What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s “Messiah”?

What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s “Messiah”? December 7, 2018

THE QUESTION:  Handel’s oratorio “Messiah,” so frequently heard at Christmastime, is probably the most-performed and most-beloved piece of great music ever written. What explains this long-running appeal?


Underlying this theme is the poignant reality that our culture and many of its churches are gradually losing historical moorings that include the excellent fine arts created in former times. So how and why does “Messiah,” which  exemplifies the “classical” musical style and faith of 276 years ago, so hold  its own today?

By most estimates, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) does not quite equal a peerless fellow German composer and a contemporary he never met, J.S. Bach (1685-1750). But in terms of popularity and number of performances, not to mention seasonal sing-alongs, this one among Handel’s 30 oratorios overshadows Bach’s monumental Christian works such as the “Christmas Oratorio,” “Mass in B Minor,” “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew “Passion.”

Handel biographer Jonathan Keates tells the remarkable story of the famed oratorio in his 2017 book “Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece” — a good gift suggestion.

In a fit of inspiration, Handel dashed off all of his oratorio’s 53 sections in just three weeks. (Of course tunesmith Bach was expected to turn out a new choral number almost every week.) The first performance in the Easter season of 1742 — in Dublin, Ireland, instead of England — was a triumph.

The London premiere the following March is remembered because King George II stood during the “Hallelujah Chorus” and was imitated by the audience. Listeners have done the same ever since, a tribute normally limited to patriotic anthems. George never officially explained his deed. But it has always been assumed he believed a Christian king should express obeisance to the eternal “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” per the text sung from the Book of Revelation.

There was some trouble with the London gig. Bluenoses thought it faintly blasphemous that a Christian oratorio was being performed in the secular Covent Garden theater instead of a church. They also found the work too hot for a sacred theme, perhaps unnerved by verbiage about a shaken Earth, purifying fire, furiously raging nations, and rulers broken by the Lord’s “rod of iron.”

Then there was the criticism leveled by one Charles Jennens, an important scholar and London taste-maker who edited pioneer editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The oratorio was “fine entertainment,” he granted, but “not near as good as he [Handel] might and ought have done” because the composer committed “the grossest faults.” Even the overture was deemed “unworthy.”

Here’s the kicker: This Jennens, Handel’s collaborator on prior oratorios, was himself  the librettist of “Messiah” who selected and arranged the Bible verses that are the only words soloists and choirs sing. Robert Harris wrote in  the Toronto Globe and Mail last year that Jennins is “the forgotten man of Christmas,” overshadowed by the celebrated Handel.

Unlike most oratorios, “Messiah” has no plot or characters as such, only Bible verses telling of the mysterious divine events.  The Religion Guy agrees with the answer Harris provided to our question above:  “A compelling case can be made” that Jennens’ careful compilation from the Scriptures “is as responsible for Messiah’s  enduring power as Handel’s music.” Dare we say, even slightly moreso?

Jennens used 16 verses from New Testament epistles but only 10 verses from the Gospels, Luke 2:8-11,13-14 on the angels announcing the holy birth to shepherds, John 1:29, and Matthew 11:28-30 (“come unto Him, all ye that labor, ye that are heavy laden, and He will give you rest. . .”).  Remarkably, he decided to convey Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem largely through the Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah (7:14, 9:6, 40:9, 60:1-3).

That raises the most surprising and influential aspect of this landmark piece of musical art. The verbatim Old Testament provided 60 percent of the words chosen to  portray the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Christ. Isaiah and the Psalms dominate, but there are also selections from Job, Lamentations, and the minor prophets Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah.

Thus Jennens underscored a major theological point generally embraced by Christians to this day,  that Jesus’ as the future Messiah was foreshadowed throughout the Jewish Bible.

For liberal Christian and secular scholars, predictive prophecies of the coming Messiah have long been out of fashion. And, of course, this has never been how Jews understand their holy writings. But that traditional belief uplifts the advent of Jesus as a majestic and cosmic design of the Almighty, conveyed in vivid imagery and poetry. That helps explain the deep affection that today’s biblical conservatives feel toward the Hebrew Scriptures, the modern state of Israel, and the Jewish people.

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