A The Coming of Messiah: Creation of Handel’s Immortal Oratorio The Coming of Messiah: Creation of Ha

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  1. Taylor

    Taylor EdChat™ PhD

    Oct 13, 2010
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    The Coming of Messiah: Creation of Handel’s Immortal Oratorio


    In 1720, composer George Frideric Handel encountered the opportunity of a lifetime: appointment as a musical director for the Royal Academy of Music. Thus employed, Handel occupied one of the most important and influential artistic positions in London. Unfortunately, due to various economic and political considerations, Handel’s position at the Royal Academy lasted only a few years. Though doubtless discouraged by the loss of this ideal position, he seized the opportunity to invest his artistic efforts in a less familiar musical genre – namely, oratorio. Almost twenty years later, Handel managed to produce what was to become one of the most acclaimed and timeless oratorios in the history of music: his most famous work, Messiah. While Messiah certainly echoed Handel’s musical background and previous compositions, it also included unique elements that set it apart from other oratorios. Ultimately, Handel’s work built upon – perhaps perfected – the dramatic oratorio, which would later influence such prominent Classical-era composers as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Joseph Haydn.

    Biographical Sketch

    George Frederic Handel was born in Germany on February 23, 1685, the son of prominent barber-surgeon Georg Handel. Although Handel demonstrated musical talent at an early age, his father intended him to pursue a career in law. To solidify this mandate, Handel’s father forbade him access to musical instruments. Nevertheless, Handel continued to practice secretly on a small clavichord, which he kept in the attic. While still a young boy, Handel was given the opportunity to perform before the duke of Saxe-Weissenfels – an opportunity granted him by his half-brother, who held the appointment “valet de chamber” for the Saxe-Weissenfels court. After hearing Handel’s performance, the duke was so impressed that he personally urged Handel’s father to allow him to pursue the musical arts. Reluctantly, his father agreed to the duke’s request, provided that Handel study both music and law while attending university.[1]

    After leaving his home in Halle, Handel spent several years in Hamburg, Germany, where he first became immersed in Italian opera. Resolving to test his creative prowess, Handel composed his first opera in 1705, entitled Almira. Despite his inexperience, Almira was an outstanding success.[2] Following his achievements in Germany, Handel was invited to Italy by Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, heir of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Excited by the prospect of further exploring Italian opera, Handel accepted the prince’s invitation, spending the following three years in Italy. His time in Italy – home of not only opera, but chamber music, oratorio, and principal instrumental forms – was decisive to his career.[3] Aside from exposure to multiple influential musical genres, Handel also benefited from his acquaintance with several leading composers of the period, including Scarlatti, Caldara, Corelli, Lotti, Gasparini, Vivaldi, Albinoni, Perti, and possibly Pasquini.[4] The influence of these great Italian composers helped to shape Handel’s career.

    Following his sted in Italy, Handel eventually sought permanent residence in London, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1712.[5] While in England, Handel encountered yet another key event, which would further mould his career. In 1713, commissioned by the queen to compose three pieces of music, Handel was first introduced to English church and ceremonial music.[6] This background in church music and anthem would eventually cause him to stress the importance of the choir in his oratorios. It was during his time in England that he began to develop the musical form for which he eventually became famous – namely, Handelian oratorio.

    Historical Context: Development of Oratorio from Opera

    Failure of the Royal Academy, Rise of the Middle Class

    During the winter of 1718, a group of English nobles, hoping to permanently establish London as a venue for Italian opera, began to raise support for a theatre that would operate under the patronage of the king.[7] This movement culminated in the founding of the Royal Academy in 1720. Well-known for his mastery of Italian opera[8], Handel was appointed musical director of the Royal Academy at the King’s Theatre, positioning him in one of the most artistically influential positions in London.[9] Unfortunately, the Academy was immediately confronted with a number of serious challenges, including a dislike among the middle class for foreign productions and competition from a rival Italian company. Despite nobility support and ample productivity, the Royal Academy failed financially in 1728.[10]

    Baroque Music specialist, Dr. Claude V. Palisca, offers the following assessment of the failure of Italian opera in London: “The music may have suited the rising middle class in Italy, but it was not the answer to a similar social phenomenon in London. The newly wealthy had little taste for foreign opera . . . .”[11] Members of the nobility were replaced by the growing middle class as England’s chief musical performance consumers, forcing the market to reorganize itself. Although some speculate that John Gay’s English opera, The Beggar’s Opera, led directly to the demise of the Royal Academy, when considered in light of Dr. Palisca’s observation, Gay’s success appears to be a mere effect of this societal phenomenon.[12]

    Regardless, it became clear to Handel that he could no longer employ the Italian opera stars that he considered so vital to operatic performance, both for financial reasons and due to language difficulties. However, though precluding Italian opera singers might have cheapened opera, it did not necessarily have the same affect on oratorio.[13] Furthermore, freed from the demanding Italian opera icons, Handel was allowed to incorporate his proficiency in choral composition when writing new musical dramas, ultimately contributing to his characteristic emphasis on the chorus. Handel’s operas were beginning to transform into a new genre: Handelian oratorio.[14]

    The Church and Opera

    Following the failure of the Royal Academy, Handel presented a drama entitled Esther in 1732, which featured an English libretto. After receiving acclaim in private settings, Handel decided to make the performance publicly available, hosting the performance of Esther in the King’s Theatre. However, the Bishop of London objected to the performance of a sacred drama in a secular venue. In order to accommodate the Bishop’s concerns, all of the drama elements were removed from Esther and it was performed as a mere concert. This un-dramatized performance of Ether, written and presented in the King’s Theatre by Handel, became the first oratorio heard in London. Thus, the Handelian oratorio was created.[15]

    Handel invested the remainder of his career to honing and perfecting this new genre of oratorio. The highest achievement of his refining efforts is most clearly seen in his Biblical oratorio, Messiah. Although not the first Handelian oratorio, Messiah nonetheless maintains particular significance. This is true, not because of a particular segment of text, or a single aria, or a specific chorus, but because it is the undisputed pinnacle of Handel’s achievement in terms of balance and completeness. Originally, Messiah was written to benefit Dublin charities. As The New Grove records, “Messiah was publicly rehearsed on 9 April [1742] and performed in the Music Hall on 13 April, mostly by local singers and the choirs of the two cathedrals . . . .”[16] Through many drafts and revisions, Messiah has risen from these humble beginnings to become Handel’s greatest oratorio – a standard to which all other oratorios are compared.

    Messiah and Baroque Stylistic Characteristics

    Although Handel likely preferred the drama and grandeur of operas, Messiah historian Jens Peter Larson sees Messiah as the improvement and evolution Baroque music: “The music has risen to a higher level, born aloft by the Italian baroque sense of pathos and shapeliness . . . .”[17] Indeed, Messiah does echo many characteristics of Baroque-era music. At the same time, many of Handel’s unique characteristics are also seen in Messiah. A proper understanding of Messiah demands a consideration of similarities and differences between this piece and other music of the Baroque period.

    Doctrine of Affections: Text Painting

    By adhering to the Doctrine of Affections and employing text painting, Handel’s Messiah demonstrates characteristics of the Baroque period. Composers of this period uniformly used musical imagery to represent the mood of the text. This can be seen throughout Messiah – indeed, virtually every line is illustrated by music.[18] First, in the aria “Every valley shall be exalted” (No. 1.3), the word “exalted” is sung in steadily ascending notes until the word “low,” when the note drops by a fourth. Additionally, in the same aria, “the crooked straight” is characterized by quickly ascending and descending notes, while the words “and the rough places plain” are sung using a single note.[19] Larsen says of this aria that “the text of the aria (No. 3) ‘Every valley’ might well have been especially written for setting to music as a baroque aria.”[20] In the aria “But who may abide the day of His coming?” (1.6a), the question ends with either a descending fifth or a descending octave, which seems to suggest an answer to this question: without Messiah, man may not abide on that day.[21] Finally, in the aria “O Daughter of Zion” (1.20a), the word “shout” is sung an octave higher than the note preceding it, giving it a shout-like quality.[22] By using such text-painting, Handel is utilizing a stylistic characteristic of the Baroque era.

    Operatic Form

    As noted above, oratorio began simply as an unstaged opera. Accordingly, the two genres have a number of similarities in terms of form. As Dr. Palisca explains, “The English oratorios had the same ingredients as the opera, mixed in somewhat different proportions. The overture, recitatives, ariosos, and arias functioned as in the opera . . . .”[23] In Messiah, as in most oratorios, the recitatives usually perform the function of a narrator in order to move the action forward. In the accompanied recitative “And suddenly there was with the angel” (No. 1.18), the “narrator” recounts the appearance of the heavenly hosts to the shepherds.[24] After the narrator provides the backdrop, Messiah returns to the action, as the heavenly host (portrayed by the choir) sings “Glory to God! Glory to God in the highest!” Of course, some elements of operatic form are used differently in oratorio. For instance, in the recitative and chorus example given above, the recitative is ultimately supporting the choir, whereas in an opera the recitative would be the leading role, supported by the choir. Nevertheless, the distinctions between the two categories are minimal, in large part because Handelian oratorio evolved from Italian opera.

    Biblical Libretto

    Traditionally, Baroque oratorios possessed sacred librettos and were based upon a particular Biblical story[25], though non-Biblical oratorios do exist. The text of Messiah is taken primarily from Isaiah and other prophetic books, though a few New Testament passages do appear.[26] Setting the Biblical libretto to the music of Messiah was particularly difficult for Handel due to his background in Italian opera. As conductor Christopher Hogwood explains:
    In the traditional format of an opera libretto, and in his settings of Milton and Dryden, Handel had been given a single idea or Affekt [sic] on which to base a musical unity; Hebrew poetry commonly offered sudden contrasts rather than reiterations, and was thus at odds with Handel’s own musical conditioning and with the very nature of aria form.[27]

    In spite of these difficulties, the final product of Handel’s fusion of the Biblical text with the music is a definitive example of his genius. Perhaps most incredible is the fact that Handel achieved this fusion without modifying the text, though it certainly appears as though the text of Isaiah was written specifically to accommodate Handel’s “Every valley” aria.[28] By word-setting his oratorio to a Biblical story – namely, the story of redemption – Handel is conforming to the stylistic characteristics of the period.

    Messiah and Handel’s Stylistic Characteristics

    Although Handel’s composition of Messiah did include many stylistic characteristics unique to the Baroque era, it is also clear that Handel drew on his own experience when composing this piece. These distinctions merit additional consideration.

    Emphasis on Chorus

    Numerous composers influenced Handel’s music. For example, Scarlatti influenced his vocal works and Corelli influenced his instrumental works. However, as Larsen observes, “Choral composition is Handel’s own ground, in which he does not really depend on any previous model.”[29] His extensive and adept use of Messiah’s chorus derives primarily from his background in church music: throughout his career, Handel composed music for the Roman Catholic church, the Lutheran church, and the Anglican church.[30] With the exception of Israel in Egypt (1738), none of Handel’s works more fully demonstrates his talents as a choral composer than Messiah. Messiah’s most famous chorus, entitled “Hallelujah Chorus” (No. 2.21), is a stunning example of Handel’s ability to use simple choral techniques to achieve brilliant heights. The chorus begins homorhythmically, giving the piece a full, magnificent affect.[31] Afterward, the piece uses increasingly complex polyphony, including imitation and paired voices.[32] This piece is unquestionably deserving of the acclaim that it has received.

    Great Effect through Simple Means

    Especially amazing about Handel’s composition of Messiah is his ability to achieve the greatest affects with the simplest means. Handel’s tact and modesty are what give Messiah its charm. First, Handel’s orchestration is used sparingly and purposefully. Trumpets rarely sound in Messiah, making their effect all the more stirring when used during “Glory to God” or the “Hallelujah chorus.”[33] Secondly, Messiah is very consonant, based on the diatonic scale. Yet, far from being boring, Messiah demonstrates that the chromatic scale and a great deal of distortion need not be used to ensure an audience’s captivation during a dramatic production. Third, the majority of Messiah’s choruses are set to common time. Handel fully exploits the power and drive of simple 4/4 meter.[34] Finally, Handel’s movement from the solemn Sinfonia to the semi-pastoral first recitative, “Comfort Ye,” highlights his ability to use simple tonal controls to deeply affect his audience. Simplicity such as this further reveals Handel’s true genius.

    Significance of Messiah

    Influence of Other Composers on Handel

    As mentioned previously, Handel met a number of composers during his stay in Italy, many of whom very likely influenced his career. He learned a great deal from the operas and cantatas of Alessandro Scarlatti, and certainly profited from his personal acquaintance with Corelli.[35] Furthermore, it seems evident that Handel studied the anthems of Purcell, which later shaped his use of the chorus in Handelian oratorios.[36] Concerning Handel’s tendency to borrow musical ideas, The New Grove records the following:
    By temper and opportunist, he used anything that came to hand – chiefly his earlier works, but those of others when he found it convenient . . . He made no attempt to conceal his borrowings, which he several times took from printed works while their authors were alive . . . .[37]

    As far as Messiah is concerned, self-borrowings were the more influential than borrowings from other composers.[38] Handel used some of his late Italian duets in the choruses of Messiah.[39] Clearly, Handel borrowed ideas whenever it was expedient to do so, either from his earlier works or from another composer.
    Influence of Messiah on Other Composers

    Unfortunately, much of Handel’s fame and appeal have been lost over the years. Nevertheless, his music remains a model, not only for his English contemporaries, but also for such esteemed composers as Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn.[40] Mozart reworked several of Handel’s compositions, including Messiah in 1789. Mozart’s ability to rescore Handel’s pieces without undermining their fundamental beauty supplied evidence of Mozart’s own genius.[41] Haydn, after hearing a performance of Messiah in 1791, is reported to have proclaimed, “He is the master of us all!” Haydn was inspired by Messiah to compose his own Biblical oratorio, The Creation, first performed in 1799.[42] Although Mozart and Haydn were doubtless impressed by Handel’s achievements, their praise of the great composer pales in comparison to the admiration of Beethoven. Hogwood records:
    To Edward Schulz, who visited him in 1823, Beethoven asserted “very distinctly in German, ‘Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived’. I cannot describe to you with what pathos, and I am inclined to say, with what sublimity of language, he spoke of the Messiah of this immortal genius. Every one of us was moved when he said, ‘I would uncover my head, and kneel down at his tomb!’”[43]

    In addition to these remarkable words, Beethoven was also inspired by Handel to write his Overture to Die Weihe des Hauses (1822), as well as a two-part fugue on the “Harmonious Blacksmith” as an examination piece for the position of second court organist.[44] Thus, although Handel’s own renown may not compare to the fame of composers such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, his influence on their work is unavoidable.


    The decline in demand for Italian opera, while leading to the failure of the Royal Academy, forced Handel to explore a new musical venue. Drawing upon his competencies in opera and choral composition, Handel reformed his approach to musical drama to meet the demands of the rising Middle Class, eventually culminating in the creation of the English Handelian oratorio. The high point of his development of this new genre came with the composition of his most famous work, Messiah.

    Messiah is revolutionary, not because of the genius of single element, but because of its remarkable balance and completeness. Moreover, as R. A. Streatfeil observes, “It is the first instance in the history of music of an attempt to view the mighty drama of human redemption from an artistic standpoint.”[45] Messiah features multiple Baroque-era stylistic characteristics, though Handel’s personal influences are also clearly seen. Handel’s style was influenced by multiple composers, in particular Scarlatti, Corelli, and Purcell. However, Messiah seems more clearly influenced by Handel’s earlier works than by the ideas of other composers.

    Certainly the world’s most famous oratorio, Messiah is also arguably the most influential. Mozart was stirred to rescore a number of Handel’s compositions, including Messiah. Moreover, after hearing Messiah performed, Haydn made the decision to compose an oratorio of his own – The Creation. Finally, Beethoven, profoundly affected by Handel’s work, wrote at least two pieces directly inspired by Handel.

    Therefore, it is evident that Handel’s work is fundamental to the development of Western music: Handel’s innovations perfected the dramatic oratorio, allowing him established himself as the dominant model against which all other composers of oratorio are compared and extending his unavoidable influence to the musical culture and famous composers of the ensuing years.


    Hogwood, Christopher. Handel. Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 1984.
    Kozinn, Allan. The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music. New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC., 2004.

    Larsen, Jens Peter. Handel’s Messiah: Origins, Compositions, Sources. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1972.

    Latham, Alison, ed. The Oxford Companion to Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Machlis, Joseph, Kristine Forney. The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perspective Listening. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003.

    Palisca, Claude V. Baroque Music, 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1991.

    Sadie, Stanley, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 8. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980.

    Smith, Peter Fox. A Passion for Opera – Learning to Love It: The Greatest Masters, Their Greatest Music. North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2004.

    Streatfeild, R. A. Handel. London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1909.

    [HR][/HR][1] Standley Sadie, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 8 (London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980), 83.

    [2] Joseph Machils, Kristine Forney, The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003), 190.

    [3] Sadie, The New Grove, 85.

    [4] Ibid., 86.

    [5] Ibid., 83.

    [6] Ibid., 87.

    [7] Ibid., 89.

    [8] Peter Fox Smith, A Passion For Opera – Learning to Love It: The Greatest Masters, Their Greatest Music (North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2004), 22.

    [9] Machils, The Enjoyment of Music, 190.

    [10] Claude V. Palisca, Baroque Music (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1991), 260.

    [11] Ibid., 261.

    [12] Sadie, The New Grove, 92.

    [13] Jens Peter Larsen, Handel’s Messiah: Origins, Compositions, Sources (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1972), 34.

    [14] Alison Latham, ed., The Oxford Companion to Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 556.

    [15] Ibid., 556.

    [16] Sadie, The New Grove, 97.

    [17] Larsen, Handel’s Messiah, 47.

    [18] Allan Kozinn, The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC., 2004), 49.

    [19] See Fig. 1.

    [20] Larsen, Handel’s Messiah, 107.

    [21] Ibid., 110.; see Fig. 2.

    [22] See Fig. 3.

    [23] Palisca, Baroque Music, 261.

    [24] See Fig. 4.

    [25] Machils, The Enjoyment of Music, 189.

    [26] Kozinn, The New York Times Essential Library, 49.

    [27] Christopher Hogwood, Handel (Great Britain: Thames and Hudson, 1984), 169.

    [28] Larsen, Handel’s Messiah, 98.

    [29] Ibid., 41.

    [30] Sadie, The New Grove, 109.

    [31] See Fig. 5.

    [32] See Fig. 6.

    [33] Kozinn, The New York Times Essential Library, 49-50.

    [34] Machils, The Enjoyment of Music, 191.

    [35] Sadie, The New Grove, 86.

    [36] Ibid., 105.

    [37] Ibid., 104.

    [38] Hogwood, Handel, 169.

    [39] Sadie, The New Grove, 109.

    [40] Latham, The Oxford Companion to Music, 556-557.

    [41] Hogwood, Handel, 246.

    [42] Machils, The Enjoyment of Music, 309.

    [43] Hogwood, Handel, 248.

    [44] Ibid.

    [45] R. A. Streatfeild, Handel (London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1909), 285, quoted in Larsen, Handel’s Messiah, 96.

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