Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Handel's MESSIAH: a very short and wonderful history

by Stephanie Cowell

The German composer who became an Englishman
I first heard the music of Handel's MESSIAH when I was a young soprano and was paid a few dollars to sing the soprano part of it in a humble church choir. I knew nothing about it, and when we launched into the famous Hallelujah Chorus I was astonished that everyone in the audience stood up. I thought they had had enough of our singing and were leaving, but as soon as we finished they sat down again, wherein I thought they had changed their minds. Someone subsequently told me this was a tradition begun by George II who stood up during the chorus because he was so moved but there is no real evidence that His Majesty ever attended a performance.

Handel was a German composer who moved to England in 1712 and became a British citizen in 1727. He started three opera companies in London and was immensely successful for a time. In 1723 he moved to 25 Brook Street in Mayfair (now a museum dedicated to his life and work). But by the time he had the idea to compose an oratorio based in the life of Christ, he had seen some hard times physically and financially. In 1741, having recovered from a stroke, he was sent the words or libretto of MESSIAH by Charles Jennens, a wealthy landowner who loved music and literature. Handel composed it in 22 days in a profound creative and spiritual intensity, saying that as he wrote it he felt the heavens opening and God revealed to him.(He would have said that in his thick German accent.)

original manuscript of the final chorus "Worthy is the Lamb"

It was quick to be composed and quite difficult to find first a performance for it and then an audience. As incredible as it is today, there were scandalized objections to the piece. Perhaps for that reason, Handel decided to premiere the work in Dublin but when arriving in Ireland, he found the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral - Jonathan Swift (known as the author of GULLIVER's TRAVELS) - attempting to block the performance of the work as irreverent and forbidding the men and boys of his cathedral choir to sing in it. Objections were somehow overcome, and it debuted in The Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street. In 1743 the work was performed in London in Covent Garden where it was pretty much a failure.

Handel had need not have despaired because as time went on, it was impossible to get a ticket when it was sung. He conducted it for the last time in 1759 very near his death and almost entirely blind. When a nobleman praised him for how wonderfully entertaining the oratorio was, Handel answered, "My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better."

Handel House in Mayfair
The intimate first performance with 16 men and 16 boys singing grew to huge choruses of hundreds and hundreds. Now this oratorio is the Christmas and sometime Easter favorite of every city and church; it has been taken on by modern baroque orchestras in an attempt to recreate its original sound. I have heard it many times, often with the original chorus of all boys and men for which it was written.

Odd when you think that one of the great English oratorios of all time was composed by a German, that it almost didn't have a performance, and that so many people turned a cold shoulder to it.  Here is one of my favorite clips from YouTube: the sudden unexpected performance of the Hallelujah Chorus in a food court. I think that even if George II never stood up at this music, I would!

P.S. Handel also wrote "Zadok the Priest" which is used at coronations, at Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, and constantly throughout the movie THE YOUNG VICTORIA.

Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell writes about English history and historic people in the arts. She is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart (which debuted as an opera/play in NYC this past December) and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is


  1. I'm very fond of "Messiah" myself, having sung it several times since school days (the last only a month or two ago). Do you knwo the story of Handel in 1741 waiting in Chester for a favourable wind to take him from Parkgate to Ireland for that first performance? 18 or 20 men were assembled to sing for rehearsal, including a good bass, a printer named Janson. Dr Charles Burney, then aged 15, wrote later: A time was fixed for ... private rehearsal at the 'Golden Falcon' where Handel was quartered; but, alas! on trial of the chorus... 'and with his stripes we are healed', poor Janson, after repeated attempts, failed so egregiously, that Handel let loose his great bear upon him; and after swearing in four or five languages, cried out in broken English: 'You shcauntrel! tit not you dell me dat you could sing as soite?' 'Yes, sir,' said the printer, 'and so I can; but not at FIRST SIGHT!'

  2. I love this oratorio and have sang it twice as a choir member. I had no idea about its inauspicious beginnings.

    Thanks for sharing, Stephanie.

  3. Thank you, Sue and Sophia! I had heard that wonderful story, Sophia, and forgotten it! Thanks for reminding me! (Yes, I am writing a Handel novel among my too many others. I need a 40 HR DAY!)

  4. The Whatcom Chorale (I'm an alto there) sang it this year after several years after our last performance and it was wonderful. We sang parts of it that are normally not sung like the ending with its long Amen. I love With His Stripes. Our sopranos were spot on,light and high on He Shall Purify and we rocked, both the chorale and fabulous soloists. After two weekend performances, my feet hurt, but what glory.

  5. Handels Messiah is an annual tradition that is a must see for my family. What a wonderful story you shared. Thanks so much.


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