Handel's Messiah

Historical Perspective on Messiah Performances

George Frideric Handel wrote Messiah in the late summer of 1741, when his future as a composer was in real jeopardy. The opera ventures he instituted, and which had thrived for nearly two decades, were waning in popularity and about to fail. To help pay the bills Handel turned to oratorio, a genre musically related to opera but without staging and costumes. Even with Messiah, though, Handel was still finding his footing in oratorio. He had penned only a handful of works in the genre, some of which (especially Israel in Egypt, from 1739) were initially failures. And Messiah was itself a risky project. Though the English audiences had for several decades embraced Handel as their favorite composer, that admiration was no guarantee of this work’s success. 

Principally at issue was the oratorio’s theme. A number of critics and clergy considered it blasphemous for a “theatrical entertainment” to be based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Even more controversially, the lyrics for Messiah were drawn directly from scripture, in a collation by Charles Jennens, an aristocrat and musician/poet of modest talent who had worked with Handel on a couple of earlier oratorios. And having operatic singers and actors declaim scripture in a theater was, according to some, akin to sacrilege. (Handel couldn’t win—when Messiah was later scheduled to be performed in Westminster Abbey, other members of the clergy declared it blasphemous for a public entertainment to take place in a consecrated church!)

But Jennens outdid himself with Messiah, compiling a libretto with profound thematic coherence and an enhanced sensitivity to dramatic and musical structure. He sent the libretto to Handel in July 1741, and Handel began setting it to music the following month. Unusually for Handel, he started at the beginning of the texts and worked consecutively through them, tracing and accentuating through music the powerful dramatic arc that Jennens had created. In some places, Handel borrowed and modified music he had written for other occasions, adapting it to Messiah’s texts and framework. 

Handel completed the entire score in only 24 days. Enthusiastic Romanticists of later eras would attribute this swiftness to divine inspiration, though Handel composed other works of comparable size, more secular in nature, just as swiftly. He was by nature a facile composer. The miracle of Messiah’s composition, then, is not how rapidly Handel wrote the music, but how comprehensively astute, finely-detailed, and consistently powerful it is.

The first performance of Messiah took place in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and though it was a stunning success, the work met with a lackluster reception in London the following season. Handel canceled half of the six scheduled performances and withdrew Messiah from the 1744 schedule. After a brief revival in 1745, Messiah wasn’t heard again in London until 1749 at a performance in Covent Garden. 

But it was a midday fundraising concert in the still-unfinished chapel of London’s Foundling Hospital later that year that helped turn around Messiah’s fortunes. On that occasion, Handel ended the concert with the “Foundling Hospital Anthem,” an assemblage of newly-composed music with excerpts from some of his older pieces, including the entire “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah, which was still relatively unknown among London audiences. The concert was so popular he was invited back the following year to conduct another benefit concert, and on that occasion Handel decided to perform the complete oratorio. 

This charitable performance of Messiah in its entirety at the Foundling Hospital in 1750 was an unprecedented success, and a second performance was quickly arranged two weeks later. Easter-time performances of Messiah continued each year at the Foundling Hospital, and Handel conducted or attended every one of them until his death in 1759. In gratitude, he bequeathed to the hospital a conducting score and complete set of performance parts for Messiah.

Handel had originally composed this work with the intent of propping up his own flagging fortunes. But he discovered with the Foundling Hospital performances that Messiah attained its highest potential when employed for the benefit of those with needs greater than his own: the widowed, the sick, the orphaned, and the poor. The risk he took in writing a “theatrical entertainment” on the subject of Jesus Christ was recompensed many times over during the following centuries, when Handel’s masterpiece was universally hailed as “the sacred oratorio,” “a work consecrated by genius and dedicated by custom to the holy cause of charity.” Messiah had ultimately become, then, the means for enacting in practice the very principles of faith, hope, and love expressed in its sacred lyrics and inspiring music. 


As Handel was composing Messiah, he had no idea how many performers would be available to him. For the Dublin premiere, there were 30 or so cathedral trained singers in the choir, accompanied by an equal-sized orchestra of strings, winds, trumpets, and timpani. But for that Dublin concert and all subsequent performances under his direction, Handel continued to make revisions to the score, customizing it to suit the available musicians while juggling the production costs and compensation for each singer and instrumentalist. Donald Burrows—the leading Handel scholar of our day—has proposed that Messiah was perhaps never performed the way Handel originally intended it, at least not during the composer’s lifetime. 

What might Handel have “originally intended” for the scale and instrumentation of Messiah if none of those early performances fully represented his vision? It’s a thorny question. But the subsequent 250-year history of Messiah proves that whatever Handel may have imagined, the work itself has held up remarkably well, even amid the sometimes extraordinary manipulations and multiplications of his original scoring. 

In 1784, a performance of Messiah was staged in London’s Westminster Abbey for the 25th anniversary of Handel’s death. The choir on that occasion numbered nearly 300 singers, accompanied by an orchestra of corresponding size. We’ll never know if Handel would have approved of such epic proportions, but he was certainly not one to shy away from striking and dramatic musical effects in his own works when circumstances and budget allowed. His 1749 suite of Music for the Royal Fireworks, for example, employed an out-of-doors band of more than 50 wind instruments plus strings—potentially nearly 100 players. Handel’s opera and oratorio orchestras grew consistently in size as he added winds and brass and multiplied the number of string players beyond the minimum whenever he could. Even in the score of Messiah, among the intimate chamberistic passages there are places such as the “Hallelujah” chorus and “Worthy Is the Lamb” that call for as much grandeur and spectacle as possible, and sections (in “Glory to God” and “Lift Up Your Heads,” for example) where the composer seems to wish he had a double choir at his disposal. Perhaps the primary considerations that prevented Handel from planning Messiah for a grander-sized chorus and orchestra were simply the cost, the difficulty of assembling such ensembles at the time, and the lack of a hall big enough to accommodate them. 

That would all soon change.

At the start of the 19th century, the conditions were ripe for even larger performances of Messiah. The advent of enthusiastic amateur choral societies in England, the Romantic focus on the “sublime,” and Messiah’s reputation by that time as a surefire audience favorite ensured that performances were frequently staged on an especially grand scale. And not only in London, where the newly built Exeter Hall could hold larger ensembles and crowds, but also at the cathedral choral festivals that took place in York, Worcester, Gloucester, Hereford, Birmingham, and other locations around the country. 

For these ambitiously proportioned performances, Handel’s baroque scoring was simply inadequate, and numerous new editions tried to accommodate the developing fondness for amplitude. In 1789, Mozart created a notably richer orchestration of Messiah, adding classical woodwinds and brass to the ensemble, heavily editing the dynamics and articulations, and even changing some notes and rhythms. Mozart’s goal was not at all to “improve” on what Handel had originally produced; he once remarked that “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect.” Rather, he merely hoped to arrange Handel’s work into a form more appropriate to the tastes and expectations of a late-18th century Viennese audience. 

Mozart’s “additional accompaniments” (as they came to be known) also enabled the bigger performances that were becoming standard practice in England in the 19th century. With winds and brass doubling the choral parts, hundreds of amateur choristers could better hear their notes in the orchestra, and the additional instruments contributed greater weight and timbral variety than could be achieved merely by adding more strings.

By the middle of the 19th century, Messiah performances occasionally reached gargantuan proportions. At the Handel Festivals in London’s Crystal Palace, beginning in 1857, the choir numbered around 4,000 singers, with an orchestra of nearly 500, entertaining audiences of over 20,000. These extravagantly massed performances used a greatly expanded orchestration by the Handel Festival’s first conductor, Sir Michael Costa. But they weren’t necessarily intended as the “best” way to hear Handel’s masterpiece. Most musicians of the day understood perfectly well the disadvantages of trying to perform on such an exaggerated Romantic scale a work conceived in baroque style. But there were other considerations that, for a time, outweighed any impulse to re-create the exact proportions and sounds of Handel’s time. The Handel Festivals, for example, were intended mainly to honor the memory of “the great Saxon composer” and celebrate his Englishness, with performances of unprecedented—indeed, unsurpassable—magnificence. (As one critic noted at these Festivals, “Handel made England musical, and music made Handel English.”) The smaller cathedral festivals, on the other hand, with performers numbering only in the hundreds, had dual goals: to improve all classes of society through exposure to great art, and to continue the revered tradition of performing Messiah as a charitable fundraiser for the poor and widowed. The more spectacular the performance, and the more people involved in it, the better the chances that those two goals would be met. 

By the end of the 19th century, some music critics began to issue very public calls for a return to an authentically Handel-styled Messiah, indicating an imminent sea-change in tastes. An 1868 facsimile publication of one of Handel’s scores had revealed some stark differences between what Handel had originally written and what custom had subsequently established. After enduring another Handel Festival extravaganza in 1891, George Bernard Shaw famously begged to hear just once before he died “a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of The Messiah[sic]… with a chorus of twenty capable artists.” 

Chamber-sized performances of Messiah did start to appear again in the early 20th century, though the larger ensembles still dominated. Ebenezer Prout produced a much-used (and later, much-maligned) edition of Messiah in 1902 that was intended to facilitate festival performances by these massed amateur choirs and orchestras. But Prout also proposed specifically a return to some of Handel’s original 18th-century aims, at least as much as late-19th century musical practices and the constraints of amateur performance would allow. He cut a good deal of Mozart’s “additional accompaniments,” and advocated for a piano, whenever possible, to accompany most of the recitatives (the baroque harpsichord having long disappeared from the concert platform by that time). 

During the 20th century, this growing interest in baroque performance practices, with the explicit goal of producing sounds that Handel himself may have recognized, fundamentally inflected performances of Messiah. In recent decades, the balance has tipped steeply toward these “historically-informed” re-creations, and the editions by Mozart and Prout have largely been rejected as unfortunate relics of the past, or revived as “museum pieces” of historical interest only. Certainly the fresh tempi, bright timbres, and lean textures of the new “old” style of performance were a revelation to audiences who had inherited a 200-year legacy of solemn and epic Messiah concerts. 

But these new versions by professional early-music specialists sometimes wanted for the kind of straightforward lay humanity that had attended Messiah throughout most of its history. As audiences were discovering the vitality of baroque-style playing and singing, especially on recording, they also flocked to roughly rehearsed and amateur “sing-along” Messiah concerts, where the sense of community, group participation, and shared faith that had traditionally attended this work were still very much present. 

What this current schism demonstrates is that there isn’t simply one best way to perform Handel’s Messiah. Over the course of its history, the work has revealed a variety of potent strengths through each of its distinct performance traditions. The exhilarating palette of the Early Music movement is now an integral part of the Messiah soundscape. And yet the sublime power, dynamic range, and emotional heft of the modern orchestras and large choirs that sustained Messiah’s reputation for two centuries have earned a permanent place as well.  

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