What music comes to mind when we think of Christmas music more than Handel’s Messiah? But did you know that it was first performed for Easter, on April 13, 1742?Written in three sections (the prophecies about the coming messiah; the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection of Christ; the end times with Christ’s final victory over sin and death), this masterpiece of sacred music could, in fact, be performed year round.
Handel, born in Halle, Germany, spent part of his career in both Germany and Italy before moving to England. He became a naturalized citizen of Britain in 1727. In an interesting twist, his former patron in Germany, George the Elector of Hanover, was re-acquainted with Handel in England as King George I.
A prolific composer of many different vocal and instrumental pieces, over time, he became known more for his sacred music, especially oratorio (dramatic non-staged choral works). Among them is the oratorio Judas Maccabaeus from where we get our popular Easter hymn, Thine is the Glory.
Handel was given the libretto (or text) to Messiah and composed it in a very short time, over 3 or 4 weeks. It has been said that when he got to the Hallelujah chorus, his assistant found him in tears saying “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God”. At the end of the composition, Handel wrote, “SDG” (Soli Deo Gloria) “To God alone the glory”.
Legend has it, that when King George attended a performance in London, he stood during the Hallelujah Chorus, in recognition of Christ as the King of Kings. Since no one sits when the King stands, the audience stood with him, a tradition that is maintained to this day.
Messiah debuted in Dublin to great acclaim and the performance was repeated in London shortly thereafter. Although originally performed at Easter, it quickly became a Christmas fixture.
Handel gave generously to various charities and his annual benefit concerts for London’s Foundling Hospital, a home for abandoned and orphaned children—always included Messiah. A portion of the proceeds from the Dublin premiere were given to a local debtor’s prison and hospital.
Shortly before his death in 1759, he attended a performance of Messiah in London at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.
Handel’s Messiah continues to hold audiences in awe, some 273 years later. I’ve always thought that there is a special place in Heaven for Handel just for writing this beautiful and inspiring piece of music.