Best known for the famous Hallelujah Chorus, Handel’s Messiah is likely the most performed piece of classical music in history. Learn more about the unusual circumstances surrounding the composition of this masterpiece in this feature adapted from an episode of On the Music, the Houston Symphony podcast.
By the time George Frederick Handel began composing Messiah in 1741, he was at the height of his powers, recognized as one of London’s leading opera composers. German by birth, he had settled in England as a young man some 31 years earlier after mastering the art of opera in Italy. His great success allowed him to become a generous philanthropist who supported orphanages, a fund for “decay’d musicians,” and other charities.
His career, however, had been on a downward slide in recent years. A competing opera company had been established in London in 1733, causing ticket sales for Handel’s opera to plummet precipitously. On top of that, in 1737 Handel suffered what may have been a minor stroke that left him temporarily unable to work. Just when Handel’s debts were beginning to loom ominously, he received a package that changed the course of his career—and of music history.
Charles Jennens, a wealthy admirer of Handel’s music, had selected verses from the Old and New Testaments and arranged them into a text that he hoped Handel would use to write a great work for chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra. In a letter to a friend, Jennens wrote:
“…I hope I shall persuade [Handel] to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion Week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excell all his former Compositions, as the Subject excells every other Subject. The Subject […] is Messiah.”
Upon reading Jennens’ text, Handel was struck by inspiration. He finished the first draft of Messiah in only 24 days. Handel probably was not sure what he would do with Messiah when he finished it, but there was one thing that he had likely already decided: he would use Messiah to enrich not himself, but the charitable causes that lay nearest his heart.
Disenchanted with London, Handel accepted an offer to go to Dublin, where he organized an acclaimed series of concerts at the music hall in Fishamble Street. For the grand finale of the series in April, he unveiled Messiah. The chorus included singers from St. Patrick’s cathedral, who were reluctantly given permission to perform by none other than the famous satirist Jonathan Swift, who was the cathedral’s rather grouchy and unmusical dean. Tickets for the premiere sold so well that advertisements advised ladies not to wear their hoop skirts and gentlemen to leave their swords at home so that there would be more room in the concert hall.
When the day came, the reaction was everything Handel could have hoped for. One can imagine the scene from a description offered by Handel’s contemporary Charles Burney: “Handel wore an enormous white wig, and, when things went well…it had a certain nod, or vibration, which manifested his pleasure and satisfaction.” One review read:
“On Tuesday last Mr. Handel’s Sacred Grand Oratorio, the Messiah, was performed at the New Musick-Hall in Fishamble-street; 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 crouded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear. It is but Justice to Mr. Handel, that the World should know, he generously gave the Money arising from this Grand Performance, to be equally shared by the Society for relieving Prisoners, the Charitable Infirmary, and Mercer’s Hospital, for which they will ever greatly remember his Name…”
A New Tradition
When Handel returned to London, the public realized how much they had missed his music, and his position as one of London’s leading composers was soon restored. According to legend, when the King George II heard the Hallelujah Chorus at the London premiere, he was so moved that he rose to his feet. Everyone else in the audience was thus obliged to do the same. While this story is charming, it probably untrue: no contemporary reports mention a royal presence at the London premiere. Nevertheless, as early as the 1770s the tale had inspired a tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus that continues to this day.
A later charitable performance at London’s Foundling Hospital soon became an annual tradition. People wanted to hear Messiah again and again, and performances began to pop up all over England. Even after Handel’s death in 1759, people continued to perform Messiah. In an age when there was little interest in music of the past, no composer expected his music to outlive him. Handel’s Messiah began to change all that; it is perhaps the oldest continuously performed piece of music in the repertoire. Many years after Handel’s death, Charles Burney reported:
“This great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan…more than any single production in this or any other country.”
The tradition of performing Messiah every Christmas, however, likely started with the first complete American performance in Boston on Christmas Day, 1818. The tradition of performing Messiah at Christmas spread throughout the United States and eventually, the world. Every December, there are thousands of performances of Messiah given by professional and amateur ensembles across the globe. Perhaps for this reason, year after year surveys of orchestral programming list Messiah as the most programmed piece of music, making it likely the most performed piece of classical music in history. In all the centuries that have passed since its premiere, it has never gone out of style. —Calvin Dotsey
Hear the Houston Symphony perform Handel’s Messiah December 14, 15, 16 & 17. For tickets and more information, visit www.houstonsymphony.org.