Messiah Historical Note


A Sacred Oratorio
Georg Friedrich Handel
1685 – 1759

And without controversy, great is the mystery of Godliness:
God was manifested in the Flesh, justified by the Spirit,
seen of Angels, preached among the Gentiles,
believed on in the world, received up in glory.
In whom are hid all the Treasures of Wisdom and Knowledge. 

1 Timothy 3, 16: Colossians 2, 3

These words, selected by Charles Jennens, the librettist, formed a Preface to the Book of Words for the First Performance given at Dublin in April, 1742.

Messiah is by far the least typical of Handel’s many oratorios. This is due in the main to the special genius of his ‘librettist Charles Jennens, who was responsible for the imaginative compilation of the verbal text – a compilation that has, in itself, probably done almost as much to establish the work in the hearts and minds of successive generations as Handel’s music.

Messiah, truly, stands in a class of its own – as much almost a liturgical observance as a concert piece; not in the manner of the Passion oratorios from the Lutheran tradition, but more as a series of scenarios and reflective tableaux.

Sir Malcolm Sargent’s famous remark on the role of the conductor springs to mind. He maintained that narrative Passions were the musical equivalent of a motion picture, with Messiah as more a series of magic lantern slides. (His thesis being that anyone, given sufficient technical background, could load a cinema reel and switch on, but that it took real judgement and timing to control the progress of magic lantern slides.)

Bringing us back to Handel’s own performances, it is of interest to recall the assessment of a French poetess:

The Oratorio, or pious concert, pleases us highly. English words are sung by Italian performers, and accompanied by a variety of instruments. HANDEL is the soul of it: When he makes his appearance, two wax lights are carried before him, which are laid upon his organ. Amidst a loud clapping of hands he seats himself, and the whole band of music strikes up at exactly the right moment. At the interludes he plays concertos of his own composition, either alone or accompanied by the orchestra. These are equally admirable for the harmony and the execution. The Italian opera, in three acts, gives us much less pleasure.

Handel was engaged extensively in the composition and presentation of oratorio in London for the last two decades of his life. His business sense and entrepreneurial energy seems to have captured the mood of the age. Had he remained stubbornly committed to opera composition, his twilight years would have been much less comfortable and his public far less appreciative. The composer’s curt comment to a member of the nobility is especially revealing of his own attitude to oratorio. On receiving the compliment of having provided his audience with a ‘noble entertainment’ Handel is alleged to have replied,

I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better…

The work’s first performance was presented by the combined choirs of the Dublin Cathedrals (Christ Church and St Patrick’s) under the composer’s direction. Originally scheduled for the 12th April 1742, the performance was subsequently postponed for a day ‘at the desire of several persons of distinction’ as the news reports have it. Press interest in the premiere was intense – almost at fever pitch -and the gloriously quaint announcement on the day of the concert in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal for 13 April has often been quoted:

The Stewards of the Charitable Musical Society request the favour of the Ladies not to come with Hoops this Day to the Musick-Hall in Fishamble Street: The Gentlemen are desired to come without their Swords. This Day will be performed Mr Handell’s new Grand Sacred Oratorio, called THE MESSIAH…

The solos in the first performance were taken by the professional lay clerks from the Cathedral Choirs. It is probable that Signora Avoglio and Mrs Maclaine provided the soprano allocation with Mrs Cibber joining two Altos in the alto provision. Several numbers were repeated upon continuous applause, and Mrs Cibber’s rendition of Handel’s pathos-ridden and wonderfully expressive setting of He was despised was such that the Reverend Doctor Delaney was reported to have leapt from his seat, shouting ‘Woman, for this thy sins be forgiven thee!’

From its first hearing, the work has been closely associated with charities and good causes. Over four hundred pounds (an immense sum in those days) was raised at the collection on 13 April 1742 – a total divided between ‘three great and pious charities’. Handel bequeathed his own performing material to London’s Foundling Hospital established by Captain Thomas Coram.

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