Messiah - An Introduction

Everyone knows the 'Hallelujah' Chorus, but Handel's Messiah isn't just about the big choral moments. The work also contains exquisite sections for the soloists and orchestra – from the regal splendour of 'The Trumpet Shall Sound' to the earth-shattering bass aria 'Why do the Nations so Furiously Rage Together'.
Find out more...

The name?

First things first: Messiah, or The Messiah? Not wanting to be pedantic, it’s absolutely the first – Messiah – without the definite article. That’s how Handel named this full evening of music for chorus, orchestra and vocal soloists, and the ‘floating’, abstract nature of the title says a thing or two about Handel’s equally floating, abstract concept.

Messiah didn't have anything like the kind of plot Handel’s audiences were used to in his operas or even his biblical oratorios. It pretty much coined a new genre – part German Passion, part English church anthem, part Italian opera. And for Handel, all that ambiguity proved rather convenient...

Need to know.

Messiah was born when Handel’s experimental nature was confronted with the fickle, changing tastes of London audiences and the politics of the English church. Italian opera was losing popularity fast, but the public still loved a good biblical story. The Bishop of London had forbidden performances of works with religious overtones on London stages, so Handel decided to write a work for concert performance in a church. 

Handel deliberately kept the dramatic content of Messiah understated – it was in church, after all. He created a piece based on three concepts: the story of the nativity and its prophecy; that of the crucifixion and redemption of mankind; and a commentary on the Christian soul and its victory over death. In each of these three parts, the chorus is absolutely at the heart of the work, complemented by four vocal soloists and a thrusting little orchestra underneath.

Those forces deliver some of Handel’s most heart-stopping music – gobsmackingly dramatic and effective, profoundly touching and spiritual. He used all his old tricks, and learnt some new (pretty good) ones too.

G. F. Handel: Messiah

Recorded 1997

George Frideric Handel Messiah "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" Lynne Dawson, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski

G. F. Handel: Messiah

Recorded 1996

George Frideric Handel Messiah, Part I "Ev'ry Valley shall be exalted" Charles Daniels, Gabrieli Players, Paul McCreesh

G. F. Handel: Messiah

Recorded 1988

George Frideric Handel Messiah, Part II "Hallelujah" The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock, The English Concert Choir

Where have I heard it before?

You'll have heard the 'Hallelujah' Chorus somewhere for sure - that’s the chorus that ends Part II (the crucifixion/redemption chapter of Messiah). It pops up everywhere from films and TV series to commercials.

You are also likely to have heard the music around Christmas, ringing out from churches, concert halls and radios - particularly the festive ‘For Unto us a Child is Born’. Performing the piece around Christmas became a national obsession in Britain in the Victorian era – although it actually contains more references to Easter than Christmas! Yet that obsession has never quite abated.

Can I play it?

You can almost certainly sing it! Amateur choirs and choral societies all over the world perform Messiah every December, sometimes with the help of professional orchestras and sometimes on a ‘scratch’ basis, where you can turn up in the morning and sing the piece in the evening even if you’ve never opened the score before.

Instrumental players tend to roll their eyes cynically when Messiah comes round each winter, but if you’ve got some instrumental skills it’s worth dusting down your bassoon or viola and giving the piece another go. Some of the instrumental writing – in numbers like ‘Why Do the Nations’ and ‘Surely He Hath Born our Griefs’ – is brilliantly evocative and a lot of fun to play.