It is surely possible to be somewhere in the United States in the Christmas season without ready access to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” perhaps in the middle of Denali National Park or the Mojave Desert.
The work is ubiquitous and deserves every bit of its popularity. It is a Christian masterpiece known by everyone, a soaring work of genius that never loses its ability to astonish and inspire, whether at a performance of the New York Philharmonic or at a local church singalong.
After hearing it performed on Christmas Day in 1843, Ralph Waldo Emerson described a common reaction, “I walked in the bright paths of sound, and liked it best when the long continuance of a chorus had made the ear insensible to music, made it as if there was none; then I was quite solitary and at ease in the melodious uproar.”
In his new book, Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece, Jonathan Keates traces the history of the work.
A native German who lived in London, G.F. Handel was extraordinarily prolific, composing roughly 40 operas and 30 oratorios. His towering status isn’t in question. Beethoven, born nearly a hundred years later, deemed him “the master of us all.”
Although the “Messiah” is invariably called “Handel’s Messiah,” it was a collaboration. The librettist Charles Jennens, a devout Christian, provided the composer with a “scriptural collection,” the Biblical quotations that make up the text.
Jennens wrote a friend that he hoped Handel “will lay out his whole genius and skill upon it, that the composition may excel all his former compositions, as the subject excels every other subject. The subject is Messiah.”
He needn’t have worried. Handel completed a draft score in three weeks in the summer of 1741. The legend says that while composing the famous “Hallelujah” chorus, he had a vision of “the great God himself.” There is no doubt that artist and subject matter came together in one of the most inspired episodes in the history of Western creativity.
An oratorio shares some characteristics of opera, but there is no acting. Handel was an innovator, writing English-language oratorios and giving the chorus a bigger role. Typically, leading characters anchored a dramatic plot. The drama in “Messiah” was the Christian story itself, the birth, passion, and resurrection of Christ told in scripture.
The work premiered in Dublin, at a performance so crowded that the ladies were urged to come without hoops in their skirts. A correspondent rendered a verdict that has stood up: “The Sublime, the Grand and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.”
It took years for the “Messiah” truly to find its audience, though. Back in London, some wondered whether a theater was the appropriate venue for such elevated material. As one querulous writer put it, “An Oratorio either is an Act of Religion, or it is not; if it is, I ask if the Playhouse is a fit Temple to perform it in.” (Everyone is a critic.)
Of course, the greatness of the Messiah won out. Handel was buried at Westminster Abbey a national hero. A statue depicts him writing the “Messiah” aria, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” By the 19th century, the work was a staple in Britain and the U.S. (associated with Christmas, even though Handel had it performed at Easter).
“It consistently manages to transcend the limits of religious and confessional dogma,” Jonathan Keates writes. “Its emotional range, the ways in which it embraces the multiplicity of existence, the directness of its engagement with our longing, our fears, our sorrows, our ecstasy and exaltation, give the whole achievement an incomparable universality.”
On the title page of his “Messiah” word book, Charles Jennens quoted Virgil, “majora canamus,” or let us sing of greater things. The immortality of Handel’s “Messiah” assures that we always will.