Handel composed Messiah, an English language oratorio, in 1741. After an initially modest public reception the oratorio gained in popularity and eventually became one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral pieces in Western music. The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus is one of the most famous pieces of Baroque choral music and the most widely known section of the work. Though it was originally written for Easter, Handel’s eminently singable Messiah has become a mainstay of the festive season. Our guide to Handel’s Messiah masterpiece reveals why so many choirs enjoy performing it every year.
Handel’s Messiah: Masterpiece Guide To The Great Choral Work
Why the name?
First things first: Messiah or The Messiah? Not wanting to be pedantic it’s absolutely the first – Messiah – without the definite article. That’s how Handel named this masterpiece for chorus, orchestra and vocal soloists, and the ‘floating’, abstract nature of the title says a thing or two about Handel’s equally floating, abstract concept. Messiah didn’t have anything like the kind of plot Handel’s audiences were used to in his operas or even his biblical oratorios. It pretty much coined a new genre – part German Passion, part English church anthem, part Italian opera. And for Handel, all that ambiguity proved rather convenient…
Need to know
Messiah was born when Handel’s experimental nature was confronted with the fickle, changing tastes of London audiences and the politics of the English church. Italian opera was losing popularity fast, but the public still loved a good biblical story. The Bishop of London had forbidden performances of works with religious overtones on London stages so Handel decided to write a work for concert performance in a church.
Handel deliberately kept the dramatic content of his Messiah masterpiece understated – it was in church after all. He created a piece based on three concepts: the story of the nativity and its prophecy; that of the crucifixion and redemption of mankind; and a commentary on the Christian soul and its victory over death. In each of these three parts, the chorus is absolutely at the heart of the work, complemented by four vocal soloists, and a thrusting little orchestra underneath.
Those forces deliver some of Handel’s most heart-stopping music – gobsmackingly dramatic and effective, profoundly touching and spiritual. He used all his old tricks and learnt some new (pretty good) ones too.
Where have I heard it before?
You must have heard the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, right? That’s the piece that ends Part II (the crucifixion/redemption chapter of Messiah) but it pops up everywhere from The X Factor to Bridget Jones’s Diary and Dumb and Dumber.
You might also have heard bits of Handel’s Messiah masterpiece ringing out from churches, concert halls or radios any time around Christmas, particularly the festive ‘For Unto us a Child is Born’. Performing the piece around Yuletide became a national obsession in Britain in the Victorian era – although it actually contains more references to Easter than Christmas – and that obsession has never quite abated.
Can I play it?
You can almost certainly sing it! Amateur choirs and choral societies all over the world perform Handel’s Messiah masterpiece every December, sometimes with the help of professional orchestras and sometimes on a “scratch” basis, where you can turn up in the morning and sing the piece in the evening even if you’ve never opened the score before. Instrumental players tend to roll their eyes cynically when Messiah comes around each winter, but if you’ve got some instrumental skills it’s worth dusting down your bassoon or viola and giving Messiah another go. Some of the instrumental writing – in pieces like ‘Why Do the Nations’ and ‘Surely He Hath Born our Griefs’ – is brilliantly evocative and a lot of fun to play.
Handel’s Messiah by Christopher Hogwood, The Academy of Ancient Music, and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford
“Nobody in their right mind doubts the seminal importance of Christopher Hogwood’s groundbreaking Messiah.” – Gramophone
Handel’s Messiah by Christopher Hogwood, The Academy of Ancient Music, and the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford can be bought here.