Hallelujah! Handel's Masterpiece

Dan Graves, MSL

Hallelujah! Handel's Masterpiece

At twelve noon, on this date, April 13, 1742, the world first heard the lovely overture, memorable arias and majestic choruses of the most famous oratorio ever written. There has not been a year since then that George Frederick Handel's Messiah has not been performed in concert halls around the world. Usually it appears in numerous halls.

The performance took place in Dublin, in the Fishamble Street Musick Hall. Dubliners received it with enthusiasm. "...the best judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of music," wrote the Dublin Gazette. "Words are wanting to express the exquisite delight it afforded..." Two performances were given. Two years later, annual performances were established in Dublin. London did not receive the oratorio as readily. Criticized, it did not catch on there until 1749.

Handel had turned to oratorios, most of them on religious themes, after opera failed him. Messiah was special even within its genre. The composer deliberately wrote it so that it could be performed by as few as four singers with strings, continuo, two drums and two trumpets. The idea was to produce a work which could be staged anywhere. Handel was often near destitution, and a piece like Messiah, which could be performed by small ensembles, offered him opportunities to raise desperately needed cash.

The text, by Charles Jennens, pulled together fragments of scripture relating to Christ. The power of the scriptures came by laying them forth almost as translated (he used more than one translation where it suited his purpose) and joining them so that they built on and clarified one another without comment. Old and New Testament passages were placed beside each other where a relationship existed. Where Jennens modified passages, he did so to make them scan better and to keep the texts in the third tense throughout. Handel, although a rough-tongued man, claimed to know the Bible as well as any bishop and made a few alterations himself. Jennens, a devout Anglican, intended through his libretto to challenge the Deists who denied Christ's divinity: "And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

He succeeded in his intent, for Messiah portrays Christ as Son of God, the fulfillment of prophecy, Savior of the world, and coming King. John Newton, slaver turned clergyman, preached fifty sermons on the text. Although Newton preached his series as a rebuke to those who glorified the music above God's word, he said that it comprehended all the principle truths of the Gospel. That Jennens fused the words together without once backtracking or repeating a passage demonstrates the perfectionism which made him a fussy person.

Handel united the whole into a magnificent artwork, writing the work in twenty-three fervent days, despite having already suffered a stroke. The music often rises to great loveliness and power. Passion builds until the climactic Hallelujah chorus. Of this chorus, Handel said in his broken English, "I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself!"

Bibliography:

  1. Barne, Kitty. Introducing Handel. New York: Roy, 1960.
  2. Flower, Newman. George Frederick Handel, his personality and his times. New York: Scribners, 1948.
  3. Grout, Donald J. A History of Western Music. New York: W. W. Norton, 1960.
  4. Grove, Sir George, ed. "Handel, George Frederick." New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan Publishers; Washington, D.C.: Grove's Dictionaries of Music, 1985, 1980.
  5. "Handel, George Frederick." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
  6. Scholes, Percy Alfred. "Handel, George Frederick." In The Oxford Companion to Music. Editor John Owen Ward. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
  7. Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain). Portraits of Eminent Men, of Various Ages and Nations, with Memoirs. London: C. Knight, 1845.
  8. Ruoff, Henry W. Masters of Achievement. Buffalo, New York: Frontier Press, 1911.
  9. Zoff, Otto, Editor. Great Composers Through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries. New York: Dutton, 1951.
  10. Various encyclopedia articles and books on music appreciation.

Last updated April, 2007.

  • Editors' Picks

    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
  • Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
    Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
  • So You Think Theology Is Impractical?
    So You Think Theology Is Impractical?