George Frideric Handel (1685-1759):
Messiah

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 dozen oratorios composed by Handel, the German-born composer who settled in England in 1712, was naturalised, and became a focus of English musical life in the eighteenth century.   Some parts of Messiah, notably the Hallelujah Chorus and “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, are extremely well known; but the musical quality is uniformly high throughout the piece and there are some wonderful treats among the less familiar numbers.

An oratorio is a musical setting of a religious text for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra.  It differs from opera (also a favourite form for Handel) in that dramatic action, costumes and stage settings are not used: the performance is given just as a concert.   Messiah is about the life of Jesus Christ, but remarkably it uses relatively little material from the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ life: instead the librettist Charles Jennens carefully chose texts mainly from the Old Testament prophets, 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 is much 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 frequently revised Messiah to suit the musical resources available for later performances, so different versions exist of many of the numbers.

As Messiah is quite long in its entirety (more than 2 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 Yorkshire Chorus

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