reception in London

Initially, Messiah’s main roost in London in the 1740s was the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. In England the work was considered a Passion oratorio. [Its first performance, marked neither Advent nor Passion, since it took place almost four weeks after Easter (March 25 in 1742).] The first performance in London took place on March 23, 1743. The initial reception was more mixed than in Dublin. The cause of charity was absent. Some influential attendees regarded passages of the text setting as insensitive to the meaning of the words.

Covent Garden was, of course, an opera house. Protestant England was more lax about opera performances during Lent than were Catholic countries, but oratorios offered a convenient compromise by way of the genre’s ambiguity. Musically, both consisted primarily of an opening sinfonia, arias, and recitatives. In Handel’s case, the differences between opera and oratorio were spelled out by their texts and the portions of it that were strongly emphasized musically. Handel also provided many choruses, and on the whole these would have been much fewer in opera. Jennens’ had had a strong desire to promote his singular idea of “kingship” in the musical realization of Messiah, and in this regard Handel did not fail him: the “king of kings” theme is put in high relief in the "Halleluia" Chorus, which has always been Messiah’s most highly prized element.

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.