Content / Background
George Frideric Handel is one of the few composers in history whose works have been performed continuously since their deaths. However, this lasting popularity is due less to his operas, the majority of which were not rediscovered until the 20th century, than to his choruses. At the popular Handel festivals in the 19th century his works were performed with 300-strong choirs and 250 orchestra musicians. The most famous of these choruses, the “Hallelujah” chorus, is from Handel’s oratorio Messiah and has been used many times in many different media. In the 1740 season, Handel once again tried to rekindle London audiences’ interest in Italian opera, but his efforts were in vain. Enthusiasm along the Thames had switched to the genre of oratorio in which Handel had celebrated his first success with Saul in 1739. The libretto had been written by a wealthy landowner and admirer of Handel, Charles Jennens, who in 1741 sent him a second unsolicited libretto titled Messiah. The work is structured like a theological pamphlet. It does not tell a chronological story and the title character does not appear either. For the pious Jennens it was far more important to show, by juxtaposing the Old and New Testaments, that Jesus really is the messiah as described in the prophecies. Handel, who had just recovered from serious illness, was personally moved by Jennens’ text and is said to have composed the oratorio in only 24 days. In the abstract sequence of scenes the struggle for faith becomes the central theme, and Handel finds magnificent sounds to portray human fears and feelings of guilt, for hope and ultimately for the salvation that has been prophesied. The premiere during a series of concerts in Dublin, Ireland, was well received although it led to heated arguments about whether it was permissible to show a work with biblical texts on a theatre stage with a secular choir. Handel’s music won through and since the 1750s the popularity of his oratorio has remained undiminished.