Handel's Messiah

Handel’s Messiah: Fascinating FAQs!

Here are some fascinating questions and revealing answers about Messiah, Handel, and other Messiah fun facts!

What did Johann Sebastian Bach think of Handel?

  • Johann Sebastian Bach said “[Handel] is the only person I would wish to see before I die, and the only person I would wish to be, were I not Bach.” 

How was Handel viewed by other prominent musicians?

  • Mozart once proclaimed, “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.”

  • Beethoven agreed, stating, “Handel was the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.” 

Was German-born Handel well accepted by the British?

  • George Bernard Shaw once said, “Handel is not a mere composer in England; he is an institution. What is more, he is a sacred institution.”

How long did it take Handel to compose Messiah?

  • Handel wrote Messiah in 24 days, from August 22 to September 14, 1741. This was not unusually fast for Handel, who was a remarkably expeditious composer. 

What was unusual about the way Handel composed Messiah?

  • Unusual for Handel, he started at the beginning of the Messiah texts and composed the musical settings consecutively through to the end, tracing the work’s powerful dramatic arc as he went. 

Has Handel’s Messiah always been considered a masterful sacred work?

  • The style of English oratorio that Handel cultivated was considered a popular “entertainment” at the time, not necessarily a sacred work, even though oratorios were typically settings of biblical topics. 

Messiah is often tied to the Christmas season but was that the case in Handel’s time?

  • In Handel’s day, Messiah was typically performed in the period leading up to Easter. Opera theaters in London were closed during Lent, so the oratorio season was Handel’s principal source of income in that period. 

When did Messiah become a Christmas tradition?

  • The tradition of Christmas performances of Handel’s Messiah began in London in the 1790s, long after the composer’s death. 

What is the origin of Messiah singalongs?

  • Singalong community Messiah performances, or “Scratch” Messiahs, began in the 1960s in England, and remain a popular mode of performance today. 

How has Handel’s Messiah crossed music genres?

  • In 1993, a popular recording of excerpts from Messiah titled A Soulful Celebration brought together Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau, the Boys Choir of Harlem, and others in a gospel-style interpretation of Handel’s music. 

What productions today would compare with Messiah in Handel’s day?

  • In Handel’s day, oratorios (including Messiah) functioned more like contemporary musicals such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and The Prince of Egypt do today. 

How did the clergy respond to Handel presenting Messiah in Westminster Abbey?

  • When Handel scheduled a performance of Messiah in Westminster Abbey, some members of the clergy declared it sacrilege for a “public entertainment” to take place in a consecrated church. Handel couldn’t win—in the early days of Messiah having operatic singers and actors declaim scripture in a theater was, according to some, akin to sacrilege.

In what ways is Messiah different from Handel’s other oratorios?

  • Messiah is unlike most other oratorios in that there are no characters, no traditional plot or storyline, and very little dialog. Handel’s other bible-based oratorios typically dramatize the familiar stories with new dialog, making them more like an opera. 

Did Handel compile the scriptural text for Messiah?

  • The lyrics for Messiah were compiled for Handel by his associate Charles Jennens, using scriptural texts from the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible with some minor adjustments. 

How did Handel’s librettist Jennings feel about Messiah?

  • Charles Jennens, the librettist, was not entirely pleased with Handel’s work on Messiah, declaring it “a fine Entertainment, tho’ not near so good as he might and ought to have done.” 

Have other musicians revised Handel’s  score?

  • Several well-known musicians later re-orchestrated Handel’s score for Messiah, adapting the size and instrumentation to suit current tastes and circumstances. These include W. A. Mozart, Michael Costa, Robert Franz, Sir Henry Wood, Ebenezer Prout, Sir Eugene Goossens, and most recently, Sir Andrew Davis. Mack Wilberg has reedited Handel’s Messiah for large chorus and orchestra such as The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.

Was Messiah an entirely new composition?

  • Handel borrowed from his own earlier compositions in a handful of selections of Messiah, including some Italian duets he had composed earlier in 1741, adjusting and recomposing the music to fit the new words. 

What was the origin of some of the odd phrasing in Messiah?  

  • Although he became an English citizen, Handel was never fluent in spoken or written English. Examples of awkward declamation abound in Messiah, though many have been corrected by later editors. Some have become so familiar to audiences that they no longer sound awkward to modern ears. 

Where was the first public performance of Messiah?

  • The first public performance of Messiah took place in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1742. 

How were the proceeds from the first performance used?

  • The premiere of Messiah was designated a benefit performance for charity. The ladies were asked not to wear hoop dresses, and the men to leave their swords at home, in order to accommodate more people in the hall. It raised £400 and freed 142 men from debtors’ prison. 

What London charity benefited from Messiah?

  • Handel later directed annual charity performances of Messiah at London’s Foundling Hospital, beginning in 1750. He willed a copy of the score and performance parts to the Foundling Hospital on his death in 1759. 

When were Messiah charity events held?

  • Easter-time performances of Messiah continued each year at London’s Foundling Hospital until the 1770s. 

How were Messiah performances for charity received?

  • In the United Kingdom during the 19th century, most performances of Messiah were given to raise money for the benefit of the poor and infirm. These charitable Messiah performances were described by one critic as the “great scheme of musical benevolence.” 

How was Messiah reviewed by critics?

  • A critic at the 1864 Three Choirs Festival in Hereford described Messiah as “the sacred oratorio inspired by genius, sanctified by religion, and perpetuated by faith.” 

Why did Handel produce so many versions of Messiah?

  • Handel led about twenty performances of Messiah during his lifetime, periodically customizing and altering the score to suit particular singers and circumstances. Consequently, there is no “definitive” version of the score to Handel’s Messiah

In what ways did Messiah productions grow in size over the years?

  • During the 19th century, performances of Messiah took on gargantuan proportions, with choirs of up to 4,000 singers accompanied by orchestras of more than 500 players. 

How is Messiah tied to religion?

  • In 1885, a music critic hailed Messiah as “the one great work that not only embodies a religion but is a religion itself.” 

How did Handel respond to Messiah as “noble entertainment?”

  • After an early performance of the work in London, Lord Kinnoul congratulated Handel on the “noble entertainment” he had recently brought to the city. Handel is said to have replied, “My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.” 

How is Messiah part of The Tabernacle Choir’s rich recording history?

  • The Tabernacle Choir’s first recording session in 1910 included the “Hallelujah” chorus in what is almost certainly the first recording of a Messiah excerpt made outside of England, and the first ever recorded by an established choir. Although the recording was not deemed suitable to include in published form, it is still a milestone in Choir recording history. 

What is significant about the Choir’s 1959 recording of Messiah?

  • The Choir’s 1959 Messiah with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra was inducted into the United States Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2005. 

Why is the “Hallelujah” Chorus so closely tied to The Tabernacle Choir?

  • The Tabernacle Choir has made recordings with the “Hallelujah” Chorus from Messiah at least 17 times and performed it literally thousands of times. 

In what ways does Handel’s Messiah embrace all “children of God?”

  • Part of Messiah’s popularity lies in its universality. The personal pronouns in the libretto—“All we like sheep,” “For unto us a child is born,” “I know that my redeemer liveth”—refer to the entire human race. Everyone is a performer in the story of Handel’s Messiah by virtue of being children of God. That is another reason that Messiah has such a prominent place in the Choir’s repertoire since its mission is to provide inspiring music that helps people feel closer to the divine and celebrates God’s love for all His children.

By Dr. Luke Howard, associate professor of music history at Brigham Young University.