Handel and his "Messiah" (from 15-Minute Music Lessons)
Christmas evokes fond memories often enchanted by our senses- sparkling Christmas lights and beautiful decorations, cold snowy evenings with warm fires in the fireplace, the smell of gingerbread and evergreen, and the sounds of Christmas with perhaps at the top of that list one of the most majestic music ever written: Handel's Messiah. But did you know that it was originally written for Easter?
Who was Handel?
Georg Friedrich Handel was born in Halle, Germany in 1685. He was an organist and wrote organ concertos. He also wrote vocal music such as anthems, operas, cantatas, songs, and oratorios and instrumental music such as concertos, concerti grossi, and suites. Handel is one of the most famous composers of the Baroque Era (1600-1725). He moved to London in 1712 and lived there until his death at age 74 in 1759.
Messiah is an oratorio, which is similar in structure to an opera, but without the dramatic staging. Messiah is in English and uses a choir, 5 soloists, and an orchestra. It had its debut at Musick Hall in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1742 at Eastertime. It is now a fixture of the Christmas season. The full story of Messiah is of Jesus' nativity, passion, resurrection, and ascension.
It's divided into 3 parts:
- Part I- Prophecies by Isaiah and the Annunciation of the Shepherds
- Part II- The Passion of Christ (ends with the Hallelujah Chorus)
- Part III- Resurrection of the Dead, Glorification of Christ in Heaven
The libretto (lyrics to be sung) was written by a devout believer in Jesus and in Scriptural authority Charles Jennens. Many of the words come from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Each of the three parts are divided into scenes. Each scene contains recitatives (a form of singing similar to speaking to relate the song before it to the song after it), arias (a song sung by a soloist), and choruses. There are also 2 instrumental pieces.
Amazingly, Handel wrote the music to Messiah in 24 days. He signed it SDG, which stands for Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone the glory). The original manuscript of 259 pages is in the British Library.
According to tradition, when Messiah debuted in London in 1743, King George II stood during the Hallelujah Chorus. Since he stood, all others stood. It's been a tradition to stand during the song ever since.
Listen to these selections from Messiah:
"For Unto Us a Child is Born"
"He Shall Feed His Flock"
You can hear the audio of Handel's Messiah at this site.