5 Facts about Handel's Messiah

22 Nov 2019

George Frideric Handel

Christmas is fast approaching and so is our annual performance of George Frideric Handel's Messiah in the wonderful acoustics of Skipton's Christ Church. To help get in the festive spirit here are a few interesting facts about the nation's favourite seasonal choral masterpiece.

Messiah helped Handel avoid debtors' prison

At the start of 1741 Handel was heavily in debt after the failure of a number of musical ventures. Musical tastes in London society were fickle and Handel, whose Italian operas had fallen out of fashion, believed his career was over. It was then that his friend, Charles Jennens, passed him a libretto based on the life of Jesus.

At the same time, Handel received a commission from a group of charities in Dublin. Ironically, the task was to write a new piece for a benefit concert to raise funds for helping to free men from debtors' prison. Of course, the Dublin premiere was a huge success, reversing his own misfortune and helping to secure both his own freedom as well as that of others.

It took Handel only a few weeks to write Messiah

Handel's score for the three-hour work for soloists, chorus and orchestra runs to more than 250 pages. That's roughly a quarter of a million notes. Handel wrote the entire piece in only 24 days - some sources say just 18 days - in a white-hot frenzy of creativity in the summer of 1741.

True, he did recycle a few sections of his earlier compositions. The choruses 'And He Shall Purify', 'For Unto Us a Child Is Born' and 'His Yoke Is Easy', for instance, all started life as Italian arias written twenty years earlier.

Even so, it was an astonishing feat. And even more astonishing is that it wasn't that unusual. Handel went on to compose his oratorio Samson straight afterwards in the following three weeks.

It's customary to stand for the Hallelujah Chorus

Audience members attending their first Messiah are regularly surprised when everyone suddenly stands for the 'Hallelujah' Chorus that ends Part Two. The tradition is said to date back to the London premiere King George II who, legend has it, was so moved by it that he jumped to his feet. And naturally, when the King stands so does everyone else.

That said, there is no evidence that George II was even at the performance. There was no mention of his attendance in the newspapers of the day - you'd think it might get a mention - so the earliest reference we have to the story dates from 37 years after the event.

Still, it's a great story. And whether you choose to believe the story or not, whether you're a sitter or a stander, there's no denying it's a rousing piece of music.

They say Handel wept composing Messiah

Whilst writing Messiah Handel is said to have got little sleep and regularly left food uneaten. His servants often found him in tears as he composed. At least that's the story handed down to us but, as with the 'Hallelujah' story, chances are that this too is apocryphal.

In spite of his being one of the most famous men in England during his lifetime, we actually know very little about Handel's private life. Was he a religious man? In Handel's day most people were religious, or at least they attended church regularly. Given that much of Handel's music has a biblical theme it is easy to suppose that he was a devout Christian, but the fact is we don't really know.

When Handel completed 'Hallelujah' he reportedly told his servant, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself seated on His throne, with His company of Angels." Well maybe he did. It probably doesn't make a difference. It would certainly be hard to believe that the process of composing Messiah hadn't moved Handel very deeply.

Messiah wasn't written for Christmas

Although these days Messiah is most often performed in the lead up to Christmas, it was actually intended for Lent. That first performance in Dublin took place during Easter 1742. In fact, only Part One of Messiah is about the birth of Jesus. The remaining two sections deal with Christ's death and resurrection.

It was the Victorians who moved Messiah to Christmas. Until the nineteenth century Easter was regarded as by far the most important date in the Christian calendar. Compared with the wealth of Easter-themed compositions to choose from, there was much less in the way of Christmas music. Handel's Messiah fitted the bill and, let's face it, it has - in English-speaking countries at least - been fitting the bill ever since.

Incidentally, Handel died on Good Friday, 1759. And naturally, at his funeral in Westminster Abbey a section of his Messiah was performed.

Share this article by email

Share this article on facebook

Share this article on Instagram

Share this article on twitter

Share this article by whatsapp

Follow us: