George Frideric Handel
Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: 120–150 Minutes
Time of Creation: Summer 1741
World Premiere: April 13, 1742 (Dublin)
Table of Contents
Handel's Messiah in 5 Sentences
Actually, George Frideric Handel had not wanted to write his oratorio Messiah: The composer was so depressed by the failures of his operas “Imeneo” and “Deidamia” that he didn’t actually want to do anything during the 1741/42 season (he could afford to). But then the opportunity arose to participate in a concert series in Dublin, and Handel was persuaded by his librettist Charles Jennens to compose Messiah. Handel, who was basically a fast writer, composed the nearly two-and-a-half-hour work in 24 days (using earlier works, as Bach had done time and again). The first performance in Dublin was successful; in London, the work was initially received coolly, but from 1750 an annual performance tradition was established.
4 Highlights from Handel's Messiah
Highlight 1: Orchestral Prelude
The orchestral prelude of Handel’s Messiah consists of two parts: The first is slow, the second is fast. The orchestral prelude is thus a French Overture (very popular in Baroque music):
Highlight 2: For unto us a Child is born
Handel’s Messiah is, of course, best known for its phenomenal choral numbers. An example of this is “For unto us a Child is born…”
Highlight 3: Hallelujah!
…and of course the chorus number of all chorus numbers. I’m sure you already thought of the famous “Hallelujah!” when you read the title of this work presentation 😉 This famous piece closes the second part of Handel’s Messiah:
Highlight 4: Worthy is the Lamb + Amen (Final Fugue)
With “Worthy is the Lamb” the choir glorifies the sacrificial lamb at the very end of Messiah. This number alone is remarkable in its heightening effect (use of timpani and trumpets at 2:11:47). But then – but then…
…it sends a cold shiver down my spine every time. That final fugue (2:12:40)! It consists only of the word “Amen” and is a dramaturgical masterpiece. Especially this PAUSE shortly before the end (2:16:10) is simply UNBELIEVABLE. The standing ovation, which can also be seen in the video used here, is almost “composed” by Handel:
3 Questions and Answers about Handel's Messiah
Question 1: What is the content of Messiah?
Handel’s Messiah consists of three parts: The first part begins with the waiting for the arrival of the Messiah and ends with Christ’s birth. The second part focuses on the Passion of Christ and ends with the Resurrection. In the third part, the “idea of redemption” is consolidated.
Question 2: Under what circumstances did Handel write the Messiah?
The working period on the Messiah was a time of failure for Handel: his last operas proved to be “flops”, empty concert halls and public ridicule caused the composer a lot of trouble.
Question 3: Where did Handel compose the Messiah?
Handel composed the Messiah in London, where other well-known works of his (for example, the Water Music) were also performed.
2 Recommended Recordings of Handel's Messiah
Recording 1: Choir of The Queen's College, Academy of Ancient Music, Rowan Pierce, Esther Brazil, Ted Blac, Ashley Riches, Owen Rees (live, 2021)
Handel’s Messiah is a very popular piece in Great Britain – no wonder, considering how old and rich the British choral tradition is. Accordingly, Messiah is performed there frequently, and the excellent British choirs always provide fantastic performances. One of these is by the Choir of The Queen’s College and the Academy of Ancient Music:
Recording 2: Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Christmas Choir, Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra, Celeste Lazarenko, Nicholas Tolputt, Andrew Goodwin, Christopher Richardson, Brett Weymark (live, 2019)
The big choral numbers in Handel’s Messiah naturally cry out for a properly large-scale performance. The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs show just how effective that can be in their performance of Handel’s masterpiece with 600 chorus members (!) at the famed Sydney Opera House: