Content / Background
George Frideric Handel has composed many works that are regarded as masterpieces, but it is above all Messiah that has ensured his fame has never dimmed through all the various musical developments and fashions of the last 250 years. Handel wrote the oratorio in 1741 in London, and then went to Dublin for ten months where it premiered in mid-April 1742 as part of a charity concert. This first performance was a huge success. Newspapers requested that “Gentlemen remove their swords and ladies refrain from wearing hoops in their dresses so that the largest possible audience may be admitted and so more takings be obtained for the good causes.” Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin, rapturously wrote: “As Mr. Handel in his oratorio’s greatly excells all other Composers I am acquainted with, So in the famous one, called The Messiah he seems to have excell'd himself. It Seems to be a Species of Musick different from any other.” In London, on the other hand, reaction to the work was not so enthusiastic, but it soon gained popularity throughout England and the continent. Handel adapted the music according to changing performance environments with the result that numerous variations are now known, but not the exact form of the original version. Over the years the number of performers continually grew, and there were gigantic renditions with over 500 musicians who celebrated the glory of the messiah with ever greater fervour. The libretto of Messiah is based on passages from the Bible put together by Handel’s friend and benefactor Charles Jennens. The oratorio does not, as might be imagined, tell the story of Jesus’s life and death, but is more of an abstract, biblical-theological argument that Jesus really was the messiah announced by the prophets. He himself does not appear. Statements made in the Old Testament are interpreted in Christological terms and related to Jesus as he is described in the New Testament. The texts’ principal theme is the struggle for the Christian faith. Handel’s music finds overwhelming means of expression for human fears and hopes, feelings of guilt, contrition and the joyous certainty of redemption.