In 1741 George Frideric Handel wrote Messiah, his greatest musical creation, at the age of 56 in a single wild writing jag lasting 24 days. According to Newman Flower’s George Frideric Handel: His Personality and His Times: “He (Handel) completed the first part in seven days, the second part in nine days, the third part in six days, filling in instrumentation two days. The whole of Messiah from beginning to end was set upon paper in twenty-four days. Considering the immensity of the work, and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps for ever, the greatest feat in the whole history of musical composition.”
The previous year, Handel had been approached by the librettist Charles Jennens about the concept of writing a musical oratorio telling the story of Christ through passages of Scripture put to music. In an age when illiteracy was widespread and written copies of the Bible were expensive and rare, Handel became excited about Jennens’ idea. Handel pioneered the oratorio, a musical composition designed to teach the Scriptures by setting them to music.
Messiah premiered on April 13, 1742 to a crowd of over 700 listeners as a charitable benefit in Dublin, Ireland, raising 400 pounds and freeing 142 men from debtor’s prison. A year later, Handel staged it in London. Controversy emanating from the Church of England continued to plague Handel, yet the King of England attended the performance. As the first notes of the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus rang out, the king rose. Following the royal protocol, the entire audience stood too, initiating a tradition that has lasted more than two centuries.
Handel personally conducted more than thirty performances of Messiah. Many of these concerts were benefits for the foundling hospital and other charities. The thousands of pounds that Handel’s performances of Messiah raised for charity led one biographer to note: “Messiah as fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan… more than any other single musical production. In this or any country.”
Abroad, Handel’s reputation—and that of his best-known composition—only continued to grow. Mozart paid Handel the supreme compliment of re-orchestrating Messiah in 1789. He insisted that any alterations to Handel’s score should not be interpreted as an effort to improve the music. “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect. When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt,” Mozart said. In 1823 Beethoven declared Handel to be, “the greatest composer who ever lived.”
Would Jane Austen have attended a performance of Messiah for Christmas? Probably. Somewhere in the 1750s Messiah made its way to America and soon transitioned from an Easter event to also being performed at Christmas. It is unclear when this evolution came back across the pond, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century Messiah was a standard London symphony during the Christmas holiday and has continued to be so ever since.
This video is the most recent one I found that I liked. It is the 2014 Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Enjoy!
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