One of the greatest musical masterpieces of all time was written by a man on the edge of despair. In September 1741, George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) sat down to begin work on a new composition. Just 24 days later, he had finished what some consider the greatest musical work of all time.
Handel was German by birth, but had spent many years in Italy, where he had learned to write operas. By 1738 he already had about 40 to his name. He settled in London, and soon became England’s most popular and successful composer. In 18th-century London, opera, and especially Italian opera, was all the rage. Fame and fortune awaited those who could satisfy the popular demand. Handel knew how to do that.
But show business, then as now, is a fickle and capricious trade. By 1740, the public’s appetite for opera had begun to wane. Handel had exhausted his popularity and much of his finances by writing and staging two fiascos that played for only four nights before being laughed off the stage. With his reputation in tatters, and facing bankruptcy, his career seemed over.
At this low point in his life, a former colleague, Charles Jennens, sent him an idea for a new composition. Jennens was what today would be considered a scriptwriter, composing the libretto (i.e., the words) of operas and other long vocal works.
What Jennens was proposing was an oratorio. The laws of the time did not allow the performance of religious drama on stage. An oratorio got around this. It is, like opera, an extended musical work, usually with a religious theme. Although based on biblical texts, it is staged without scenery or costumes, and the performers do not play specific roles. In modern terms you could say it was more of a documentary than a play.
Jennens’ libretto skillfully blended Old and New Testament scriptures to tell the story of Jesus Christ from the earliest prophecies of his birth to his triumphant resurrection and return. He called it The Messiah.
The idea appealed to Handel. Thus began the incredible three weeks of creative energy. The popular legend has it that he shut himself up in his room, forgetting about food or sleep. His servants would find him in a trance, with tears streaming down his face, totally wrapped in inspiration. When he finished the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the story goes, Handel was reported to have said “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the Great God Himself.”
Some students of Handel’s life wonder if this story is somewhat romanticized. We may never know for sure. It may be that The Messiah was produced more mundanely, although with an unusual display of disciplined and applied concentration.
The Messiah premiered on April 13, 1742, and was an immediate success. Handel’s fame and fortune was restored. He went on to compose many more oratorios before his death in April 1759. But nothing surpassed the genius and inspiration of The Messiah.
When you think of The Messiah, it is probably the famous arias and choruses that come to mind. Why not treat yourself to the whole thing? It lasts about two and a half hours. That may seem rather intimidating if you are not used to listening to classical music, but it is an investment you won’t regret. You can borrow the tapes or a CD from your library, or look for a performance in your local area, or on radio. They are quite popular in December.
People who have known only the highlights are often deeply moved when they first experience the entire Messiah in context. Why not discover for yourself how Handel’s masterpiece can lift your spirits and fill you with hope? We have prepared a Listeners’ Guide (see below) that will help you follow the performance and know where you are as the story unfolds.
Unlike a play, an oratorio is performed without scenery or costumes. The composer tells his story with a combination of songs (called arias) and choruses. There are also short recitatives between the arias and choruses to advance the story line and provide continuity.
Here are the arias, choruses and recitatives of the Messiah, in order, with the scriptural references on which they are based.
Theme: The prophecies of the Messiah, and the birth and ministry of Jesus.
- Overture Recitative: Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. (Isaiah 40:1-3)
- Aria: Every valley shall be exalted. (verse 4) Chorus: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. (verse 5)
- Recitative: (Haggai 2:6-7; Malachi 3:1)
- Aria: But who may abide the day of his coming? (verse 2)
- Chorus: And he shall purify the sons of Levi. (verse 3)
- Recitative: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son. (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23)
- Aria and Chorus: O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion. (Isaiah 40:9; Isaiah 60:1)
- Recitative: (verses 2-3)
- Aria: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:2)
- Chorus: For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given. (verse 6)
- Recitative: There were shepherds abiding in the field. (Luke 2:8)
- Recitative: (verse 9) Recitative: (verses 10-11)
- Recitative: (verse 13) Chorus: Glory to God in the highest. (verse 14)
- Aria: Rejoice greatly, 0 daughter of Zion. (Zechariah 9:9-10)
- Recitative: (Isaiah 35:5-6)
- Aria: He shall feed his flock like a shepherd. (Isaiah 40:11; Matthew 11:28-29)
- Chorus: His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. (verse 30)
Theme: The sacrifice of the Messiah for sin, humanity’s rejection of the Savior, and the ultimate defeat of all who oppose the power of God.
- Chorus: Behold the Lamb of God. (John 1:29)
- Aria: He was despised and rejected of men. (Isaiah 53:3; Isaiah 50:6)
- Chorus: Surely he hath borne our griefs. (Isaiah 53:4-5)
- Chorus: And with his stripes we are healed. (verse 5)
- Chorus: All we, like sheep, have gone astray. (verse 6)
- Recitative: (Psalm 22:7)
- Chorus: (verse 8) Recitative: (Psalm 69:20)
- Aria: Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow. (Lamentations 1:12)
- Recitative: (Isaiah 53:8) Aria: But thou didst not leave his soul in hell. (Psalm 16:10)
- Chorus: Lift up your heads, O ye gates. (Psalm 24:7-10)
- Recitative: (Hebrews 1:5)
- Chorus: Let all the angels of God worship him. (verse 6)
- Aria: Thou art gone up on high. (Psalm 68:18)
- Chorus: The Lord gave the word; great was the company f the preachers. (verse 11)
- Aria: How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace. (Romans 10:15)
- Chorus: Their sound is gone out into all the lands. (Romans 10:18; Psalm 19:4)
- Aria: Why do the nations so furiously rage together? (Psalm 2:1-2)
- Chorus: Let us break their bonds asunder. (verse 3)
- Recitative: (verse 4)
- Aria: Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron. (verse 9)
- Chorus: Hallelujah! (Revelation 19:6; 11:15; 19:16)
Theme: Resurrection and the final defeat of death and evil. Aria: I know that my Redeemer liveth. (Job 19:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:20)
- Chorus: (verses 21-22)
- Recitative: (verses 51-52)
- Aria: The trumpet shall sound. (verses 52-53)
- Recitative: (verse 54)
- Duet: 0 death, where is thy sting? 0 grave, where is thy victory? (verses 55-56)
- Chorus: Thanks be to God. (verse 57)
- Aria: If God be for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31, 33-34)
- Chorus: Worthy is the Lamb. (Revelation 5:12-13)
Author: John Halford