Messiah is undoubtedly Handel’s best known work, and one of the main reasons his popularity endured after the Baroque era when so many other Baroque composers were forgotten until the revival of interest in older music in the mid-nineteenth century. Remember that of the 53 movements that make up this oratorio, you will only have to identify one, “Rejoice Greatly,” on the listening exam.
Messiah (HWV 56) is an English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the version of the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer. It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.
Handel’s reputation in England, where he had lived since 1712, had been established through his compositions of Italian opera. He turned to English oratorio in the 1730s in response to changes in public taste; Messiah was his sixth work in this genre. Although itsstructure resembles that of opera, it is not in dramatic form; there are no impersonations of characters and no direct speech. Instead, Jennens’s text is an extended reflection on Jesus Christ as Messiah. The text begins in Part I with prophecies by Isaiah and others, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds, the only “scene” taken from the Gospels. In Part II, Handel concentrates on thePassion and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. In Part III he covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven.
Handel wrote Messiah for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual numbers. In the years after his death, the work was adapted for performance on a much larger scale, with giant orchestras and choirs. In other efforts to update it, its orchestration was revised and amplified by (among others) Mozart. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the trend has been towards reproducing a greater fidelity to Handel’s original intentions, although “big Messiah” productions continue to be mounted. A near-complete version was issued on 78 rpm discs in 1928; since then the work has been recorded many times.
Let’s go into more specific detail on the first section of Handel’s Messiah. The most important things to remember about this piece is that it is a da capo aria sung by a soprano at a fast (allegro) tempo. Those will be the most useful characteristics to remember when trying to identify the piece on the listening exam.
Part I begins with the prophecy of the Messiah and his virgin birth by several prophets, namely Isaiah. His birth is still rendered in words by Isaiah, followed by the annunciation to the shepherds as the only scene from a Gospel in the oratorio, and reflections on the Messiah’s deeds. Part II covers the Passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and the later spreading of the Gospel. Part III concentrates on Paul’s teaching of the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven.
The popular Part I of Messiah is sometimes called the “Christmas” portion as it is frequently performed during Advent in concert, sing-along, or as a Scratch Messiah. When performed in this way, it usually concludes with “Hallelujah” (chorus) from Part II as the finale.
Listen: Hallelujah Chorus
Please listen to the “Hallelujah” (chorus) performed by the MIT Concert Choir.
Part I, Scene 5
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” (Zechariah 9:9–10) is a virtuoso coloratura aria of the soprano which might express any kind of great joy—as seen in an opera. An upward fourth followed by a rest accents “Rejoice,” and further repeats of the word are rendered as seemingly endless coloraturas. “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee” is given in dotted rhythm and is reminiscent of the French overture. The middle section tells in mellow movement “He is the righteous Saviour and he shall speak peace unto the heathen”—with “peace” repeated several times as a long note. Finally, a da capo seems to begin, but only the first entry of the voice is exactly the same, followed by even more varied coloraturas and embellishments to end the aria.