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Handel’s Messiah: Why it’s still a smash hit after 300 years

Three hundred years is plenty of time for something to go out of style.

But don’t tell that to George Frideric Handel, who composed a bit of music back in the mid-18th century that refuses to fade away. His smash hit, Messiah, is among the world’s most performed works, especially during the holidays, and shows no signs of slowing down.

The Florida Orchestra and The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay have presented it often over the last four decades. But each new concert reveals another layer – and something more to be discovered, says Brett Karlin, artistic director of the acclaimed choir.

“Musically, it’s so diverse in what it offers listeners and musicians,’’ he says. “And that diversity is what makes everyone happy.’’

Messiah is an oratorio, a sort of opera without sets, costumes and action. Drawing from the Old and New Testaments, it unfolds in three sweeping sections: Prophecy and Fulfillment, Suffering, and Redemption. Although a deeply religious work, its message remains universal.

Handel never intended his greatest oratorio for church service. He wrote it as a “communal” piece for the concert stage, emphasizing drama through incandescent orchestral and choral writing. He also cast it using English text, which 18th-century Dublin and London audiences – the first to hear it – could understand.

If you talk to 10 different people who know it, you’ll hear 10 different reasons about why they love the work. For many, it appeals through the soaring beauty of its arias and choruses, the drama that propels them forward, and the resolution of its story.

Messiah is like a prism, and all these colors come through in telling the story,’’ Karlin explains. “It’s got solos, recitative, choruses, a capella singing – everything you could want.’’

Musically, the score is a hodgepodge of styles, including Italian (recitative), French (overture), English (anthem) and German (fugal) influences. Handel was, after all, a man of the world.

The original work includes 53 sections and spans more than three hours. Most productions condense it to about 30 sections over two hours, but keep all the favorite portions, such as Comfort Ye My People, For Unto Us A Child Is Born, and of course, the Hallelujah chorus.

Handel composed Messiah in what scholars believe was a state of creative ecstasy. Trancelike, he finished the score in a remarkable 24 days, going for long periods without food or sleep. This is quite a feat, considering the score is about 260 pages. Evidence of this inspiration can be seen on the facsimile of the original score: Notes become increasingly large and spaced apart, as if written in a fury.

After completing the work’s most famous chorus, Handel wrote “Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I know not. God knows.’’

The Hallelujah chorus so impressed King George II after a performance in 1743 that he rose from his seat, enthralled by the beauty just passed. Not wanting to offend the king, so the story goes, the audience also stood, and people have been doing so ever since.

Another tradition is the varying size of the forces performing the work. In those early days, a Messiah might consist of a small choir and 16-piece orchestra. That changed in England under King George III, who liked a big show, and once sponsored a production with 525 musicians. An 1857 Messiah in London’s Crystal Palace involved more than 2,000, as did a 2016 worldwide virtual performance of the Hallelujah chorus. Today, symphony orchestras and choruses are more modest, averaging about 200 people on stage.

Regardless of large or small, pulling off a convincing Messiah is no easy task, adds Karlin.

“It’s extraordinarily difficult because it requires everything of the singers,’’ he says. “Between the vocal and technical requirements, there’s the stamina to keep it going, which makes it one of the most demanding pieces that we’re asked to do.’’

Messiah in a Minute

  • Handel wrote the score in three weeks, averaging about 13 pages of music a day.
  • Like his contemporary, J.S. Bach, Handel “borrowed’’ tidbits of music he had written years earlier, recycling it for his new oratorio.
  • Despite the huge ensembles we often see performing Messiah, it was intended for a smaller group of less than 40 musicians and singers.
  • The work’s popularity in Ireland, England and America stems in part to its English text, which made it easier to follow.
  • The Messiah was intended for Lent, not Christmas.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Barbara

    What a beautiful description of the agony and exhilaration Handel must have experienced in developing this epic piece. Thank you!

  2. Peter Gentling

    This accomplishment is a tour de force of dignity and discipline combined with a miracle of charm, character, and humanity.

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