Handel’s Messiah is an oratorio written by late 18th C. baroque composer George Frederic Handel (1685 – 1773). Messiah is an ode to the Bible’s central character, Jesus Christ, in the person of Messiah.
But the words, the libretto, was arranged
by an English aristocrat by the name of Charles Jennens, who collaborated with
Handel on this project. They weren’t Charles Jennen’s own words but texts (all
53 references) from the King James Version of the Holy Bible.
Prophecies about the coming Messiah and his
birth, mostly taken from the book of Isaiah the prophet, and Psalms; its fulfilment
and the Messiah’s sufferings; and a future resurrection hope and eternal life, taken
largely from Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians and some from the Book of
Revelations; make up the libretto as sung by the soloists, the chorus, or both
Messiah is quite a long oratorio that lasts
about 3 hours in its complete form. Regular concert goers might find it tedious
to sit through and listen to 3 hours of oratorio, so what musical directors and
conductors did was to abbreviate or truncate some of the parts which they deemed
unnecessary. But they did this with a view to preserving the original intention
of the composer.
One major consideration in cutting short
the oratorio is preserving the musical narrative’s drama, in maintaining key
signatures, and keeping their relationship to one another intact in the whole
musical narrative. Also important is the distribution of the parts: the
orchestra, the soloists, and the chorus; throughout the entire performance.
This preserves the coherence of the oratorio’s theme from beginning to end.
Handel’s Messiah was written with the
development of three acts: the prophecies concerning the birth of Christ
(Christmas), its fulfilment especially leading to his climactic death (Passion),
and a future hope of resurrection (Easter). These acts all have their place in
the Christian calendar. However, the most celebrated part that is regularly performed
is the birth of Christ or the Christmas portion.
One of the reasons for the popularity of
Handel’s Messiah during Christmas is that this oratorio was probably the only
one written with a Christmas theme, or a theme that revolves around the birth
of Christ. Despite Handel’s original thoughts that his oratorio was written for
Lent and Easter (the Christmas theme is the shortest act) it had become
customarily performed, especially in the US, during Christmas; there being many
other classical works that meditate on Lent and Easter themes.
It’s noteworthy that Handel’s Messiah was
first performed on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, during Lent.