Nowadays, the performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah oratorio at Christmas time is a tradition almost as deeply entrenched as decorating trees and waiting for Santa. In churches and concert halls around the world, the most famous piece of sacred music in the English language is performed both full and abridged, with and without audience, but almost always and exclusively during the weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas. However, it was not originally intended as a piece of Christmas music. The Messiah received its world premiere on this day, April 13, 1742, during the Christian season of Lent, and in the decidedly secular context of a concert hall in Dublin, Ireland.
The inspiration for Messiah came from a scholar and editor named Charles Jennens, a devout and evangelical Christian deeply concerned with the rising influence of deism and other strains of Enlightenment thought that he and others regarded as irreligious. Drawing on source material in the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer, Jennens compiled and edited a concise distillation of Christian doctrine, from Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah’s coming through the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and then to the promised Second Coming and Day of Judgment. Then, he took his research to his friend George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and proposed that it form the basis of an oratorio expressly intended for performance in a secular setting during the week immediately preceding Easter.
The masterpiece by George Frideric Handel, culminating in the famous Hallelujah Chorus, was commissioned by William Cavendish, 3rd Duke of Devonshire then serving as the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to raise money for hospitals and debtors’ prisons.
According to the Dublin Journal: “Mr Handel’s Sacred Grand Oratorio, the Messiah, was performed at the New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded audience.
The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adopted to the most elevated, majestic and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished heart and ear.”
Though there is no detailed record of the performance, which raised £400, reports suggest that it was performed by a chorus of 16 men and 16 boys, two women choristers, a small string orchestra, a chamber organ, and a harpsichord played by Handel himself.
This was a modest ensemble compared to later performances when the work became world-famous, and perhaps none exceeded by the London presentation in 1879 on the centenary of Handel’s death, performed by a choir of 2,765 accompanied by a 460-piece orchestra. Messiah gained widespread popularity only during the final years of Handel’s life, in the late 1750s, but it remains one of the best-known musical works of the Baroque period more than two centuries later.
Traditionally, everyone stands when the Hallelujah Chorus begins.
The common explanation for this custom is that King George II (1683-1760) attended a performance and rose to his feet when the Chorus was performed, obediently followed by all those present.
What caused the King to rise is uncertain: some say he did it because he was so moved by the magnificent music, others say that he had dozed off, but was startled out of his slumber by the loud choristers. The third, but unlikely, theory is that when he heard the words “And He shall reign for ever and ever” the King (in photo below) thought the ensemble were paying respect to himself and he stood to acknowledge the tribute!
Because of cataracts, Handel was blind by 1752 and died in 1759 at the age of 74. More than 3,000 mourners attended his funeral and burial at Westminster Abbey. Appropriately, the last performance he attended was of Messiah. When you consider that Handel composed the score for Messiah in just 24 days, you begin to understand the incredible esteem in which some of his followers held him.
As Ludwig van Beethoven said: “He is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.”