Once considered a religious farce, this majestic oratorio has become a traditional act of worship each Christmas.

I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the Great God Himself,” said George Frideric Handel after he wrote the “Hallelujah” chorus.

In fact, the entire oratorio Messiah (“The” was never in the title) is a grand vision of the drama of redemption. In the 241 years since Messiah was written, untold millions throughout the world have shared something of Handel’s vision and heard one of the greatest sermons on the gospel ever preached. John Wesley wrote in his Journal on August 17, 1758, “I went to the [Bristol] cathedral to hear Mr. Handel’s Messiah. I doubt if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance.”

Even today, some respond more readily to the gospel as presented in Messiah than to a pulpit sermon. I especially remember Debbie, a young lady who opened her heart to Christ during a complete performance I was conducting, and subsequently finished formal training for a lifetime of Christian service.

The Popularity And Significance Of Messiah

Messiah unquestionably is the most popular choral work in the English-speaking world. There is a “mystique” about Messiah that seems to set it apart from all other works. Every Christmas and Easter season, it is performed in a variety of circumstances, from community churches to cosmopolitan cathedrals. The highest aspiration of thousands of amateur singers is to sing in a performance of Messiah. For many, it is their only contact with great music, either as performer or as listener. Many who normally shun classical music hasten to embrace this work.

One may ask, “Why should I hear Messiah again if I’ve already heard it, possibly even several times?” One reason is that it is a deep and uplifting experience of worship into which we can enter. Another is that we like to hear a well-loved story told well, and Handel tells the gospel story exceedingly well. His version is the third of the great triumvirate of musical settings of the gospel that stand at the very pinnacle of Western civilization, all written within a 20-year span—Bach’s Saint John Passion (1723) and Saint Matthew Passion (1727), and Messiah (1741).

It is important to understand that Messiah is not so much a story of the life of Christ as it is a proclamation of the gospel and the contrasting responses—and destinies—of humanity to Christ’s invitation. Its scope is comprehensive and breathtaking, from the prophecies of the Messiah’s coming to his enthronement in heaven. It truly is a “spiritual epic.” Robert Manson Myers, one of Handel’s many biographers, states “[it] is an epitome of Christian faith. He portrays in succession every shade of devotional sentiment from piety, resignation, and repentance to hope, faith, and exultation.”

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Another biographer, R. A. Streatfield, considered it “the first instance in the history of music of an attempt to view the mighty drama of human redemption from an artistic standpoint.”

Handel himself had more than the usual commercial hopes for Messiah. When, after the first London performance, Lord Kinnoul congratulated him on the excellent “entertainment,” Handel replied, “My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wish to make them better.” He has admirably succeeded. A certain Mrs. Dewes, writing her brother in London in December 1750, said that Messiah “is calculated to raise our devotions and make us truly sensible of the power of the divine words he has chosen beyond any human work that ever yet appeared, and I am sure I may venture to say ever will.”

There is no doubt Messiah is Handel’s single most important and popular work. It was highly acclaimed in his own time. A review of the premiere, in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal, said, “the best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspire to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.”

Paul Henry Lang, author of George Frideric Handel (Norton, 1966), the most authoritative biography of the composer, comments, “Messiah is perhaps the only major work about which public sentiment is unanimous … Handel achieved with this work the most widespread critical recognition ever accorded a composer.”

Today there are many groups that exist solely to perform Messiah. For many, Christmas is incomplete without it. One need only consider the great number of performances, many given in the same area on the same day, or the increasingly popular Messiah “sing-a-longs” throughout the country in which thousands of amateur singers pay to fill concert halls for the opportunity of singing excerpts of Messiah accompanied by an orchestra.

The Triumph Of Messiah Over Opposition

Given such acclaim for nearly two-and-a-half centuries, it may surprise us to realize that Messiah has faced intense opposition. It is a classic example of triumph over adversity, and was written during one of the lowest ebbs of Handel’s life, a life that Lang describes as characterized by a series of “heroic and incessant struggles.”

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When Handel wrote Messiah, he was 56 years old, two decades beyond the normal life expectancy of his day. He was a survivor of numerous financial disasters, and his most recent Italian opera ventures in London had completely collapsed. He was all but bankrupt. He was also in great physical pain. He was, for all practical purposes, a broken and defeated man, and he was looked upon as such by London. Optimist that he ever was, even he feared his career in London might be over. He announced a “farewell” appearance in April 1741. It appeared that a great career had come to a tattered end.

Some of his difficulties had their roots earlier in his career. Part of the problem was his German background and his continued attempts to produce Italian opera. There was a strong anti-foreign culture mood in England. Even though Handel had become a naturalized citizen and Anglicized the spelling of his name, he was publicly called “a German nincompoop.”

Another difficulty was political. Handel found himself caught in a feud between King George II and his son Frederick, Prince of Wales. Neither would endorse what the other supported. Consequently, since the king favored Handel, the prince wanted to destroy him.

One of his greatest difficulties, however, was ecclesiastical opposition. This went back as far as 1732, when Handel produced the first English oratorio, Esther. The idea of a Bible story being performed on stage by “common mummers” was unthinkable to the church. “What are we coming to when the will of Satan is imposed upon us in this fashion?” asked one minister. Edmund Gibson, the bishop of London, forbad the oratorio to be performed. Handel only resolved even more to proceed with the performance. When the royal family attended the fourth night, the success of the oratorio was assured.

However, as was so often the case in Handel’s career, such success generated intense and influential opposition. The Prince of Wales engaged Porpora, the greatest music teacher in Europe of that day, to ruin Handel’s career. Porpora very nearly succeeded. He pirated some of Handel’s compositions and presented them in competition with Handel’s own performances. He even hired away some of Handel’s star singers.

Handel drove himself relentlessly. Adding to his difficulties, his health began to give. In 1735, at age 50, he suffered a double blow—another financial failure, and a severe affliction of rheumatism. The pain was so bad that it was intense agony for him even to play the organ or to write music. Once again, he was unsure about his future. He wrote to his friend, Charles Jennens, a wealthy country squire, “There is no certainty of any scheme for next season.”

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When the prince married the following year, Handel composed a “Wedding Anthem” that was well received. The prince patched up the feud, apparently ending Handel’s troubles with the royal family. Unfortuantely, since the prince now approved of Handel, the king withdrew his own support.

One failure followed another. By 1737, Handel was swimming in debt and facing financial ruin. Then, his archenemy, Porpora, had to declare bankruptcy and return to Venice where he died a pauper. A reconciliation with the king was made when he asked Handel to compose a “Funeral Anthem” upon the death of Queen Caroline. The lengthy work so impressed the public that such great literary men as Steele, Pope, and Fielding acclaimed Handel as the greatest genius England had ever known.

Still, Handel was in such desperate financial difficulties that he was threatened with debtor’s prison. In the midst of all this, he characteristically put on concerts to help raise money for others in need. Finally, at the urging of some friends, he consented to perform a benefit concert for himself in 1738, thus enabling him to pay off his debts.

Opposition from the church continued. In 1739, he composed Israel in Egypt. It was attacked because it brought the words of Scripture into the theater. His handbills were torn down, and his concerts were deliberately disrupted. He was losing money rapidly.

He also was losing his following. To compound his difficulties, when Handel accidently put a buttered muffin on the binding of a friend’s rare book, he lost that friend, one of the few he still had. By early 1741, he had used up the last of his resources. London considered him to be “burnt out,” and rumor had it that he was about to leave England.

In all this, there apparently were changes taking place in him personally. He seemed to mellow. He had been known for his ability to swear in five languages, but now both his tongue and his famous temper were considerably tamed. The results were apparent in his music. Sir Newman Flower, a biographer, says, “Handel ever sang the sweeter in suffering. He reached the heart of the world when the world was against him.”

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Creation Of Messiah

The depths of Handel’s depression were reached by early summer of 1741. Then two significant events converged. Handel received a liberetto from his friend Charles Jennens for an oratorio on the theme of redemption. It was taken entirely from Scripture. Handel told Jennens it would take him about a year. Then Handel received a commission from some charities in Dublin to compose a work as a benefit.

On August 22 he sat down in his little house on Brook Street in London and six days later he had completed Part I of Messiah. In nine more days he had written Part II, and in another six, Part III. He took an additional three days to “fill out” the orchestration. In 24 days, he had filled 260 pages of manuscript, a phenomenal physical feat in itself. The fact that he borrowed a few tunes of his own composition as well as a few traditional tunes for themes takes away nothing from his staggering achievement. In fact, borrowing material was an accepted practice of this time, providing the new treatment was an “improvement.” Again, to quote Flower, “Considering the immensity of the work, and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of musical composition.” Obviously, such a feat could not have been accomplished had Handel been in a trance, as one fanciful myth would have it.

William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, invited Handel to give a series of concerts in Ireland. In November 1741, Handel journeyed to Dublin where he gave a six-month series of concerts. He took Messiah with him, but saved it for the end. In late March 1742, an announcement of the premiere of the work appeared, and a statement of its charitable purpose: “For the relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay.”

But even in Ireland Handel’s troubles with the church continued. Handel’s chorus was drawn from the personnel of two local church choirs. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, was the dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and nearing insanity. He did not want his musicians to participate in Handel’s performances, and threatened “to punish such vicars as shall ever appear there, as songsters, fiddlers, pipers, trumpeters, drummers, drum-majors, or in any sonal quality, according to the flagitious aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy, and ingratitude.” Finally, Swift was persuaded to relent.

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An ironic personal postscript to all this occured in late December 1973 when my wife and I were attending a performance in Saint Patrick’s. I happened to look down, and noticed that I was sitting over the memorial plaque in the floor marking Swift’s tomb. The music being sung by the cathedral choir was Messiah.

The premiere of Messiah was given at noon on Tuesday, April 13, 1742, in the New Music Hall on Fishamble Street. The performers numbered only 32 singers—including soloists—and a small orchestra. Handel conducted from the harpsichord. The demand for tickets was so great that the men were asked not to wear their swords, and the ladies not to wear the hoops in their skirts. This enabled an additional 100 persons to attend, bringing the capacity crowd to 700. (After the premiere, it became traditional and fashionable for women not to wear large hoops for concerts.) Handel had to issue an apology in the newspaper that he had no more tickets, and still hundreds were turned away. Consequently, a second performance was given two months later.

Apparently the concert was successful in its charitable purpose, for £400 was raised, and 142 men were released from debtor’s prison. The concert must have been fairly long, for Handel also played “several” organ concertos. One aspect of the premiere is typical of Handel’s generosity, for among his soloists was one Mrs. Cibber, who had sung in some of the pirated versions of Handel’s earlier works when his enemies were trying to destroy him. Her singing of “He Was Despised” was so moving that a Dr. Delaney said to her, “Woman! for this thy sins be forgiven thee.”

Contrasting Responses

However, success in Ireland did not mean success in England. Even before Handel returned to London, public opposition to Messiah was heard. He waited until 1743 to produce it in London. On March 19, an anonymous letter appeared in a London newspaper: “An Oratorio either is an Act of Religion, or it is not; if it is, I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in, or a Company of Players fit Ministers of God’s Word, for in that Case such they are made.” Handel was advised it would be the act of a madman to put the name Messiah on a playbill. Accordingly, for the first London performance—and for several years thereafter—he called it A New Sacred Oratorio.

The London premiere was given on March 23, 1743, at Covent Garden. Although the king came, the religious controversy kept many away. It was at this performance that the king stood for the “Hallelujah” chorus—then called “For the Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth.” Some historians believe the king, being somewhat hard of hearing, stood up because he mistook the chorus for the national anthem!

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The religious controversy raged for years. To many of Handel’s day, “religious” was synonymous with “liturgical,” and some objected to nonliturgical themes in Messiah. The main issue, however, was its performance in a theater. Puritanism excluded drama from churches, and religion from concert halls and theaters. The clergy considered it sacrilege to put Scripture into the mouths of such “immoral” people as actors and actresses. They called Messiah a “religious farce,” and labeled Handel a heretic. They tried to close the theater to stop the performance. Only its charitable purpose made the performance even remotely acceptable.

At first Messiah was not well received in London. It was not typical of the time, and people did not understand it. They expected dramatic characters, but other than the angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds, there were none. There was no Christchild, no Mary, no Joseph, or shepherds, or Simeon, or wise men. Not even Christ directly addressed the believer. Handel withdrew Messiah, only occasionally reviving it for a rare single performance.

The acceptance of Messiah came through the popularity of another work. In 1745, at age 60, Handel hit bottom once again. He was playing to empty houses, and once more crashed financially. By the following year, he was “living in respectable poverty,” yet he refused to quit. The positive reversal of his fortunes was the result of a military battle. Early in 1747, the Duke of Cumberland defeated the rebellious Stuart forces at the battle of Culloden. When Handel’s new oratorio Judas Maccabeus was produced not long after, it was perceived as not so much about the great Jewish leader as a thinly disguised hymn of praise to the duke.

The English people saw themselves glorified in this work, and Judas as representing the duke. Suddenly, Handel became a national musical prophet. He now was in great popular favor, and would be so the rest of his life. In 1749, after a three-year silence, Messiah was heard again in London. This time, Handel had to put up seats on the stage, so that the performers hardly had room for themselves. He was at the height of success.

He began to make great sums of money, but he used it generously to benefit others. He also invested much of it, including £8,000 he spent in 1750 for some paintings, among them a “large Rembrandt.” That same year, on May 1, he gave an organ to the Foundling Hospital in London, and dedicated it with a performance of Messiah—the first one given in a religious setting. In fact, the only church performance given in Handel’s lifetime was the one attended by John Wesley in Bristol. All 1,000 tickets were sold out days before, and over 1,000 were turned away, so a second performance had to be given. This established the tradition of annual spring performances of Messiah.

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All in all, Handel conducted 30 performances of Messiah, none of them ever in the fall or at Christmastime, for he viewed the work as appropriate for Lent, not Advent. Even though he was blind by 1753, he continued to play and conduct. His final public appearance was a performance of Messiah at Covent Garden on April 6, 1759. Immediately after the concert, he fainted by the organ, mortally ill. On the morning of April 14, he died at the age of 74.

Handel was buried in Westminster Abbey, with 3,000 in attendance at his funeral. His statue there shows him holding the manuscript for one of the solos from Messiah, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” By the time of his death, Messiah had entered the standard repertoire.

Despite this success, the controversy over Messiah continued. Some held it in very low regard. In 1836, the original manuscript sold at auction for only one pound. John Newton, assisted by William Cowper, preached a series of sermons against it. As late as the latter nineteenth century there was still opposition to performing Messiah in Westminster Abbey. Even today, a professional chorus member recently told me that his choir prides itself on never doing Messiah.

Reclaiming And Enjoying Messiah

Twenty-five years after Handel’s death, a series of memorial concerts were given. Whereas Handel’s forces usually numbered about 40, and never more than 60, the size of the chorus and the orchestra began to swell. What originally had been intimate became impressive, and what was meditative became monumental. It was triumphant, but it no longer was tender. In 1789, Mozart was commissioned to enlarge the orchestration to support the expanded forces. This is the orchestration used in traditional performances today. When Beethoven was asked his opinion of Mozart’s orchestration, he replied, “Handel will survive it.”

Perhaps the most extreme example of sonic inflation was the June 4, 1933, performance of 16 excerpts at Chicago’s “A Century of Progress” world’s fair. Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted a chorus of 5,500, an orchestra of 100 players, and 100 soloists who sang their recitatives and arias in unison.

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The closer we get to Handel’s conception, the closer we get to the vital core of his expression. His original concept is more powerful than any so-called traditional version. The traditional interpretations keep us at a distance. We don’t just want to listen to Messiah; we should become involved in it. This entails much more than merely duplicating the size of Handel’s own choral and orchestral forces. It also means being sensitive to stylistic characteristics of Handel’s time such as phrasing, articulation, dynamics, tonal contrasts and colors, improvisations, rhythmic interpretation, and tempo. For instance, Handel’s own tempi “was exceedingly brisk,” and it is possible to perform the complete oratorio in two-and-a-half hours without rushing any part or cutting any number. Only a chamber-size chorus can manage the graceful, fast-moving lines and rhythms at the correct tempo with clarity of phrasing and appropriate tonal colors.

The best way to do this is to recover the work as he conceived it. The result may be a revelation. Those who once travel this road find they never want to turn back. As conductor Robert Shaw said, “Once we had divested ourselves of old associations—the heavinesses of sonority, tempo, and accent—and we had achieved a chamber music clarity and lightness, the spiritual aspects of the piece were extraordinarily enhanced.”

It is not a case of pedantic “purism” or misguided musicology but one of restoring the driving force and ever-freshness of Handel’s music so that it becomes a living message, not a museum artifact.

It is tragic that evangelical Christians have surrendered most of their greatest expressions of God’s truth—testaments of faith often composed by devout believers—to nonbelievers. The masterworks of truth in music have found more acceptance in the secular concert hall than in the sanctuary. What was intended as an act of worship becomes an act of idolatry, a worshiping of art, rather than the Master Artist. Messiah is one of the few masterworks we have retained, yet we often preserve it in the Victorian garb of nineteenth-century performance practices instead of rejoicing in its baroque glory. As critic Bernard Jacobsen once wrote in the Chicago Daily News, “Unwary travelers are likely to stub their ears at every intersection.” It is a tribute to Handel’s genius that it speaks meaningfully to us, even when heard through the ears of the nineteenth century.

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One of the popular myths—especially advanced by those who want to do it their way—is that if Handel were to write Messiah today, he would use the larger orchestra, and perhaps some of today’s contemporary popular treatments. This view—that we should “update Handel”—entirely misses the essence of how a composer conceives a work. If Handel were writing today, the only thing Messiah would have in common with itself would be the text, for he would write in an entirely different, twentieth-century idiom. To quote Robert Shaw on this question, “A composer’s meaning is not to be separated from the sound he ‘heard’ in his inner ear and prescribed.” Handel wrote exactly what he wanted. Even his subsequent alterations did not change the character or orchestration of the work.

Consequently, we should seek out those performances that attempt to protect the integrity of Handel’s musical conception. We also should encourage our performers—especially the Christian ones—to protect the integrity of the gospel message, and not delete those portions that are critical to a proper understanding of Handel’s proclamation of the redemption drama. We should use Messiah as a point of contact with our non-Christian friends as a supreme artistic expression of our faith. More performances at Lent or Easter also might emphasize the theme of redemption.

Even more important, we need to immerse ourselves in the content of Messiah, to study its text thoroughly and understand its grand scheme before we attend a performance. Even if we are not expert musicians, we certainly can deal confidently with textual content.

Above all, we should approach Messiah as an opportunity to stimulate our minds and emotions with a deeper understanding of the grand drama of redemption. Perhaps we should remember Beethoven’s last admonition. As he lay dying, he pointed at Handel’s music and said, “There is the truth!” As we study and listen to and perform Messiah, we should pray that God will use Handel’s music to sing the truth of the scope of redemption even deeper into our hearts.

The advice of a certain Benjamin Victor of Dublin, given to a pastor friend in Chelsea 230 years ago, still is worth heeding. On December 27, 1752, he wrote to the Reverend William Rothery, “If Handel’s Messiah should be performed in London, as it undoubtedly will be in the Lent season, I beg it as a favor to me, that you will go early and take your wife with you, your time and your money cannot be so well employed; take care to get a book of the oratorio some days before, that you may well digest the subject, then you will hear glad tidings and truly divine rejoicings at the birth of Christ, and feel real sorrows for his sufferings—but oh! when those sufferings are over, what a transporting full chorus!”

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Richard D. Dinwiddie is visiting professor of church music at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, as well as music director and conductor of The Chicago Master Chorale.

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