In 1741, swimming in debt and falling out of favor as a composer, George Frideric Handel accepted a commission for a benefit concert in Dublin, Ireland, an emerging cultural center.
On Aug. 22, the 56-year-old German-born musician, composer and conductor sequestered himself in his London home and began to compose music to biblical texts heralding the life of Jesus Christ. His librettist Charles Jennens, a wealthy landowner with musical and literary interest, had provided him with the text drawn from the King James Version of the Bible and from England’s “Book of Common Prayer.”
Just 24 days later—an amazing accomplishment but not unusual for this prolific composer—Handel completed the 260-page oratorio and titled the extraordinary outpouring of inspiration “Messiah.”
Writing and staging opera was a financially tenuous business. In 18th century England, the composer rented the theater, hired the singers and musicians, and financed the elaborate costumes and scenery. Handel’s Italian operas were taxing his coffers.
“Messiah”—not “The Messiah” as it is frequently incorrectly called—veered from traditional oratorios of the time with soloists dominating the program and choirs singing only briefly. In developing “Messiah,” Handel capitalized on an orchestra, soloists, and a choir of voices dismissing the need for lavish sets, costumes and props. In addition, the music was sung in English not Italian or German as were so many musical works of the day.
The “Messiah” narrative includes three parts: First, prophesy of the coming of a “Messiah” and the birth of Jesus Christ; second, His suffering, sacrifice and death; third, His heralded resurrection.
The premiere performance in Dublin on April 13, 1742, was highly successful. Handel even shipped his own organ from London for the program. The sponsors asked the ladies to refrain from wearing hoop skirts and the men from wearing swords to make room for the more than 700 patrons hoping to attend. Ticket sales were intended to go to charity. That precedent established a longstanding practice for “Messiah.”
Tickets raised 400 pounds for charities including the Mercers Hospital, the Charitable Infirmary and the prisoner’s debt relief—setting free 142 men from debtor’s prison.
The initial performance in London a year later was not as well received. Handel presented “Messiah” at the Covent Garden Theatre and was criticized for the work’s subject matter being too exalted for a common stage.
In 1750 Handel began conducting annual charity concerts of “Messiah” in the chapel of London’s Foundling Hospital to raise funds to complete the structure and the public embraced his work. The performance of “Messiah” became a tradition for the hospital, one of Handel’s favorite charitable causes and a much-needed home for infants and children who otherwise would have been abandoned on doorsteps and rubbish heaps by desperate mothers, usually young and unmarried. Handel had no wife or children and sympathized with those in dreadful conditions.
The thousands raised for charity led one 18th-century biographer to state about “Messiah,” “This great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan.” He conducted or attended every performance of the annual event until his death in 1759. In his will he left a copy of the score of “Messiah” to the hospital, enabling the charity to continue staging the benefit concerts.
Without question, this brilliant masterpiece “Messiah” has thrilled and inspired listeners from Handel’s time to our own. “Messiah” has never needed a revival as have some major works because it never disappeared.
Though “Messiah” is often associated with Christmas programs, Handel conceived “Messiah” as an Easter offering. The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square honor that tradition. The choir’s special “Messiah” performance, recorded in 2018, will be streamed on Friday, March 26 on a variety of websites and social channels worldwide to enable individuals and families to #HearHim.