Handel’s Messiah: A Tradition of Christmas Music

The Christmas season is a time of great joy, goodwill toward men, gift giving, and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It is also the season of joyous Christmas carols and many worldwide performances of George Frideric Handel’s famous oratorio, Messiah.
Most people are familiar with this great work, but many do not know that in 1741 Handel, unbelievably, composed Messiah in just 24 days! The very famous Hallelujah Chorus so moved England’s King George II that he rose from his seat, thereby establishing a custom that has become universal whenever it is sung. “The raising of the chorus to the role of principal dramatic protagonist constitutes Handel’s most significant contribution to the oratorio,” wrote Martin Bernstein in his book, An Introduction to Music.

The Oratorio
An oratorio is a composition for solo voices, chorus, and orchestral accompaniment with a scared text. It is usually performed without scenery, action, or costumes. Handel’s oratorio, unlike Bach’s, were written for an audience, not specifically for a congregation. The text, or libretto, is in English, not Latin, and is based on selections from the scriptures.

Handel, when performing Messiah, used a small chorus of men and boys, and women appeared as soloists—unlike today’s presentations that often use very large choruses and orchestras.  “Messiah remains Handel’s best loved work,” wrote McKinney and Anderson in Discovering Music. “In its massive choruses, beautiful solos and fine orchestral background, it embraces an affectionate and intimate portrayal of the Christ story through its three phases – birth, death and resurrection.”

Handel composed Messiah in London where he was already an experienced and successful composer of Italian operas. He turned mainly to oratorio writing after becoming dissatisfied with opera. He used it to express his own dynamic personality, incorporating the elements of his dramatic opera style. After Handel mastered the form of the Oratorio he became the undisputed master of English music.

Handel
Born in Halle, Germany in 1685, Handel was an extrovert who did not come from a musical family at all. His father, a barber/surgeon, did not want young George to be a professional musician, but wanted him to be a lawyer instead. Handel relished travel and spent much time traveling and living in other countries – always assimilating the musical styles of the countries he visited. He was able to study music composition and learned the violin, oboe, clavier, harpsichord, and organ, of which he was a master.

In 1703 Handel’s lust for travel took him to Hamburg, where his music was first heard by a large and appreciative audience. Next, he ventured to Italy in 1706 where his interest in Italian opera peaked. His three-year stay in Italy was met with great success. Handel then assumed the post of Kapellmeister at the Court of the Elector, George of Hanover – who later became King George I of England.

Handel received an invitation to visit London that proved to be a pivotal turning point in his life and career. He composed Italian opera for an English audience that was hungry for good opera. Here he was met with tremendous success and adulation. From 1712 until his death, England became his home. As opera was waning in London, a new form of music was to become his greatest triumph – the oratorio.

Handel, unfortunately, became totally blind in 1753, but this did not stop his work as a composer or performer. His secretary wrote down his last works as he dictated them. Handel composed 46 operas, 32 oratorios, chamber music, keyboard songs, and many instrumental works, including Water Music and The Royal Fireworks, both still popular and performed today. He died in 1759.

Handel’s final resting place in Westminster Abbey, attests to the fame and esteem the British public held for the German composer who became English.

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Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Oratorio, Messiahmusic

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah!
For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah!
For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
The kingdom of this world is become
The Kingdom of Our Lord and of His Christ,
And of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever
And He shall reign for ever
And He shall reign for ever
And He shall reign for ever
King of Kings,
For ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
And Lord of Lords,
For ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
King of Kings,
For ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
And Lord of Lords,
For ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
King of Kings,
For ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
And Lord of Lords,
For ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
King of Kings,
For ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
And Lord of Lords,
For ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Kings of Kings
For ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
And He shall reign for ever and ever,
For ever and ever,
King of Kings,
And Lord of Lords,
King of Kings,
And Lord of Lords,
And He shall reign for ever and ever,
King of Kings,
And Lord of Lords,
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!