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How Handel's Messiah went from cost-saving strategy to annual ritual

Editorial Staff

Article posted by Matthew Parsons in Longreads

If you are a classical music concertgoer, there is a pretty high likelihood that you either have attended or will attend a Messiah this December. Handel's classic oratorio might be the single most consistently performed piece of music in the entire repertory.

By way of illustration, this season there will be (or has been) at least one performance of Handel's oeuvre-eclipsing masterpiece in every provincial capital except Fredericton (though excerpts were played at this concert). And that's not counting Vancouver, Montreal or Calgary. Or Yellowknife. Or Whitehorse.

The world over, choirs and orchestras mount all kinds of Messiahs: sing-along Messiahs; historically informed Messiahs; 19th-century style “big” Messiahs with no interest in period practice whatsoever. It takes some serious ubiquity for performances of a classical work to calcify into familiar "types."

But, as with so many brilliant works of art, Messiah was born as much out of necessity and circumstance as out of divine inspiration. Or, at least, its genre was. This is the story of why Handel started writing oratorios, and how one of them became possibly the most famous piece of music ever.

Unholy drama

Handel didn't invent the oratorio, lest anybody misunderstand. Composers were writing large-scale religious dramas for performance in concert halls and churches a century before Handel tried his hand at them.

Handel demonstrated no interest in oratorio at all until he moved to Rome in the early 1700s and found that opera — his primary calling — was outlawed there. Pope Clement XI undoubtedly thought that such decadent theatre would lead to fornication in the streets, or people reading Quesnel.

But Roman composers had developed a technique to get around this edict: they simply composed oratorios that were operas in disguise. Handel composed his first couple of oratorios, Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno and La resurrezione, with that in mind. The latter even risked the papal wrath by featuring a set and painted backdrops. 

Handel didn't stick around Rome for long. By 1710, he had moved to England's greener pastures. Though he had escaped from the restrictions of the Roman Catholic Church, it turns out that he had not escaped Rome's operatic limitations entirely.

At that time, English opera houses did not permit depictions of biblical stories on their stages. Crazily, that policy was still in place nearly 200 years later, when Richard Strauss failed to have Salome mounted in London.

Fortunately, Handel's time in Rome had taught him a workaround that he could now apply in a new country and a new language. Esther, Handel's first religious choral drama in English, was premiered to rapturous applause in 1732. The Earl of Egmont is said to have found it "exceeding fine."

Thus it was that a German dude single-handedly (single-Handeldly?) invented the English oratorio.

The coming of Messiah in glory and majesty

By 1741, the year of Messiah, Handel had been churning out hit oratorios in English for years. It was so abundantly clear that this formula was working that Handel had practically abandoned his beloved Italian opera altogether. In fact, 1741 marked the premiere of Handel's final Italian opera, Deidamia, which only ran for three performances.

The message was clear: why compose operas — with all of their expensive sets and costumes and hoists and rigging — when you could draw a more enthusiastic crowd with a cheap oratorio? (When you consider that Messiah was premiered at a charity concert, this desire to cut overheads seems altogether more admirable.)

But when Handel was writing Messiah, he didn't think of it as a sure bet. This oratorio sat in an uncomfortable grey area: a bit too churchy for concertgoers with more theatrical tastes, and certainly too dramatic for the very devout. Handel probably wouldn't have written it at all if not for the prodding of his librettist, Charles Jennens.

Nonetheless, Messiah was a mega-hit after its premiere in Dublin, and even the conservative London public warmed to its blend of spirituality and drama throughout the 1740s.

And he shall reign for ever and ever and ever and ever

After Handel's death, the popularity of Messiah only increased. It spread to Italy, Germany and America. The musical forces that would be gathered at each performance grew and grew, culminating in an 1857 performance with an ensemble of literally thousands.

Nowadays, the trend is toward smaller performances, more along the lines of what Handel intended. But, ultimately, Messiah is so ingrained in our culture that it almost doesn't matter how you hear it. Just the act of attending — maybe singing along, maybe not — is enough to feel like you're part of a truly grand tradition.

To Handel, the genre of oratorio was many things: a pope-placating exercise in Rome; a cost-saving strategy in London; a risky move in Dublin.

To today's audiences, oratorio is many things as well. But, thanks to Messiah, it is one thing above all: an annual Christmas ritual.


This Christmas season, you can hear (or may have already heard) Handel’s Messiah performed by the Victoria Symphony and Choral Society, the Vancouver Chamber Choir and Orchestra, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and Richard Eaton Singers, the Regina Symphony and Philharmonic Chorus, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Mennonite Festival Chorus, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Mendelssohn Choir, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and OSM Choir, the Fredericton Choral Society (just excerpts, but still), Symphony Nova Scotia and the Halifax Camerata Singers, the Confederation Singers of Charlottetown, the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic Choir, the Aurora Chorealis and Orchestra and probably a bunch more.

For a more thorough discussion of Handel's oratorios, check out Anthony Hicks's essay "Handel and the idea of an oratorio," from The Cambridge Companion to Handeledited by Donald Burrows. Burrows's biography of Handel is also well worth a look. So is Christopher Hogwood's.

Related read: The Toronto Star pits the TSO's Messiah against Tafelmusik's.

Follow Matthew Parsons on Twitter: @MJRParsons