George Frideric Handel

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'Their sound is gone out into all lands and their words unto the ends of the world'. (Romans 10:18)

Fac-simile of the autograph score of Messiah: an oratorio composed in the year 1714, by G. F. Handel (London: Sacred Harmonic Society, 1868) (0.7MB).

Handel's Messiah

By the 18th century the King James Bible had succeeded, much as Jerome’s Vulgate had done centuries before, in displacing its rivals. Its triumph is probably most evident in George Frideric Handel’s well known piece of choral music, the Messiah (1741-42). The libretto, composed by Charles Jennens, was taken almost exclusively from the King James text. In this lyric form, phrases from the text of the KJB remain familiar today:

'We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet" (1 Cor. 15:51-52).

'Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing, and honour, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever' (Rev. 5:12-13).

The message conveyed through Jennen's lyrics is that Jesus Christ truly is the Messiah prophesised by the Hebrews. Old Testament texts which predicted his coming are used to tell the story of Jesus's life.

Jennens wanted the Messiah to be performed in London during Passion Week but Handel chose to perform it in Dublin in April 1742 as the season finale to his series of oratorios and concert works. The first London performance of the Messiah at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (March 1743) drew a mixed reaction, some critics questioning whether the Scriptures should be heard in a theatre.

Handel's oratorios Messiah, Samson and Judas Maccabaeus, combining scared texts with musical brilliance, established his reputation as a great composer. In 1784 King Geroge III lent his enthusiastic support to a huge Handel Commemoration held mostly in Westminster Abbey, featuring the Messiah, with choristers and musicians from far and wide taking part in repeat performances. Commemoration events took place in other English cities and generated interest in Europe. The Messiah was introduced to Florence (1768), Hamburg 1772, Berlin (1786) and by Mozart, to Vienna (1786-90).

During the 19th century in Britain, group choral singing became popular and the availablity of cheap scores (e.g. Novello) meant that amateur choral societies could easily acquaint themselves with the Messiah and perform it annually. Handel's death was commemorated with a Centenary Festival in June 1859 at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham (now the London Borough of Lewisham). Again the Messiah was featured, and as in 1784, the large scale perfomances were celebrations of national pride as well as demonstrations of appreciation for the music of Handel.

The Messiah is still performed annually in Christchurch, and in Britain and the USA the Hallelujah chorus from it remains popular as a part of Christmas celebrations. YouTube contains several ‘flash mob’ performances of this well-loved chorus.

Further Reading

Anthony Hicks, 'Handel, George Frideric', Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online (last accessed 23 February 2012) (Canterbury Staff/Students only)

Winton Dean, The New Grove Handel (London: Papermac, Macmillan, 1982).

Online Resources

Messiah at CCARHWiki


Fac-simile of the autograph score of Messiah: an oratorio composed in the year 1714, by G. F. Handel. (London: Sacred Harmonic Society, 1868).