In 1741 Charles Jennens, on his own initiative, sent Handel a collection of Bible passages arranged in the manner of a theological pamphlet. Following his failure as an opera impresario in London and serious health problems, Handel had turned his attentions to oratorium, and Jennens had already been of great service to him in this genre as a librettist. The libretto for The Messiah inspired the composer to new heights: he wrote the work in just twenty-four days and took it with him to a concert season in Dublin. It was there that it was successfully premiered on April 13th, 1742. In London The Messiah was initially the subject of objections on religious grounds: it was felt that because of its subject matter the work should only be performed in churches, the idea of “actors” performing it on stage in a theatre being deemed wholly inappropriate. It was not until 1750 that The Messiah started its run of worldwide success.
Strictly speaking, The Messiah has no plot; unlike Passion plays or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio it does not tell any particular story. The eponymous hero – the Messiah – does not appear. There is little specific information about his life, passion, death and resurrection. The libretto aims to show that Jesus is the “Messiah” (the “anointed one”, in Greek “Christos”) announced by the (Old Testament) prophets. Through Handel’s music this becomes a sweeping depiction of the human condition that conveys a large number of atmospheric pictures of universal and immediate concern. The theme is our need for salvation.
The musical structure differs only slightly from Handel’s operas, with the exception of the central role played by the chorus (which is typical of oratorium). The work can be seen as a group of the faithful talking to themselves in a struggle to find solace in faith. Their dismay at their own entanglement in sin is offset with their assuring themselves that they have been promised salvation by the saviour. The point of reference of this hope is the fear of death. When performed in concert halls the work can easily be reduced to a devotional and edifying solemnity, bereft of real content. But played out on stage, the scenes portray specific situations dealing with the circumstance that the world is yet to be saved. The Messiah succeeds as a theatrical production.