The Messiah: A History

December 16, 2019

There is nothing quite like the opening strains of Handel's Messiah. The bold strokes of violin and cello bows foretell the delicious sounds to come.

Most people know about the Messiah, or if not about the Messiah, then about the Hallelujah Chorus, by far the most familiar of the nineteen choruses. A few people even know about the incredible speed with which Handel composed this tremendous amount of music (although the actual amount of time most people quote is not accurate).

Handel began his career as a musician when the Duke of Weissenfels heard him playing the organ as a boy. Handel's father, who had been grooming his son to enter law, was probably influenced by the Duke's compliments, and allowed his son to study music.

Handel set to work. By 18, he had composed an opera. He wrote music for patrons and churches, but never committed for anything long-term. In short, he wrote music for himself, and sometimes this brought him into brief contact with those who would fund his work.

By his forties, Handel was the leading composer of Italian operas. But it was a work that started to lose its fascination for him.

The reason for this was that these operas were becoming outrageously expensive to fund--he hired his performers largely from Italy and had elaborate sets built for each opera.

Handel turned his attention instead to oratorios. Oratorios were a sort of simplified opera with no set. Instead, the focus was entirely on music and musical interpretation.

This musical genre was not new to Handel. Early in his career, he had composed several, but his attention had been divided then. Now he returned to his earlier interest.

This was where Handel shone. He knew music and he knew how to convey emotion with his musical tools and without the "distractions" of set and costume. He composed several oratorios before sequestering himself away from the world and writing his most famous piece, The Messiah.

It is commonly touted that Handel wrote the piece in two week's time, barely stopping to eat.

The truth is that Handel spent at least three weeks with this work, and that he very likely took full lunch breaks since he was known to have a voracious appetite.

Handel took his Messiah to Dublin, Ireland for an Easter performance. He hoped for--rather than expected--a warm reception to his work. It was less theatrical than anything he had done previously. Reality exceeded even his hopes. Dublin's reception wasn't merely warm--it was enthusiastic.

The rumor is that when The Messiah premiered in London, The Hallelujah Chorus was so majestic that King George II stood to his feet, sparking a tradition that is still observed today. It's hard to tell if this was exactly the way it happened or not. At some point, the king did stand, but why he did is not as certain.

Handel continued to write music until his death in 1759, but The Messiah always held a special place in his heart.

And no wonder. With the entirety of its lyrics taken from Scripture, he must've been amazed by the Word while composing the score.

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