16 Interesting Facts about Handel’s Messiah

“Messiah,” composed by George Frideric Handel, stands as one of the crowning achievements of Baroque music. Handel, a German-born composer who later became a British citizen, composed this oratorio in just 24 days during the summer of 1741. The work was intended for performance during the Easter and Lenten season but has since become synonymous with Christmas due to its iconic “Hallelujah Chorus.”

The libretto for “Messiah” was crafted by Charles Jennens, a collaborator of Handel. Drawing extensively from the Bible, Jennens compiled texts from both the Old and New Testaments, weaving a narrative that unfolds the story of the prophecy, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Divided into three parts, “Messiah” covers themes such as the anticipation of the Messiah, the birth of Christ, the passion, and the ultimate triumph of redemption.

Handel’s innovative use of chorus, soloists, and orchestra in “Messiah” contributes to its structural brilliance. The oratorio opens with a powerful overture, followed by a series of recitatives, arias, and choruses that collectively convey the emotional depth and theological significance of the text. The “Hallelujah Chorus,” perhaps the most famous segment, marks the conclusion of Part II and is often performed standing—a tradition believed to have originated from a story that King George II rose during the premiere.

“Messiah” quickly gained popularity and acclaim, establishing itself as a masterpiece that transcends cultural and religious boundaries. Performances of “Messiah” became an annual tradition in many parts of the world, especially during the Christmas season. The oratorio has been translated into numerous languages and adapted by countless performers and ensembles, ensuring its enduring legacy.

Handel’s “Messiah” endures as a testament to the universal appeal of its music and the enduring power of its narrative. Its ability to evoke profound emotions and convey the central message of Christian theology has solidified its place as one of the most performed and cherished works in the classical repertoire. Whether experienced in a grand concert hall or an intimate setting, “Messiah” continues to resonate with audiences, offering a musical journey that celebrates the timeless themes of hope, salvation, and the joyous arrival of the promised Messiah.

Messiah autograph composition draft

Messiah autograph composition draft

Do you want to know more about Handel’s “Messiah”? Let’s take a look at these 16 interesting facts about Handel’s “Messiah” to know more about it.

  1. Swift Composition: George Frideric Handel composed “Messiah” in a remarkable 24 days, beginning on August 22 and concluding on September 14, 1741. This rapid creation is particularly astounding given the oratorio’s enduring popularity.
  2. Seasonal Premiere: Despite “Messiah” being strongly associated with Christmas, its premiere took place on April 13, 1742, at the New Music Hall in Dublin, Ireland. Handel conducted the performance himself.
  3. Hallelujah Tradition: Legend has it that King George II was so moved by the “Hallelujah Chorus” during the London premiere in 1743 that he stood up. It became customary for audiences to stand during this chorus, a practice that continues today.
  4. Financial Support: The initial performance in Dublin was a charitable event, raising funds for three Dublin charities. Handel donated the proceeds to support the release of debtors from prison, the Mercer’s Hospital, and the Charitable Infirmary.
  5. Librettist Charles Jennens: Charles Jennens, a collaborator of Handel, compiled the libretto for “Messiah.” He carefully selected passages from the King James Bible to create a coherent and powerful narrative.
  6. Unique Structure: “Messiah” is divided into three parts: Part I focuses on the prophecy and the birth of Christ, Part II covers the passion and resurrection, and Part III centers on redemption and the promise of eternal life.
  7. Original Instrumentation: The original orchestration of “Messiah” included strings, trumpets, timpani, oboes, and bassoons. Handel himself adjusted the orchestration for various performances to suit the available musicians.
  8. Variety of Performances: “Messiah” has been performed in various settings, including concert halls, churches, and cathedrals. It is also common for community choirs and professional orchestras to collaborate in performing this oratorio.
  9. Chorus and Aria Balance: “Messiah” is known for its balance between choruses and arias. The choruses, such as the “Hallelujah Chorus” and the “Amen Chorus,” are particularly powerful and well-loved.
  10. Word-Painting: Handel skillfully employed a technique called word-painting, where the music reflects the meaning of the lyrics. For example, the music might rise on the word “ascend” or fall on the word “descend.”
  11. Interpolated Arias: While the majority of “Messiah” features choral and solo sections, Handel included a few arias that were not part of the original libretto, providing additional opportunities for vocal expression.
  12. Global Impact: “Messiah” gained international acclaim soon after its premiere and has been translated into numerous languages. Performances take place around the world, making it a global musical phenomenon.
  13. Annual Tradition: Many musical institutions and communities make it a tradition to perform “Messiah” annually during the Christmas season, contributing to its widespread popularity.
  14. Recordings: “Messiah” holds the distinction of being one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire, with countless recordings by various conductors, orchestras, and choirs.
  15. Part II Focus on Easter: While Part II of “Messiah” is often associated with Christmas, its central focus is on the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ, making it suitable for Easter performances.
  16. Celebratory Atmosphere: The uplifting and celebratory nature of “Messiah,” particularly evident in the “Hallelujah Chorus,” has contributed to its enduring popularity as a festive work associated with joyous occasions.

In the immortal strains of Handel’s “Messiah,” one finds not just a musical composition but an enduring masterpiece that transcends time and cultural boundaries. Created in a mere 24 days, this oratorio weaves a tapestry of biblical narrative with unparalleled beauty and grace. Its premiere in Dublin marked the beginning of a legacy that has resonated across centuries, with the “Hallelujah Chorus” becoming a universal symbol of exultation.

Whether performed in grand concert halls, intimate churches, or cherished community gatherings, “Messiah” continues to stir the soul, inviting audiences to partake in a musical journey that unfolds the profound story of hope, redemption, and the triumphant arrival of the promised Messiah. Handel’s masterpiece remains a testament to the enduring power of music to evoke emotions, inspire awe, and connect humanity through shared cultural and spiritual experiences.