Messiah by George Frideric Handel…Song #24/50: Keepin’ It Classy

I have to be honest, it feels a little funny to title this post with the one lone word, Messiah. All throughout my lifetime, I have always heard this epic piece of music referred to as Handel’s Messiah. But with this one, simple example, I can state with confidence that George Frideric Handel’s masterpiece is not only one of the most important, complex and famous of all classical music works ever created, but it is also one of the most misunderstood and mis-performed, too. So, join me as we discover all there is to know about Messiah, including how it came to be regarded as a staple of religious ceremonies during the Christmas holidays when Handel actually intended it to be performed during another holiday festival altogether. Here is the story of Messiah by Handel.

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel first gained fame as a composer by creating Italian operas. Handel was noted, in particular, for his ability to create works that combined the use of solo and choir singing, along with orchestral accompaniment. Handel would probably have continued creating operas for the rest of his life if not for politics raising its ugly head in the form of a Papal ban on all operas in Italy in the mid-1700s. At that time, the Pope felt that composers and librettists were surreptitiously using operas as a way to create a form of popular dissent among the common folk who gathered to watch these plays. So, in order to eliminate public gatherings that aroused the passions of the audience, the Pope simply banned Italian operas altogether. But, George Frideric Handel was clever enough to get around the Papal ban. Instead of operas, Handel focussed on a musical form known as an oratorio. Like an opera, an oratorio is a piece of music that uses choral and solo singing with orchestral accompaniment to tell a story, but it does so without any actors or specific story being staged. Instead, an oratorio is simply music and song that, with the help of a libretto (a handbook given to audiences to help them follow along as the music is played), still tells a story, just in a slightly different way.

So, Handel began creating oratorios. Most of these focussed on religious themes. The most famous of Handel’s oratorios was his Messiah. The Messiah is an oratorio that attempts to depict the life of Jesus Christ from birth, through crucifixion, all the way to His ascension into Heaven. Messiah contains almost sixty separate movements that are organized into three main acts. The libretto that was written to accompany Handel’s music was written by a man named Charles Jennens and follows the words of the King James version of the Bible quite literally. Act I describes the Nativity scene. Act II describes the life of Jesus, leading all the way to his crucifixion. Act III attempts to describe Heaven and the exultation of basking in the warm glow of God’s love.

While Handel’s Messiah may be well known by title, most people have never actually listened to it all the way through. The entire oratorio clocks in at around three hours in length, making it a bit of an endurance test for all but the most faithful and devout. For most people, the one portion of the oratorio that they know well is the Hallelujah Chorus. But again, I must point out that even if they recognize the tune that the Hallelujah Chorus possesses and they can sing the words “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” on repeat, as happens in this composition, most do not actually know any of the other lyrics that make up the chorus. If they did, they would recognize that the Hallelujah Chorus has nothing to do with Christmas at all. Instead, it speaks to the moment when a crucified Christ rose from the dead and went into Heaven. If you know your religious calendar of events at all, then you will know that the act of Jesus Christ rising from the dead and entering Heaven is part of the Passion and, as such, is meant to be associated with the holiday known as Easter. Not Christmas at all. When Handel first performed his Messiah oratorio, he did so as an Easter benefit for a series of charitable organizations in Ireland. Throughout the whole of his lifetime, Handel always performed his Messiah at Easter time. It was only after his death that the Messiah oratorio became a Christmas time event. The reason for making the move from Easter to Christmas was mainly a financial one. Since Messiah was often used to help charities fundraise, it was felt that those fundraising efforts would be more successful if held during the Christmas holiday season, when audience members were already predisposed to spend money. Thus, Messiah became a Christmas time tradition for many and has remained so for over a century now.

So if you have the opportunity to attend a performance of Messiah as put on at a local church or concert hall as this year’s Christmas season progresses, please attend and enjoy all three hours of your musical tour through the King James Bible. Allow your heart to fill with rapturous joy as the baby Jesus is born and becomes a man before your eyes, through song. Fear not during His crucifixion, for He will rise to live forever more in the Kingdom of Heaven. When Ascension happens, jump to your feet, throw back your head and sing as you have never sung before:

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

The kingdom of this world

Is become the kingdom of our Lord

And of His Christ, And of His Christ

And He shall reign for ever and ever

And He shall reign for ever and ever

And He shall reign for ever and ever

For ever and ever, For ever and ever

King of Kings (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

And Lord of Lords (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

King of Kings (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

And Lord of Lords (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

King of Kings (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

And Lord of Lords (Forever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!).

And He shall reign

And He shall reign

And He shall reign for ever and ever

King of Kings (Forever and ever)

And He shall reign (Hallelujah! Hallelujah!)

And He shall reign (for ever and ever)

King of Kings! Lord of Lords!

King of Kings! Lord of Lords!

And He shall reign (for ever and ever)

For ever and ever

For ever and ever

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallelujah!

There you have it, kids! The complete lyrics to the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. Now you know that you can’t just sing a bunch of hallelujahs and call yourself an oratorio pro (even though there are a bunch of hallelujahs in the actual lyrics). As often happens when lyrics appear on a page, without knowing the complex harmonizing that is going on all throughout this piece, it is difficult to appreciate how rousing these words are when performed properly…by those trained to know all of the words. I am not an overly religious man, but even I admit that the Hallelujah Chorus achieves the desired effect that Handel was going for by rousing the passions of his audience at the exact moment that Christ rises from the dead and ascends into Heaven. It is a pivotal moment in the history of Christianity, and it is shown well by Handel. For that, his Easter oratorio will garner a sort of immortality for Handel as the devout pay homage each Christmas season. A season which, like God Himself, Handel reigns over for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

The link to the video for the composition “Hallelujah Chorus” can be found here.

The link to the video for the complete performance of Messiah by George Frideric Handel can be found here.

The link to the official website for George Frideric Handel can be found here.

The link to the world’s greatest classical music radio station, Classical 103.1, broadcasting from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

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