Seeing Handel’s Messiah for the first time

“I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.”—George Frederick Handel, responding to a compliment on the fine entertainment Messiah had provided its audience

“And without Controversy, great is the Mystery of Godliness: God was manifested in the Flesh, justified by the Spirit, seen of Angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the World, received up in Glory.”—Preface to Messiah, printed on the original libretto

I saw this work performed yesterday at Boston’s Symphony Hall by the Handel and Haydn Society, who has been performing it annually since 1854. It was for me both an entertaining and devotional experience. I had studied the work in college (I was a music minor), but never had I heard it performed live, and never from start to finish all in one sitting. The difference between listening to music as a series of MP3 files through laptop speakers and listening to it in a concert hall is enormous. One compresses the sound, the other delivers it directly in all its acoustical fullness. One lacks visuals (singers’ expressions, musicians’ handwork), the other puts them up on stage. One is a private experience, the other public, communal. All these latter factors add dimensionality to the work and helped me to experience it more fully as Handel intended.

Handel monument

The monument above Handel’s grave in Westminster Abbey, London, England. Artist: Louis François Roubillac. Year: 1759-1762. Photo © Courtauld Institute of Art. Handel is shown holding the musical score of the aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Messiah.

Messiah debuted on April 13, 1742, at the Great Music Hall in Dublin to an oversold room of 700. (Women were asked to come without their hoop skirts, and men without their swords, to make room.) All proceeds were donated to local charities. The work was very well received and was performed numerous times in England and Ireland until Handel’s death in 1759. He frequently revised the music to suit the performers he was working with.

The genre is oratorio—a dramatic work, fully sung, based on a sacred subject taken from the Bible. Oratorios are very similar to operas in style and structure; however, unlike operas, they are not meant to be staged and thus do not usually include acting, costumes, and stage props. Also, in addition to soloists and an orchestra, oratorios heavily feature a choir. 

Messiah’s most famous excerpt is one of its choir pieces: the Hallelujah Chorus. You probably know it from one of its many trivializations in lowbrow comedies, cartoons, and commercials—to signify a euphoric moment of some kind. Many people mistakenly think this chorus to be the finale of Messiah, but in fact, it is only the finale of part two. (The final chorus is the Amen Chorus, which immediately follows “Worthy is the Lamb.”) The text is taken from Revelation 19:6, 11:15, and 19:16.

Hallelujah, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah.

It is a tradition all over the world for audiences to stand for the Hallelujah Chorus. The tradition dates back to the work’s London premiere in 1743, when King George II was reportedly so moved that he sprung to his feet, and, in deference to their sovereign, the crowd was obliged to rise along with him. George Bernard Shaw has said that this is “the nearest sensation to the elevation of the Host known to English Protestants.” I can understand what he meant—I was admittedly struck with a powerful feeling during that three and a half minutes. I think this had to do with a few things: (1) taking part in a centuries-old ritual that connects me to a musical era that I love, (2) I had been anticipating this climactic segment for the previous two hours, (3) hearing Christ’s message preached in a secular venue to a mixed-faith audience of 2,000+, all of whom engaged with that message at that moment, even if only superficially, and (4) the music—so joyful, so triumphant—really did help me to see Christ’s reign, and to honor it and yearn for it in my heart.

Although Messiah is the most famous of all the oratorios ever written, it is not the most representative of the genre. Unlike other oratorios, the libretto (text) of Messiah is made up entirely of passages from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, compiled by Charles Jennens. No paraphrase or embellishments here. Also atypical of the genre is that there are no characters singing to one another, and no named antagonist. The story thus isn’t dramatic in a theatrical sense—the drama is revealed obliquely, by inference and report, almost never by narrative. The work is divided into three “acts,” the first of which focuses on the Messiah’s birth, the second on his death and resurrection, and the third on the resurrection of the saints. You can read the libretto here.

My favorite piece from the work is “For unto us a child is born.” Here’s a video clip of the London Symphony Orchestra and Tenebrae Choir’s 2006 performance:

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