‘Hallelujah’: ‘Messiah’ inspires the world for 273 years


By Jim Lowe

George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” has inspired the world since it was first performed in Dublin, Ireland, in 1742, but it began with its composer.

“I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God himself,” Handel wrote upon its completion.

“Messiah,” an oratorio for four vocal soloists, chorus and chamber orchestra, is likely the closest thing the world has to universal music. It’s performed in one form or another just about everywhere in the world at Christmastime, although its text follows the entire life of Jesus Christ, from birth to crucifixion to resurrection and beyond.

Actually, most Christmas performances include only Part I, the Nativity. But almost invariably, the work’s most famous chorus, “Hallelujah,” is included — and that, in truth, is more appropriate to Easter.

But what does it matter? “Messiah” celebrates the birth of a universal spirit, perhaps more effectively than any other piece of music.

Handel (1685-1759) was born in Germany, but, after a stint writing opera in Italy, moved to London in 1712, where he spent the remainder of his life. After critical and financial success writing Italian operas (42, in fact), he turned to oratorio as English society demanded less sophisticated entertainment. He was a huge success at that too, writing 29 before he died.

Handel wrote “Messiah,” a 259-page work more than three hours long, in a whirlwind of 24 days. The librettist Charles Jennens compiled the text from the King James Bible and from the version of the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer.

Jennens’ text reflects on Jesus Christ as Messiah. Part 1 begins with the prophecies of Isaiah and others, moving to the annunciation, or announcement, to the shepherds, the only scene taken from the Gospels. Part 2 is the Passion, or Crucifixion, ending with the “Hallelujah” chorus.

“Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not,” Handel said of the chorus. “God knows.”

Part 3 covers the resurrection not only of Christ, but all men, and Christ’s glorification in heaven. At the end of the manuscript, Handel wrote the letters “SDG” — “Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone the glory).”

The Dublin premiere had only modest success, as did its first London performance nearly a year later. But “Messiah” performances soon became an annual event in London, eventually becoming the best-known and most frequently performed choral work in history.

“I should be sorry if I only entertained them,” Handel said of “Messiah.” “I wished to make them better.”

Perhaps he did.

Grace Church
Grace Church will present its annual performances of Handel’s “Messiah” (Christmas portion), with the Rutland Area Chorus, soloists and orchestra conducted by Jennifer Carpenter, at 3:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6., at the church, 8 Court St. in Rutland. Soloists are soprano Allison Devery, mezzo-soprano Amy Frostman, tenor Cameron Steinmetz and bass Zebulun McLellan. Admission is by donation; call 802-775-4301.