Frideric Handel (1685-1759):
Messiah is probably the best-loved and
– certainly in
Britain – the most-performed piece of choral music ever written. It is one of more than two
composed by Handel, the German-born composer who
England in 1712, was naturalised, and became a focus of English
in the eighteenth century. Some
Messiah, notably the
Chorus and “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, are extremely well known;
musical quality is uniformly high throughout the piece and there are
treats among the less familiar numbers.
is a musical setting of a religious text for vocal soloists, choir and
differs from opera (also a
favourite form for Handel) in that dramatic action, costumes and stage
are not used: the performance is given just as a concert. Messiah
is about the life of Jesus Christ, but remarkably it uses relatively
material from the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ life: instead the
Charles Jennens carefully chose texts mainly from the Old Testament
the Psalms, the Epistles and the book of Revelation.
Messiah is in three parts. Part One relates the
Christmas story; Part
Two is about the death and resurrection of Jesus; and Part Three, which
shorter, reflects on Christ’s enduring impact on the world. Each part comprises a
number of short
sections which take different forms: short recitatives (a musical form
imitating ordinary speech) for the solo singers; more extended arias
for the solo
singers; and passages for the choir.
After the first performance in Dublin in 1742 Handel
Messiah to suit the musical resources available for later performances,
different versions exist of many of the numbers.
As Messiah is quite long in its entirety (more than 2½ hours) it is quite common for either Part One or Part Two to be performed with Part Three (the Hallelujah Chorus is nearly always included!). Those who know Messiah well will need little encouragement to attend a performance; but anyone who has not heard it before will be captivated not only by its crisp melodies, invigorating rhythms and rich harmony but also by the skilful way in which Handel often causes the music to reflect the sense of the words, a feature sometimes referred to as “text painting”.
King George II attended a performance of Messiah in 1743. For some reason which has never been explained (but may well be to do with the overwhelming power of the music) he rose to his feet during the Hallelujah Chorus. Protocol demanded that if the monarch rose, everyone else must too; and to this day it is customary for audiences in England to stand whenever the Hallelujah Chorus is given.
Peter Harbord, North