George Frideric Handel`s masterpiece `Messiah` is an oratorio originally composed for Lent and Easter, but it has become a common practice to be performed during Christmas. The libretto was written by Charles Jennens and is drawn from King James and Great Bibles. This choral composition depicts the Christian concept of Christ the Saviour. It has three parts or acts presenting the prophecies concerning Jesus Christ, the Passion and finally Christ`s victory over death and sin.
Handel was born in Halle, Germany on February 23, 1685. His father was an eminent barber-surgeon and wanted him to study Law. Handel obliged but gave up studying Law after a brief stint at the University of Halle. He began serving as an organist and became a violinist and composer for the Hamburg Opera Theater. From there, he went to Italy where he mastered the trends in Italian opera. He returned to Germany to become a court composer. When his patron, the Elector of Hannover, became King George I of England, he moved to England and lived there permanently.
Although he had a successful career, his financial state wasn’t sound as he had to compete with rival opera companies. His health faltered as he strove to overcome the monetary constraints. He was on the brink of bankruptcy when his friend Charles Jennens gave him the Messiah libretto and he received a commission to compose a work for charity. He immersed himself in setting the libretto to music and finished in just 24 days.
It is said that he was overwhelmed by the power of the biblical text and set to work day and night, shutting himself in his room and forgetting at times to eat. He was heard sobbing now and then, as he labored over the inspired text. Later he remarked “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the Great God Himself”.
Messiah premiered in Dublin, Ireland on 13 April 1742 as a benefit for charity. It was met with a rousing approval from the audience and press alike. A newspaper review wrote of the performance: “Words want to express the exquisite delight it afforded. The sublime, the grand, and the tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear.”
Handel staged it in London a year later where the initial reception was critical and disapproving. As the oratorio gained popularity, so did his stature which remained constant until his death.
The “Hallelujah” chorus ending the second act is the most well-known movement of his work. The text is drawn from the book of Revelation in New Testament.
Revelation 19:6: And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
Revelation 11:15: And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
Revelation 19:16: And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.
The London performances gave rise to a tradition that has lasted more than two centuries. The first performance was attended by King George II, and when the first note of the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus rang out, he rose from his seat. Following royal protocol, the entire audience stood too. Thus, the tradition of standing during the chorus was born.
The first of the oratorio`s three parts, with the Hallelujah Chorus are commonly performed during Christmas of the modern times.
This majestic and powerful masterpiece captured the hearts of music afficianados as well as musical greats like Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn ages ago. Mozart orchestrated a German version of the work. Franz Haydn, after hearing Handel`s Messiah praised him saying “He was the master of us all”. Beethoven remarked: "He was the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb."