Handel's Messiah

Messiah in 53 Movements: Video and Commentary

Handel’s Messiah is an oratorio in three parts with 53 separate movements. Each movement is listed below with a link to where that movement begins in the performance by The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square with renowned guest soloists as streamed on Good Friday, April 10, 2020. (The original performance was at Easter in 2018.)

The commentary on each movement was written by Dr. Luke Howard, associate professor of Music History at Brigham Young University. The movement numbers correspond to those in the program found here and at TabChoir.org/Messiah.

Messiah’s overture is in the form a French Overture—a form Handel did not typically use for his oratorios, but one that carried powerful, historical connotations of royalty and majesty, dating back to Louis XIV.

With its musical evocation of royalty, this overture introduces not only the oratorio itself, but also the “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords” that Messiah celebrates. 

In Messiah, Handel (and Jennens) actually begin with the end of the story. This opening recitative offers comfort and assurance that the House of Israel’s warfare has already ended and that “iniquity is pardoned.”  The rest of the oratorio is then more like a flashback.

In this aria, Handel wrote the tenor melody to directly trace the contours suggested by the words. This text-painting is especially evident on words such as “exalted,” “low,” “mountains,” “hills,” “crooked,” “straight,” and “plain.” 

The long, repeated notes on the text “For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it” suggest rock-solid assurance and security. It was a device Handel had used for divine pronouncements in earlier works, too, including the oratorio Israel in Egypt.

The final cadence in this chorus is a “plagal” or “Amen” cadence.  Handel’s use of this particular kind of cadence throughout Messiah helped solidify its now-traditional association with an “Amen” at the conclusion of a hymn.

This recitative brings back the dotted rhythm from the Overture, signifying royalty, and includes dramatic text-painting on the word “shake.”

Handel originally set these words for the same bass voice that just sang the recitative, in two versions: as a second recitative and as a bass aria. He later adapted it and expanded it for contralto in the version most frequently performed today.  But he also wrote a soprano version.

The lilting Siciliano rhythm of the opening sets up a stark contrast with the fiery second part.

The rapid string tremolos in the aria’s second part illustrate instrumentally the flickering flames of the “refiner’s fire.”

The music for the opening of this chorus was borrowed from an Italian duet Handel had composed in 1741, a few weeks before he wrote Messiah. The musical setting of the words “that they may offer unto the Lord” was, however, newly-composed for the oratorio.

Handel uses text-painting again on the words “lift up thy voice,” with rising contours in the vocal line.

This is the only part of Messiah that combines a soloist with the chorus in the same number.

The choir repeats the rising melodic intervals on the word “arise.”

This recitative begins in the key of B-minor, a traditional baroque-period key for denoting grief and pain in sacred music. 

Several years earlier, Handel had also written “darkness” music for his oratorio Israel in Egypt, similar in effect to the instrumental writing here.

The sparse octaves at the beginning of this aria, in the same key and using the same motif as the previous recitative, signify emptiness and desolation.

As in the prior recitative, too, the key modulates to D major as the light and glory of the Lord replace darkness.

The music for this chorus comes originally from another of Handel’s Italian duets in which the singers playfully tease the twin influences of Love and Beauty.

But the music for the celebrated fanfares of “Wonderful, Counsellor,” is newly-composed for this oratorio.

Handel labelled this pastorale a “Pifa,” in reference to the Italian pifferari or shepherds who played their pipes at Christmas time.

The 12/8 meter and gentle tempo suggest a cradle song or lullaby.

 Early versions of the score of Messiah include a shortened version of this interlude.

Movement 14a: "There Were Shepherds" (recitative)

This recitative is the first time the soprano soloist sings in this oratorio, introducing the Nativity scene.

Movement 14b: "And Lo! The Angel of the Lord” (recitative)

Handel had used these rising string arpeggios earlier in his career, as an instrumental introduction to the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest in 1727.  Here they also prefigure the arrival of a King.

Handel also composed an aria version of this text, rarely performed today.

This is the only passage in Messiah that sets actual dialog as part of the dramatic narrative.

It is also the first appearance of the trumpets in Messiah, playing celebratory fanfares.

In the chorus, Handel divides the choir into high voices (“Glory to God in the highest”) and low voices (And peace on earth”), symbolizing the distinction between the divine and the earthly.

When these words are repeated later in the chorus, however, the whole choir sings both phrases together—heaven and earth are unified in one.

The instrumental postlude suggests the gradual disappearance of the angels back into heaven with a diminuendo and progressive simplifying of rhythms.

The increasingly wide leaps at the start of the soprano part were a common baroque motif for signifying joy.

Long, elaborate melismas had been used as a musical symbol of rejoicing in sacred music as early as the medieval period.

Handel wrote an earlier version of this aria in 12/8 meter.

This is perhaps the most conventionally “operatic” aria in Messiah.

This duet also exists in two other versions, one each for solo alto and solo soprano, both of them with two verses in the same key.

Later Handel changed it to a duet for alto and soprano, with a key change between the verses.

In the same meter as the Pastoral Symphony, this duet also uses the same opening motif, but inverted so that it descends instead of rises.

The blend of pastoral imagery and lullaby was also foreshadowed by the Pastoral Symphony.

This chorus is based on music from the same Italian duet Handel had already borrowed for the chorus “And He Shall Purify.”

The opening melisma on the word “easy” in this chorus was originally used as an imitation of laughter in the Italian duet version.

Part II of Messiah opens with a funeral march, a reminder that the burden Christ bore was neither easy nor light.

As in the Overture, the dotted rhythms symbolize royalty, while the text refers to the Lamb of God.  This juxtaposition of “King” and “Lamb” is the first of a number of sacred metaphorical paradoxes in the ensuing choruses—contrasts that reveal deeper truths about the Messiah’s sacrifice.

The descending melodic line is also a variation on “He Shall Feed His Flock / Come unto Him.”

The open-5th harmony at the end of this chorus symbolizes utter emptiness and desolation. It is the only place in Messiah that Handel employs this musical effect.

This is the longest musical selection in Messiah, placed at the exact midpoint of the work.

Handel also composed a version of this aria for soprano.

The sighing motifs in the orchestral accompaniment were a traditional baroque device for expressing pain and grief.

Relentless dotted rhythms in the middle section (sometimes omitted in performance) illustrate the mocks and whip lashes of Christ’s accusers.

The whip lashes from the previous aria return at the beginning and end of this chorus.

Intense chromaticism at the words “He was wounded for our transgressions” create a harmonic tension that corresponds to the emotional pain.

“And with His Stripes” is the first of only a small handful of choruses in Messiah in which the orchestral instruments simply double the voice parts.  This is the original musical definition of a cappella style.

The first four notes in this chorus create a “cross motif,” an angular melodic shape that Bach used extensively in his own sacred music to symbolize the crucifixion.

There are 13 entries of the fugue theme in this “crucifixion” chorus, just as there are 13 statements of the ground bass in the “Crucifixus” from Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

Mozart borrowed this same four-note theme for the “Kyrie” from his Requiem Mass.

This music is freely adapted from the same Italian duet Handel used in “For unto Us A Child Is Born,’ with a similarly taunting text.

The musical motifs that seem here like text-painting on the words “astray” and “turned” were originally written to depict an escape from love’s entrapment.

The Adagio conclusion to this chorus was newly-composed for Messiah, and re-uses the same symbolic descending scale heard at the start of “Behold the Lamb of God.”

In this short recitative, the orchestral strings illustrate the words with three symbolic motifs: the dotted-note “whips,” a “laughing” figure, and the rocking neighbor-note motion that had earlier signified “darkness.”

Another a cappella chorus in which the orchestra doubles the voice parts.

The fugue form of this chorus enhances the drama with repeated taunting entries of “Let him deliver him.”

Intense chromaticism and unexpected chord progressions underscore the text’s expression of loneliness and distress.

As in Bach’s sacred works, it is the solo tenor that narrates the story of Christ’s crucifixion.

The breaking up of the text into short phrases is an imitation of weeping, lamenting, and sighs—a popular device in dramatic baroque music.

This brief recitative covers Christ’s crucifixion and death.  It begins in B minor—the key of pain—but turns to E major even before the crucifixion text is complete, foreshadowing the hope of the resurrection.

Christ’s resurrection takes place in the quiet space between the preceding recitative and this joyful aria.

Handel divides the choral sopranos to help create the effect of a double chorus in this back-and-forth dialog of questions and answers.

The plagal cadence at the end of this chorus repeats the formula previously heard in the opening chorus, “And the Glory of the Lord.”  It consolidates the musical association of this cadence with God’s glory.

D major was favored key in the baroque period for rejoicing.

The main fugue theme is in the style of a trumpet fanfare.

This aria is both intensely chromatic and joyful—an odd juxtaposition, but one that is called for by the text itself.

The optimistic rising line on “Thou art gone up” is a simple case of text-painting, but it takes place over a descending “baroque lament” bass line.

This tension between victory and death illustrates the doctrine that Christ’s resurrection provides the gift of life “yea even for [His] enemies.”

Handel wrote four versions of this aria: one for bass, two different versions for alto, and one for soprano.

The majestic statement that opens this chorus is written in similar sturdy rhythms and steady melodic contours as other divine pronouncements in Handel’s music.

The embellished 16th-note runs in this chorus symbolize the proliferation of preachers willing to spread Christ’s gospel.

Handel originally combined this aria and “Their Sound Is Gone Out” into a single soprano aria.  Later he separated them into an aria and chorus, but continued to experiment with numerous other permutations of solo and chorus.

The aria’s Siciliano rhythm again symbolizes peace and pastoral rest, as it had in the Pastoral Symphony.

Handel originally set this text as a tenor recitative, and only later turned it into a chorus.

Rapid entries in this fugal chorus exemplify the global dissemination of God’s word.

The wide melodic range for the words “unto the ends of the world” illustrates the gamut of the gospel’s reach.  (“Gamut,” by the way, was originally a medieval musical term that referred to the complete range of a musical scale.)

For one performance, Handel added another choral section setting the text “Break forth into joy.”

This is the first text in Handel’s Messiah to explicitly reference the “anointed [one],” the literal translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah.”

Agitated string figures in this aria represent the anger of those whose power and influence are threatened by Christ’s gospel.

The fragmented impressions of rage and vain imaginations are expressed in cross-rhythms—the solo voice singing triplet rhythms over duplets in the accompaniment.

In one of Handel’s versions of the score, the middle section (“The kings of the earth rise up”) was set as a recitative instead of a section of an aria.

The jagged, angular theme, closely-spaced vocal entries, and frequent rhythmic syncopations in this fugue illustrate the wanton demolition of faith spoken of in the text.

Using many of the same musical effects as the previous chorus, this aria manifests that is the Lord who will destroy the plans of the wicked, not the other way around.

Very wide leaps in the strings and fragmentary, disjunct motion depicts the Lord breaking into shards and dashing to pieces the disruptive strategies of the faithless.

One of Handel’s alternate versions of Messiah has the tenor sing this same text in recitative. 

The tradition of standing for the “Hallelujah” chorus began in the 18th century.  But there is little direct evidence—only distantly-remembered anecdotes—to connect it to King George II standing during a performance of Messiah.

The key of D major here, as in other places in Messiah, is a key of triumph and celebration.  It was the easiest key for baroque trumpets to play, and so became associated with victory fanfares.

The victory celebrated in this chorus is a spiritual victory over the worldly politics of nations and governments.

The fugue theme at the words “And He shall reign” is remarkably similar to the cross-motif in the chorus “And with His Stripes.”

The same plagal cadence that has signified “glory” in so many other places in Messiah ends the “Hallelujah” chorus with a musical representation of glory.

Simple, effective text-painting is heard throughout this beloved aria, including long-held notes on “stand,” a leap upward for “Christ risen” followed by a descent on the words “from the dead.”

The contour of the melodic line in this aria traces the same shape as the violin introduction for “Thou Art Gone Up on High.”  Both arias speak specifically about the resurrection. 

The interval of a rising fourth that accompanies the words “I know” is used elsewhere throughout Messiah (e.g., “Rejoice Greatly”) as a musical symbol of firm assurance.

This chorus contains the only unaccompanied choral passages in Messiah.

The two hushed declarations about death are answered by joyful eruptions of faith in the resurrection.

The same rising D-major arpeggio that begins the recitative is used as the main theme of the aria that follows.  Both imitate a trumpet fanfare.

In the German Bible, it is a trombone instead of a trumpet that calls the dead out of the graves.  But as trombones were used exclusively for church music in the 18th century (and much of the 19th century), Mozart’s German-language edition of Messiah gives these fanfares to a solo French horn instead of a trumpet.

The orchestra’s dotted rhythms connote royalty, as they had in the oratorio’s Overture.

The solo trumpet part, intended to be played on a natural baroque trumpet, was considered too difficult for later performers, who typically use a modern valve trumpet instead.

Handel, whose English was far from perfect, set the word “incorruptible” with the accent on the second and fourth syllables (in-COR-rup-TI-ble), instead of the first and third syllables (IN-cor-RUP-ti-ble).  Most performances since Handel’s day have adjusted the word-setting to make it sound more natural to English-speakers.

The music for this alto/tenor duet is based on an Italian love duet Handel composed in 1722.  It serves as a reminder to Handel’s London audiences that his Italian operas also typically included a love duet in the final act.

This is the only musical number (not including recitative) in Messiah in which the orchestra does not participate.  Only the continuo instruments of keyboard and cello accompany the two singers.

Handel also set this text as an alto recitative in one version of Messiah.

A companion to the preceding duet, this chorus uses the same key, rhythms, and musical motifs as the duet.

The word “thanks” is articulated 75 separate times in this chorus.

The fugal treatment of “who giveth us the victory” is a symbol of widespread distribution, as it was in the passage “good will toward men” earlier in Messiah.

As with the aria “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” this aria is an intimate personalization of the global gift of Christ’s atonement.

The melody at the words “who makes intercession for us” quotes a 1524 hymn tune by Martin Luther, “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir,” (“Out of the depths I cry to Thee”)

Another triumphant chorus, with full orchestra, this opening is also actually a mirror counterpart to the unaccompanied chorus “Since by Man Came Death,” with similar rhythms, textures, and keys.

The two stanzas of “Since by Man Came Death” were in A minor and D minor.  The two parallel stanzas of “Worthy Is the Lamb” are in D major and A major.

At the words “Blessing and honor, power, and glory,” the fugue theme includes repeated notes that emphasize the idea of eternity, and also recall the repeated notes from “For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it” in the oratorio’s opening chorus.

At the chorus’s conclusion, the words “forever and ever” are repeated 16 times, using the same rhythm as the setting of those same words in the “Hallelujah” chorus.

The final cadence ends on dominant harmony, setting up a powerful harmonic segue into the “Amen” that follows.

Beginning gently and humbly, the “Amen” builds into a majestic blend of counterpoint and chorale. 

With the eventual entry of trumpets and drums, the chorus reaches a magnificent apex that conductor Christopher Hogwood described as “the final storming of heaven.”