Handel's Messiah: History, Music & Analysis

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  • 0:00 The Backstory
  • 1:17 The Oratorio
  • 2:33 The Creation of…
  • 3:08 The Premiere
  • 3:53 The Music
  • 6:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

Even if you don't know much about classical music, you have probably heard the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's oratorio Messiah. Many people think of this chorus as a Christmas song, but Handel didn't think it was. Find out why in this lesson.

The Back Story

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was one of the most famous musicians of the Baroque Era (1600-1750). One of the things Handel was known for was the Italian serious operas that he wrote for the Royal Academy of Music in London. At the time, there was a large market for these Italian operas.

Handel was quite successful - at least until John Gay came along. John Gay was also an opera composer, but his operas were quite different from Handel's. In 1728, Gay wrote a hit 'anti-opera' called The Beggar's Opera. It was funny, accessible, and, most importantly, in English. It poked fun at serious Italian operas like the kind Handel wrote, even 'borrowing' one of Handel's original melodies!

The Beggar's Opera was a huge success, and other composers picked up on this new trend and began writing similar comic operas. Soon, Handel found that these new comic operas were causing his Italian opera company to lose money. Unwilling to jump on the comic opera bandwagon, he had to think of a new plan to avoid financial disaster.

The Oratorio

Like most of Europe, England was a Christian country that publicly observed the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter that emphasizes fasting, prayer, penance, and self-reflection. Many forms of public entertainment were considered to be inappropriately indulgent or too festive for such a somber time of year, and so composers generally did not schedule new opera performances during this time. However, religious music was perfectly appropriate for this somber season, and so Handel invented a new genre: the English oratorio. The oratorio is structured the same way as an opera, but with no acting, scenery, costumes, or special effects. Additionally, the subject matter is religious in nature, and typically taken from the Bible.

Handel's oratorios proved to be quite successful, partly because there weren't many other forms of entertainment available during Lent, partly because Handel encouraged people to attend by donating a portion of the ticket sales to charitable organizations, and partly because they contained some excellent music. Out of the 25 oratorios Handel wrote, the most popular is undoubtedly his Messiah.

The Creation of Handel's Messiah

In July of 1741, Handel received a manuscript from a man named Charles Jennens, with whom he had worked before. Charles Jennens was a writer whose specialty was arranging librettos, the literary texts that form the lyrics of operas, oratorios, and other vocal music works. Jennens had high hopes for what Handel could do with his latest literary project, which he titled Messiah. Handel began to work on Jennens' libretto on August 22, 1741. Twenty-four days and 259 pages later, Handel's two hour-long musical masterpiece was complete.

The Premiere

As part of a publicity stunt, Handel had arranged a series of concerts in Dublin, Ireland, for the 1741-42 winter and spring seasons, including his new, never-before-heard oratorio, Messiah. The rehearsals generated so much attention that the opening night, April 13, 1742, was expected to be a big success. Event organizers sent out a notice to the expected attendees, requesting that the females refrain from wearing hoops skirts and that the gentlemen please leave their swords at home so as to fit as many people as possible into the performance venue, the Great Music Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin. The concert lived up to expectations and was a resounding success.

The Music

The Messiah is divided into three sections that chronicle main events in the life of Jesus Christ, the Christian Messiah. Part One centers around the Old Testament prophesies that foretell the Christ's coming and subsequent birth. Part Two deals with his passion, death, and triumphant resurrection. Part Three is the final Judgment Day and, with it, the promise of eternal life for those who believe.

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