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Messiah: A Sacred Oratorio

Tyler Clark

MUS 3584

December 11, 2018


Introduction

George Frideric Handel was one of the most prolific composers of the Baroque era. In

fact, he had written for every musical genre that was present during his time, whether it be vocal

or instrumental. His contributions to music were so great that he even created his own genre—

the English oratorio. His most famous work was an oratorio titled Messiah. Even still to this day,

Messiah is one of the most well-known pieces throughout time—namely the “Halleluiah!”

chorus as it is often seen in popular culture. Messiah was a major milestone in Handel’s already-

successful career, and is renowned as one of the greatest oratorios—and musical works as a

whole—in history.

Biography

George Frideric Handel was born on February 23, 1685 in Halle, Germany. He was the

son of a barber-surgeon and a pastor’s daughter. He showed an interest in music at a young age,

but his father was disapproving and wanted him to study law. Being denied access to any

musical instruments, Handel would secretly practice in his attic on a clavichord. After hearing

Handel at age nine play the organ, the Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels convinced his father to allow

him to learn under the organist from the Liebfraukenkirche in Halle, Friedrich Zachow. He left

Halle in the summer of 1703 to move to Hamburg, Germany. He also lived in Hanover, London,

and others before moving to Dublin where The Messiah was premiered. He died on April 14,

1759.1

History of the Piece and its Premiere

In 1741, Handel moved to Dublin on an invite to produce a series of concerts that were

1Hicks, Anthony. “Handel [Händel, Hendel], George Frideric” Oxford Music Online, 2001
performed that December. These concerts proved to be very successful, and sold out so much

that a subscription was created just for his second concert series that took place in February of

1742.2 Before these concerts were performed, Handel composed Messiah during the summer of

1741. He finished the composition on the 12th of September and arrived in Dublin that November

on the 18th.3 Oratorios were financially efficient to produce because there was no need for

costumes or scenery, and English singers could be utilized. The premiere was sponsored by three

charities on April 13, 1742 at noon at the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street in Dublin. The

three charities that sponsored the production were “for Relief of the Prisoners in the several

Gaols, and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable

Infirmary of the Inn’s Quay.”4 Amid the Lenten season that took place during the six weeks

preceding Easter, it was forbidden for theatres to produce operas. This left operagoers with

nowhere to seek entertainment. Since oratorios were similar in many ways to operas, Handel

used them as a substitute, giving operagoers a musical experience that was familiar to them.

Messiah was premiered amidst this timeframe. Over seven-hundred attendees were packed into

the venue that normally accommodated about six-hundred. Both preceding and following such a

successfully-attended premiere, the public response to Messiah was phenomenal. Music historian

Charles Burney wrote, “It has fed the hungry, clothed the naked fostered the orphan, and

enriched succeeding managers of oratorios, more than any single musical production of this or

any country.” The Dublin Journal published the following report on April 10, 1742 (three days

before the premiere):

2Kelly, Thomas Forrest. First Nights: Five Musical Premieres. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 62-63.
3“First Performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’.” The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular 5, no. 99 (1852)
4 Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
142.
Yesterday Mr. Handell’s new Grand Sacred Oratorio called, The MESSIAH, was
rehearsed…to a most grand, polite, and crouded audience; and was performed so well,
that it gave universal satisfaction to all present; and was allowed by the greatest judges to
be the finest composition of musick that ever was heard, and the sacred words as properly
adapted for the occasion. (Kelly, 93)

Although Handel had already composed Messiah in London prior to his arrival in Dublin,

he made some changes throughout the rehearsal process due to the abilities of the local singers

on hand. Recitatives replaced three of the arias (“Thou art gone up on high,” Thou shalt break

them,’ and “But who may abide”).5 “But who may abide?” was originally a bass aria in 3/8 time

in D minor, but the Dublin bass was unable to sing it to Handel’s satisfaction.6 Additionally,

Handel made abridgements to the original movements. Movements such as “Rejoice Greatly,”

“Why do the nations,” “O death, where is thy sting?,” and “Ev’ry valley” were shorted in some

manner to accommodate the circumstances.5 “Rejoice Greatly” was originally a rather long

movement set in 12/8 gigue tempo. Handel shortened the piece, and later even changed the 12/8

meter to a 4/4 meter. He original as Handel wrote it was never performed during his lifetime.

Long after Messiah’s premiere, Handel made major changes to the bass aria in Part II “Why Do

the Nations So Furiously Rage Together.” Originally a da capo movement, Handel decided to

turn it into a brief, yet powerful recitative with the words, “The Kings of the earth rise up and the

rulers take counsel together against the Lord and His Anointed.” This change was made during

the 1750’s.6

When Handel brought Messiah to London in 1743 and 1745, both performances had

garnered only indifferent reception, and Messiah was removed from the repertoire for a few

5Kelly, Thomas Forrest. First Nights: Five Musical Premieres. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 67-91.
6Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
149-150.
years. In 1749, a revival at the Covent Garden opera house in London was well-received,

resulted in annual performances through 1759 under the direction of Handel himself.

Analysis and Text Painting

Messiah is an oratorio, which is similar to an opera in that it tells a story and has acts, but

it does not utilize any scenery or actors. Much like operas, oratorios contain characters that are

placed in situations, create new situations, and react accordingly within the context of music.

Oratorios are also typically divided up into acts and begin with an overture like operas do.

However, operas can be in multiple different languages while oratorios are typically in English.

They also typically are focused around sacred subjects, even though they contained no liturgical

texts and were not meant for church services. The texts within oratorios were usually biblical

stories told in a narrative manner.

Three types of choruses are used in The Messiah: fugues, choruses derived from chamber

music duets that Handel had been composing, and choruses that consisted of “characteristic

utterances that succeed one another and are combined in various permutations.”7 The Overture

begins in E minor, but shifts to E Major in the few following vocal movements (“Comfort Ye”

and “Ev’ry Valley”), creating a minor-major contrast that is hard to miss. This contrast is used

multiple times in The Messiah. The movements then appear to cycle around the circle of fourths

with each successive movement. “And the Glory of the Lord Shall Be Revealed” is in A, “Thus

Saith the Lord” and “But who May Abide the Day of His Coming” is in D minor, and “And He

Shall Purify the Sons of Levi” is in G minor. Handel then returns to D—the first time in the work

that a key is returned to—in “O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion.” He

emphasizes this return by moving to the relative minor key (B minor) in the two pieces directly

following (“For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth” and “The People That Walked in

7Kelly, Thomas Forrest. First Nights: Five Musical Premieres. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 67-71.
Darkness”) Another return to the key of D is when the trumpets are first heard (“Glory to God”).

Although the next movement, “Rejoice Greatly” is a livelier soprano aria, the shift to B-flat

major softens the mood. Concluding Part I is “His Yoke is Easy,” which ends on a gentler note,

but at the same time leaves the audience with a feeling that there is much more still yet to come.

Part II is the darkest portion focusing on suffering and scorn, and is set mainly in minor

keys. It begins with “Behold the Lamb of God,” which serves a similar purpose as the

instrumental Sinfonia that begins the first part. Immediately following is “He Was Despised,” an

incredibly personal aria. The dark, somber key of F minor is utilized for the first time in the two

following arias “Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs,” and “And with His Stripes We Are Healed;”

the second of which is centered around a theme that is very commonly seen in music of the

seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It combines a diminished seventh (D-flat) with a minor

triad (E-natural). This type of theme can be observed in such famous works as the Mozart

Requiem and Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, as well as countless others. The atmosphere is

briefly brightened in “All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray,” only to be even further darkened

by the chromatic harmonies that inhabit the adagio in “For the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity

of us all (Appendix 1.0).”

The stark contrast of relentless jeering and deep lament is portrayed respectively in “He

Trusted in God that He Would Deliver Him” and “Behold, and See if There Be Any Sorrow Like

Unto His Sorrow.” These two movements are composed in C minor and E minor respectively—

two very contrasting keys. To relieve the lament, the movement that follows, “But Thou Didst

Not Leave His Soul in Hell,” was strategically written in A major. “Let All the Angels of God

Worship Him” foreshadows a musical destination by being written in D major. A series of

choruses ensues that depict the spreading of the gospel, followed by several infuriating arias and
choruses, finally resulting in the famous “Hallelujah!” chorus concluding the second part

composed in the now-unmistakable key of D major.

The opening chorus to Part III, “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth,” is written in a

glowing E major. What comes next is one of the most unique movements in Messiah; “Since by

Man Came Death” is the only piece in the entire work that contains unaccompanied voices

(Appendix 1.1). The movements following are uplifting, leading up to the finale, “Amen,” which

is bursting at the seams with contrapuntal mastery.8

Orchestration

The Messiah was written for first and second violin, viola, violoncello, bassoon, first and

second oboe, trumpet, kettledrums, soprano voice, alto voice, tenor voice, and bass voice.9

Handel was very careful and purposeful with his orchestration. For example, trumpets are not

heard for the first time until “Glory to God,” which is about two-thirds into Part I. Even at this

point, they are instructed to “play from a distance and rather quietly.” They are not heard again

until “Halleluiah!” This piece opens with solo strings, and then expands with full strings,

bassoons, and oboes once the voices enter. The trumpets are not heard again until the first “the

Lord God Omnipotent reigneth” is sung. Similarly, the kettledrums are not used at all throughout

the entire oratorio until this same point.8

Text and the Libretto

The text contained in Messiah was taken from both the Old Testament and from the

service book used in the Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer. The Old Testament

8Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
144-148.
9Kelly, Thomas Forrest. First Nights: Five Musical Premieres. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 87.
selections were mostly prophetic texts. These texts were not rhymed or metrical, but had certain

rhythmical and melodious aspects thanks to rhetorical endeavors of those who originally

translated them. The translators had originally intended the texts to be read aloud and

performed.10 The book of Isaiah serves as the most prominent source of quotation in the libretto.

Thirteen movements out of the total fifty-two quote Isaiah, and out of the eighty-five total verses,

twenty-five quote Isaiah.11 Messiah’s librettist, Reverend Charles Jennens, composed the book

into three separate parts. The first part announces redemption as part of God’s plan, and also

relies heavily on the story of Christ’s birth. The second part deals with the subjects of Christ’s

sacrifice and the redemption that came from it, the rejection that mankind exhibited in response

to this sacrifice, and the victorious resurrection. The third part concludes the masterwork by

focusing on vanquishing death, as well as redemption and resurrection.12

Despite its critical acclaim, Jennens was dissatisfied with Handel’s work, and felt as

though his libretto deserved to be set to better music. In 1742 he wrote, “His Messiah has

disappointed me, being set in great hast, tho’ he said he would be a ear about it, and make it the

best of all his compositions. I shall put no more sacred works into his hands to be thus abus’d.”10

Conclusion

Messiah is a musical masterwork that is rich with history, and has withstood the tests of

time through countless edits, performances, and varied receptions. It has been heralded as a

blessing to music for centuries, and is still popular and performed presently. The popularity and

influence of Messiah showcases Handel’s true virtuosity as a composer.

10Kelly, Thomas Forrest. First Nights: Five Musical Premieres. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 67-73.
11Davies, Andrew. “Oratorio as Exegesis: The Use of the Book of Isaiah in Handel’s Messiah.” Biblical
Interpretation 15, no. 4/5 (2007) 466.
12 Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press,
2005. 143-144.
Bibliography

Davies, Andrew. “Oratorio as Exegesis: The Use of the Book of Isaiah in Handel’s Messiah.”

Biblical Interpretation 15, no. 4/5 (2007)

“First Performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’.” The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular 5,

no. 99 (1852)

Hicks, Anthony. “Handel [Händel, Hendel], George Frideric” Oxford Music Online, 2001.

Kelly, Thomas Forrest. First Nights: Five Musical Premieres. New Haven: Yale University

Press, 2000.

"Messiah, HWV 56 (Handel, George Frideric)." IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library: Free Public

Domain Sheet Music.

https://imslp.org/wiki/Messiah,_HWV_56_(Handel,_George_Frideric).

Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide. Oxford; New York: Oxford

University Press, 2005.


Appendix 1.0
Appendix 1.1