Comments 11

Messiah by Tammy Glaser

My Sunday school class has been studying the text and story behind hymns. Every week, we pick a hymn and dig up something to share the following Sunday. In December, we turned our attention to Christmas carols. Since I cannot go through advent without airing Handel’s Messiah, I suggested that sacred oratorio. Our teacher volunteered me to guide the class since I sounded so enthusiastic.

I showed up the following week with copies of the text of all three parts for everyone to study. Before sharing the story behind the music, I asked, “How many of you have ever heard Handel’s Messiah?” Only one hand went up while everyone else shifted in their seats. My stomach dropped and silently wondered how the next half hour would go. First, I explained the background.

Handel’s Messiah was born out of distressing circumstances. Charles Jennens, a wealthy English gentlemen, grieved the death of his brother Robert. The young student became deeply depressed after lengthy contact with deists. Deists believe that god is an impersonal creator of the universe who walked away from his entire creation. Diests view Jesus as a gifted teacher who lived a good life and died a pointless death. Robert doubted everything he had ever believed and eventually committed suicide.

Charles had already put together two “Scripture collections” for oratorios by Handel: Saul and Israel in Egypt. Driven by his brother’s death, he put together a new collection on the “subject which excels every other subject”: the redemptive work of Jesus. He had hoped that inspirational music focused on the prophecies of the Messiah and their fulfillment would touch the mind and soul of the doubtful. In the summer of 1741, he put together verses from Psalm, Isaiah, Lamentations, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, I Corinthians, Hebrews, and Revelation.

The librettist visited his friend Georg Frideric Handel, who was deeply distressed. Jennens urged the composer to set the text to music in time for Easter. Handel reluctantly agreed but figured it would take a year.

The German composer had good reason for hesitating. After leaving his homeland, he focused on Italian opera in England, just as its popularity waned. He shifted to sacred oratorio, a Biblical story set to music without costumes, scenery, and acting. Hearing “common mummers” sing a sacred text in the theater outraged some of the church. The bishop of London forbid the performance of Esther, but Handel ignored him and even royalty attended. In 1737, he faced bankruptcy and suffered a mild stroke. When Israel in Egypt debuted in 1739, some Christians stole the advertisements and disrupted performances. When confronted with concerns of the Puritans, Handel replied, “I have read my Bible very well and will choose for myself.” The controversy ruined him financially and this former royal composer faced debtor’s prison. In 1741, he scheduled a “farewell appearance” in London.

Not long after Jennens’ visit, Dublin charities gave Handel an offer he could not refuse. They asked him to compose for a benefit performance to raise money that would free men from debtor’s prison, and a generous commission would keep him from prison. Handel began work on August 22, 1741 in his little house on Brook Street in London. He barely ate and rarely left his room for three weeks. A friend stopped to visit Handel during this time and saw him sob with intense emotion. Handel recalled of finishing the Hallelujah chorus, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” He later quoted Paul, “Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it I know not.” It took six days to compose Part One, nine for Part Two, and another six for Part Three. He wrapped up the orchestration and, in twenty-four days, had composed 260 pages of music.

Controversy did not stop the show. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, fumed but eventually allowed his musicians to play at the premiere on April 13, 1742. Demand for tickets was so high that the music hall told men and women to leave their swords and hoops at home to free up 100 more spots. A crowd of 700 attended and raised 400 pounds that released 142 men from prison. Messiah turned around Handel’s career and has been in continuous performance ever since.

Before his death, Handel conducted thirty Messiah performances, only during Lent. John Wesley sat in one audience and remarked, “I doubt if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance,” he remarked. Another writer concluded, Messiah “has probably done more to convince thousands of mankind that there is a God about us than all the theological works ever written.” Handel responded to accolades on the excellent entertainment with, “My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertain them. I wish to make them better.”

The story of the men behind Messiah warmed my classmates to a style of music unfamiliar to them. They took turns reading the text of Part One and discussing its meaning. Before each piece, I explained to them who sang it and how it made me feel as both singer and listener. Half-apologizing, I concluded that this three-hour long composition would probably sound like opera to them. Even if they never listened to it, studying the text would make their advent and lent more meaningful.

Quietly,  a person I considered least likely to show an interest asked, “Is it recorded somewhere?” Relieved, I gladly shared that there are so many recordings that is hard to pick which one. He followed up with, “Which one would be closest to the original?” I had no answer but promised to share a link at our church’s Facebook page. Later, another classmate told me that her husband, who has never listened to opera in his life, was completely intrigued by learning a piece of history completely unfamiliar to him. She finished, “We’re looking for that 1984 version by Robert Shaw that you recommended.”

“That calm delight

Which, if I err not, surely must belong

To those first-born affinities that fit

Our new existence to existing things,

And, in our dawn of being, constitute

The bond of union between life and joy.”

~ William Wordsworth


© 2011 by Tammy Glaser  All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in: Philosophy


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Kathy Wickward says

    Thank you for that history. I’ve never sung through the entire oratory, but I did go to hear it live once. So many traditions around it, and now it’s more often performed in the Christmas season. So when did the tradition of the audience standing during the Hallelujah chorus begin?

  2. Kathy, I was blessed to attend a college that performed Messiah every Christmas and all but one Easter (we sang Beethoven’s Ninth instead). Isn’t it interesting that Messiah began as an Easter tradition but we think of it at Christmas?

    Eighteenth century urban myth stated forty years after the London premiere, “When Messiah was first performed in London (1743), when the chorus struck up, ‘For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth’ [‘Hallelujah Chorus’], reportedly the audience and King [George II] stood and remained standing untill the chorus had ended.” However, no clear evidence shows whether King George II attended. Assuming the king was there and stood up, royal protocol required the entire audience to stand.

  3. Thank you for this lesson . Our church did The Messiah plus a drama of how it was written staring Handel ~~ with some of the Charlotte Symphony last year and the year before. My husband, son and Emma sang in it. I love looking at the score. Have you seen Timothy Botts caligraphy book on The Messiah?

    • Bonnie, I think you have just identified my next coffee table book purchase–although I do cherish my two copies of the libretto, well-worn, covered in notes from my colleges. It must have been an incredible thing to watch the ones you love participate in such an exhilarating experience as singing Messiah.

  4. Betsy McPeak says

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I would have loved to be a fly on Handel’s wall during those 3 weeks!! We make it a family tradition at Christmastime to attend the live performance of The Messiah. We have seen many different versions. This year we attended the one at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. The Navy Academy combined choirs sing with incredible skill, power, and finesse. And the soloists are always from the NY Metropolitan Opera. One of my favorites was in Brussels one year, where we attended a performance by The Sixteen. 16 singers and 16 in the orchestra ~ supposedly what Handel intended?? Do you know if that is true, Tammy? But I also greatly enjoy the full orchestral performances, esp the timpani drums on the Amen~!

    • Betsy, you have no idea how much your comment made me smile from ear to ear. My alma mater happens to be the Naval Academy. I had never sung choral music in my life, but the music director at that time (Dr. John Barry Talley) had an uncanny ability to take the inexperienced and guide them into the skilled and powerful singers you witnessed. The chapel itself is stunning, and the acoustics enhance the performance.

      I shared these links with my church too:

      Dr. Talley’s last directing of the Hallelujah Chorus:

      An video of Part One (which was cut off during the Hallelujah chorus) released in 1976, five years before I showed up:

      To answer your question, Handel kept the original instrumentation and choir on a small scale because the premiere was in Dublin. An article in the Charleston Post and Courier explains this:

      You can view the 1741 draft online:

      In later year, he continued to tinker with it to make corrections and adapt to the singers and musicians on hand. However, I don’t think Handel envisioned the massive choirs and orchestras that we hear today.

  5. I’m so thrilled by your article, Tammy! Thanks for sharing! I hadn’t had a chance to research the history of the oratorio (or of Handel himself, frankly), but due to another blogger’s encouraging post, we listened through the Messiah for Advent this year! My posts are here and here.🙂

    Thanks for this! I can’t wait to link back here…

    Ever anxious to learn more,
    amy in peru

    • Thank you for sharing your joy and testimony, Amy! Another thought would be to study Parts Two and Three for Lent. When I read the part about the friend finding Handel sobbing, I imagined him walking of the writing of the tenor aria “Behold and see” or the alto aria “He was despised and rejected.” Those two always put a lump in my throat.

  6. CherylG says

    What a wonderful article on the history of the Messiah. I was not aware of it’s full history. I tell you, I didn’t even have to read any words of the Messiah, just this article and I have tears running down my face. This composition affects me like no other.

    In high school, our choir would sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of the Christmas program every year. We would all have candles which we would light throughout the song (150 of us) and then we would encircle the entire audience. At the end of the very last note, all the candles would be blown out at once, darkening the entire theater to black. I could always barely get through the last part trying to sing without losing it. Very powerful!

    Thanks for writing this.

  7. Thank you Tammy! It was fascinating to learn more about the story behind it. The drama version Bonnie’s family were in was so beautifully done. I enjoy listening to The Messiah all year long. Hallelujah!

  8. Cheryl and Beth, thank you for sharing your moments of delight in appreciating Handel’s Messiah. Performing it is quite powerful as is listening to it performed.

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