Messiah FAQ’s

FAQ’s About Handel’s Messiah / Notes by Loann Scarpato

Messiah is called an “oratorio.”  What’s that?

George F Handel

Portrait of Handel in 1741, the year he wrote Messiah.

An oratorio is an unstaged musical drama for voices (solos, ensembles, choruses) with orchestra, usually on religious subjects. In Handel’s day, oratorios were performed for paying audiences in concert halls or theaters, not in churches. Oratorios came about because “frivolous entertainments” like opera were not allowed during the solemn season of Lent. But the large, well-heeled opera audiences still wanted to hear their favorite singers, and musicians still needed incomes, so oratorios filled the six-week entertainment gap in a way that passed muster with the religious censors.

Why did Handel write Messiah?

He needed money, and he wanted to shore up his reputation. The Italianate style of opera that had long been his stock-in-trade was beginning to lose its appeal to London audiences, so he jumped at the chance to present a series of subscription concerts in Dublin and wrote Messiah to take with him. The first performance was a benefit for charity, which created good will and encouraged a large attendance. In fact, there were so many subscribers that space became an issue. Ladies were requested not to wear hoops under their fashionable petticoats, gentlemen were asked to forgo their swords, and private sedan chairs were not permitted to “park” in the streets near the concert hall.

What is Messiah about?

Portrait of Charles Jennens, ca 1745. He compiled the texts for Messiah.

The word-book was supplied by Charles Jennens, a wealthy scholar who had worked with Handel on previous oratorios. It’s commonly supposed to be a narrative of the life of Jesus but is actually somewhat more abstract. The texts are a mosaic of juxtaposed passages from both the Old and New Testaments. Taken together, the pieces form an extended meditation on redemption. Handel and Jennens could take it for granted that listeners would know the implied Gospel narratives and understand the theological connections among the Biblical passages. After all, much of the audience had heard these words from the pulpit all their lives! That said, the three-part structure of Messiah is roughly chronological, corresponding to the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and resurrection.

So it was the Jesus Christ Superstar of its day?

Something like that, yes! But remember that it was unstaged, without scenery, costuming, action, or stage effects, and singers were not assigned the roles of particular characters. There are, though, many different voices speaking in the work: Old Testament prophets, New Testament evangelists and apostles, angels, and even at one point the entire universe. Like Jesus Christ Superstar, Messiah was a bit controversial when it was new, and like JCS it became extremely popular. Messiah has been performed every year since its premiere in 1742, and it’s the most frequently heard choral masterwork in the classical repertoire.

What made Messiah so popular?

  • It’s full of wonderful music and wide-ranging emotions, from jubilation to rage to tenderness to overwhelming majesty. Handel knew how to keep an audience’s attention, how to leverage the strengths of his performing forces, and how to write intricate fugues and memorable melodies that listeners could follow with delight.
  • The audience already knew the story and all the words.
  • It was just as entertaining as the operas of its day, but because of its subject, the audience could feel righteous even as it reveled in musical pathos and pyrotechnics.
  • It was cheap to produce, compared with opera, and traveled well. Even small English country towns soon boasted performances of the “Rory Tory,” as villagers called it. In just a few decades, performances had reached beyond Europe to India and North America, where Messiah was first heard in a New York City tavern.

Are there any really good stories about Messiah?

Portrait of Susannah Cibber.

The juiciest one concerns an alto soloist that Handel engaged in Dublin. She was a much-in-demand singing actress named Susannah Cibber who had withdrawn from the London stage when her indiscreet private life became a public scandal. (Mr. Cibber had sued his wife’s lover after hiring someone to spy on the pair, and the trial testimony was so lurid that the judge felt obliged to call a halt to it.) She turned up in Dublin, trying to resume her career in a place where her name carried less notoriety. Her singing of the aria “He was despised and rejected of men” was so heartfelt that a clergyman in the audience, aware of her past, cried out, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

Why do audiences stand up for the “Hallelujah” chorus?

The practice supposedly began at the first London performance in 1743. Tradition has it that King George II stood when he heard the words “for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.” Protocol demanded that the entire audience follow suit. Historians aren’t convinced that it happened quite that way, but the custom became entrenched and audiences have generally followed it ever since.

A recording of the “Hallelujah” chorus:

How many singers and players are there supposed to be for Messiah?

An image of a Crystal Palace performance.

This has been debated endlessly. Sources vary, but at the first performance Handel probably used 24 to 35 singers, counting soloists, and a greater number of players. (Baroque instruments had smaller voices than their modern equivalents.) This was in a hall that held 700 listeners. In 1859 Messiah was given in London’s Crystal Palace with 2765 singers and 460 instrumentalists. In Boston in 1869, 10,000 singers and 500 instruments performed the “Hallelujah” chorus. (One wonders where.)

If Messiah wasn’t intended for liturgical use, why do we so often hear it, or parts of it, in churches?

  • The text, taken almost verbatim from the King James Version of the Christian Bible, is profoundly religious.

    An image showing the inscription “S{oli} D{eo} G{loria}” (“To God alone be the glory”) along with Handel’s initials on a score.

  • It covers so much theological territory that it’s possible to extract portions appropriate to almost any period in the liturgical calendar: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, etc.
  • The musical numbers in Messiah are short enough to be used as anthems during a Protestant service.
  • There have long been performing editions of Messiah that don’t require an orchestra but use organ or piano instead, making performance feasible even in smaller churches.
  • Handel would not have written Messiah if he couldn’t sell tickets for it. But he apparently felt strong religious inspiration while composing, and congregations seem to sense this sincerity and respond in kind. Of the “Hallelujah” chorus, he wrote: “Whether I was in my body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not. God knows.” Of composing the work as a whole, he said: “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself.”

Is there anybody who doesn’t like Messiah?

  • Of all people, Jennens, who compiled the text, didn’t like it. He confided to a friend, “His Messiah has disappointed me; being set in great haste [24 days, in fact!]….  I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands to be thus abus’d.”
  • Tchaikovsky thought Handel’s music was “fourth-rate.” He made an exception, though, for the “Hallelujah” chorus after hearing the mammoth Crystal Palace performance shown above.
  • Plenty of listeners have loved the work itself but deplored the manner in which it was performed. George Bernard Shaw, who was a music critic as well as a playwright, hated the Victorian tendency to use gargantuan forces, as if size were an end in itself. He also wrote disapprovingly about “the custom of singing Handel as if he meant nothing; and as it happens…he meant a good deal, and was tremendously in earnest about it….  Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die.”
  • Some performers and audiences have become indifferent to Messiah because it’s trotted out so often as to seem perfunctory. But let an energetic and imaginative conductor bring out a new performing edition, switch some voice parts around, and throw in a few lesser-known choruses, and it comes flourishing back to life.