Messiah

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

With the arguable exception of the Water Music, the oratorio Messiah is the one work of Handel's which is universally known. Yet it was composed at a time when Handel's fortunes were at a low ebb. His final attempt to return to opera with Imeneo (1740) and Deidamia (1741) had proved a failure, and rumor even had it that, having despaired of the London public, he was preparing to leave England. Fortuitously, the clergyman and writer Charles Jennens, Handel's collaborator in Saul, lured Handel back to the idea of English oratorio; at much the same time, the composer received an offer from William Cavendish, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to take part in the following season of oratorio performances in Dublin. The libretto offered to Handel by Jennens was based around the birth and Passion of Christ. It was called Messiah. Handel set to work on the libretto on August 22, 1741, completing the score just over three weeks later on September 12.

The resulting sacred, non-dramatic oratorio was a first for Handel, and, although it heralded the composer's final great phase of oratorio composition, he never wrote one like it again. Messiah is therefore completely atypical within the context of Handel's oratorios, the majority of which relate to Old Testament or Apocryphal stories in dramatized form. As a statement of Christian faith it moves the worldly Handel closer to Bach than any other work of his, although not sufficiently to prevent contemporary accusations of operatic influences. It is also worth recalling that during Handel's day Messiah was more frequently performed in theaters than in churches.

Jennens divided his text into three parts, the first of which deals with the Prophecy of the Messiah and its fulfillment. The second takes us from the Passion to the triumph of the Resurrection, while the final part deals with the role of the Messiah in life after death. Handel's setting consists of the usual juxtaposition of recitative, arias, and choruses. Jennens' libretto draws across a wide spectrum of both Old and New Testament sources, but uniquely among Handel's oratorios there are no named characters. The drama is thus articulated purely through the textual message, most powerfully through the overwhelming choruses that have ensured the enduring popularity of the oratorio. The first performance took place at the New Music Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. It was received with huge acclaim, the Dublin Journal proclaiming that "Messiah was allowed by the greatest Judges to be the finest Composition of Musick that ever was heard." The following year the triumph was repeated at Covent Garden, when Handel added two more solos. Further revisions took place in 1745 at the famous Foundling Hospital performances, leaving all subsequent conductors with editorial problems as to Handel's "final" intentions. By the time of the composer's death in 1758 Messiah had already attained an iconic status it has never relinquished.

Alongside its immensely popular choruses -- of which the "Hallelujah" is king -- Messiah's primary allure is its effective arias and recitatives for solo voices. The opening "Every Valley," sung by tenor, sets the tone for tunefulness and expressive charm, and is well-matched by the soprano's "Rejoice Greatly," the alto's "He was Despised" and the bass' "The Trumpet Shall Sound."

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