The Way of Beauty Händel’s “Messiah” at Easter Time

At Christmas time, millions around the world enjoy George Friedrich Händel’s “Messiah.” Apart from carols, it ranks among the season’s most popular music.  In addition to the Advent-Christmas section, there are two other parts, the Passion of the Suffering Servant (Part Two), and the Resurrection (Part Three). Unless these two parts are also sung at Christmas time, they are otherwise infrequently performed.  In this Easter season, Part Three deserves more than a comment and repays listening.

Some Interesting Facts about Händel and His “Messiah”

Händel was born in Germany in 1685, the same year as J.S. Bach and only one hundred miles from him.  They never met. In 1712, Händel traveled to England, and in 1727 became a naturalized British subject. “Messiah” is his greatest oratorio, defined as a large-scale religious or serious musical work for solos, chorus, recitatives, and orchestra, sung on stage but without actors, costumes, or sets. 

“Messiah,” was composed in just twenty-four days.  Clearly, it was an inspired work which Händel executed in feverish activity.  It takes about three hours to perform even at breathless Baroque tempos. One of Händel’s biographers, Sir Newman Flower sums up the consensus of history:  “Considering the immensity of the work and the shortness of time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition.” As a point of reference, it took Mozart six weeks to compose his last symphonies, 39, 40, and 41, taking about fifty minutes to perform, back to back. Mozart almost always worked at fever pitch and did not use an eraser.

Just as Händel was putting the finishing touches on the “Hallelujah” Chorus, an assistant called to him in his study and found him in tears, proclaiming, ‘I saw the heavens open, and I saw the face of God. Whether I was in the body or out of my body when I wrote it, I know not.’ He never left the house for the entire time.

First Performance

Händel chose Dublin as the place of ‘Messiah’s” first performance, and it was advertised in the 1741-42 season as a Benefit Concert for orphans, widows, and freed prisoners.  The concert raised 400 pounds that evening.
Because an overflow crowd was expected to attend and be seated, the women were told not to wear their hoops inside their skirts and the men, to leave their swords at home.

On Your Feet!

The tradition of standing at the “Hallelujah” Chorus is attributed to the attendance of King George II at the 1743 performance in London.  He is supposed to have stood in amazement at the opening bars of the “Hallelujah” music.  It was understood that whenever the King stood, everyone else did as well. This long tradition has remained to this very day, even in this country.

The Easter Texts

For most of the Resurrection texts, Händel chose the Book of Revelations and 1 Corinthians.  Of course, the power of the music intensifies these scripture verses.  The texts are printed below.  

Word painting is a favorite Baroque device with the composer making the music do what the words suggest.  Händel uses this device in all his oratorios. For example in “Messiah,” in the text, “for as in Adam, all die,” and in the word “forever,” “die” and “forever” are prolonged musically; the trumpets are made to shine majestically when the text suggests their brilliance;  to emphasize the theology of a text, all the voices are aligned in vertical chordal harmony, as in “worthy is the Lamb that was slain” and in the word, “Hallelujah.”  The final “Amen” is an entire movement of music, clearly an indication that the composer affirms his belief in all that he has just composed. He has proclaimed it with great jubilation.

Introduction to Part Three:  “Hallelujah” Chorus

Rev.  19:6-11; 15; 19:16 Hallelujah  (repeated). For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.  The kingdom of this world will become, the kingdom of our Lord and of his Chrsit, and of is Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.  King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Hallelujah.”

Part Three: The Resurrection

45.  Air  I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand as the latter day upon the earth.  And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.  For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.  (Job 19:25-26; 1 Cor 15:20). 

46. Chorus Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.  (1 Cor15: 21-22)

More in The Way of Beauty

47.  Accompagnato  Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. (1 Cor 14:51-52)

48.  Air  The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. The trumpet shall sound . . .   (1Cor 15:52-53)

49. Recitative    Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”  (1Cor 15:54)

50.  Duet O death, where is thy sting?  A grave, where is thy victory?  The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.  (1Cor 15:55-56)

51. Chorus But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  (1Cor 15:57)

52.  Air    If God is for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?

53.  Chorus Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.

(Column continues below)

Blessing and honour, glory and power unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.  Amen.   (Rev 5:12-14)

Recommended for Listening

There are numerous recordings of Händel’s “Messiah,” some better than others.   Recommended for the listening of readers are the recordings of Jeffrey Thomas or John Eliot Gardner, Version 1741, performed on period instruments.  This means that the instruments used in these recordings were constructed to match sonorities of eighteenth-century Baroque practice.  In particular, the trumpet used is the clarino or the Baroque trumpet.   For this period, the twentieth-century trumpet is lacking in brilliance and agility.  It will not do. 

Händel’s Easter “Messiah” reveals in musical form St. Augustine famous verse, “We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.”

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