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About Handel’s “Messiah”

Messiah is the greatest oratorio ever written. Huge in scale, sublime in concept, unfaltering in its eloquence, it remains one of man’s most grandiose conceptions. Only an inspired man could have produced it at all, let alone in the incredibly short period of twenty-five days.

Detailed accounts of its writing reveal that Handel was truly an inspired man. From the moment he started working on Messiah he was under an uninterrupted spell, in a kind of trance. He did not leave his house; he allowed no visitors to disturb him. The food that was brought to him was usually left untouched, and when he did eat something he would munch on a piece of bread without stopping his work. He did without sleep, too. When his domestics tried to get him to rest or eat he would answer them with ill-tempered and sometimes even incoherent retorts – his eyes blazing with a wild fury – so that they sometimes thought he was losing his mind.

“Day and night he kept hard at this task, living wholly in the realm where rhythm and tone reigned supreme. As the work neared an end, he was increasingly inspired, increasingly tortured by the fury of inspiration. He had become a captive of himself, a prisoner within the four walls of his study; he strummed on the harpsichord; he sang; then, sitting at his worktable he worked and worked until his fingers gave out. Never had he experienced such a frenzy of creation, never before had he so lived and fought with music.”

Never a religious man in the same sense as Bach, Handel became the God-intoxicated man while writing Messiah. When he completed the “Hallelujah Chorus” he exclaimed to his servant, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.” Again and again his servants found him in tears as he put to paper an awesome phrase or a devout passage. And then, after the last monumental Amen had been written, he confided to a physician, “I think God has visited me.” The exaltation with which Messiah was created is found on every page of the score.

Messiah is in three parts. The first contains the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. This is followed by the sufferings and death of Christ. The concluding section deals with the Resurrection. To the text…adapted from the scriptures, Handel wrote fifty musical numbers. Recitatives, arias and chorales concerned themselves with the emotion rather than the dramatic implications of the words, providing such a variety of feeling…that there is never a faltering of pace or lack of contrast.

Notes excerpted from Milton Cross’ Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and their Music