Handel’s Messiah

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 in unison.

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.