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Even if you don’t know much about classical music, you have probably heard the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s oratorio Messiah. Many people think of this chorus as a Christmas song, but Handel didn’t think it was. Find out why in this lesson.

The Back Story

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was one of the most famous musicians of the Baroque Era (1600-1750). One of the things Handel was known for was the Italian serious operas that he wrote for the Royal Academy of Music in London. At the time, there was a large market for these Italian operas.

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Handel was quite successful – at least until John Gay came along. John Gay was also an opera composer, but his operas were quite different from Handel’s. In 1728, Gay wrote a hit ‘anti-opera’ called The Beggar’s Opera. It was funny, accessible, and, most importantly, in English. It poked fun at serious Italian operas like the kind Handel wrote, even ‘borrowing’ one of Handel’s original melodies!The Beggar’s Opera was a huge success, and other composers picked up on this new trend and began writing similar comic operas. Soon, Handel found that these new comic operas were causing his Italian opera company to lose money.

Unwilling to jump on the comic opera bandwagon, he had to think of a new plan to avoid financial disaster.

The Oratorio

Like most of Europe, England was a Christian country that publicly observed the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter that emphasizes fasting, prayer, penance, and self-reflection. Many forms of public entertainment were considered to be inappropriately indulgent or too festive for such a somber time of year, and so composers generally did not schedule new opera performances during this time. However, religious music was perfectly appropriate for this somber season, and so Handel invented a new genre: the English oratorio. The oratorio is structured the same way as an opera, but with no acting, scenery, costumes, or special effects. Additionally, the subject matter is religious in nature, and typically taken from the Bible.

Handel’s oratorios proved to be quite successful, partly because there weren’t many other forms of entertainment available during Lent, partly because Handel encouraged people to attend by donating a portion of the ticket sales to charitable organizations, and partly because they contained some excellent music. Out of the 25 oratorios Handel wrote, the most popular is undoubtedly his Messiah.

The Creation of Handel’s Messiah

In July of 1741, Handel received a manuscript from a man named Charles Jennens, with whom he had worked before. Charles Jennens was a writer whose specialty was arranging librettos, the literary texts that form the lyrics of operas, oratorios, and other vocal music works. Jennens had high hopes for what Handel could do with his latest literary project, which he titled Messiah. Handel began to work on Jennens’ libretto on August 22, 1741.

Twenty-four days and 259 pages later, Handel’s two hour-long musical masterpiece was complete.

The Premiere

As part of a publicity stunt, Handel had arranged a series of concerts in Dublin, Ireland, for the 1741-42 winter and spring seasons, including his new, never-before-heard oratorio, Messiah. The rehearsals generated so much attention that the opening night, April 13, 1742, was expected to be a big success. Event organizers sent out a notice to the expected attendees, requesting that the females refrain from wearing hoops skirts and that the gentlemen please leave their swords at home so as to fit as many people as possible into the performance venue, the Great Music Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin. The concert lived up to expectations and was a resounding success.

The Music

The Messiah is divided into three sections that chronicle main events in the life of Jesus Christ, the Christian Messiah. Part One centers around the Old Testament prophesies that foretell the Christ’s coming and subsequent birth. Part Two deals with his passion, death, and triumphant resurrection. Part Three is the final Judgment Day and, with it, the promise of eternal life for those who believe.

Each section consists of separate songs and musical numbers called movements, which were stylistically identical to the types of movements found in Italian operas. Some of the movements feature declamatory ‘speech-song’ known as recitative, while others, known as arias, are more emotional and dramatic. Other parts of an oratorio include ensembles, arias for more than one soloist, and choruses, dramatic musical numbers for a large group of singers.

The Famous ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus

While there are many movements of the Messiah that are very popular, the most popular movement of all is undoubtedly the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus.

Handel pulled out all the stops for his ‘Hallelujah’ chorus; the whole choir sings, accompanied by a full orchestra. Its joyful and triumphant melodies and full, rich texture have inspired musicians and music lovers alike for hundreds of years. It’s easily one of the most-performed works by Handel today and is especially popular around Christmastime. However, in the context of the oratorio, the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus is not found in the first part, the Christmas part, but is rather the finale to the second act, which is the Easter portion. Therefore, it is actually an Easter hymn, not a Christmas carol!Historically, there was a tradition of the audience standing for the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus during live performances that is still sometimes observed today.

Why? According to legend, King George II of England attended a performance of the Messiah and jumped to his feet when the chorus began. Some say that the king was so moved by the music that he jumped up to show his respect for the composer, while other versions say he had actually just nodded off and the loud trumpets, timpani, and full choir used in this movement startled him so much that he sprang to his feet in alarm. Either version makes for a nice story, but the lack of supporting evidence has led scholars to believe that these tales are almost certainly untrue. To this date no one knows exactly why people started standing for the chorus.

Lesson Summary

Handel’s oratorio Messiah was written as a religious form of entertainment appropriate for the Christian season of Lent. Based on a libretto by Charles Jennens, the Messiah chronicles the foretelling, life, and afterlife of Jesus Christ. Like most oratorios, the Messiah consists of musical movements that are identical in form to those used in opera including recitatives, arias, ensembles, and choruses.

The most famous movement is the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, which occurs as the finale of the Easter portion of the oratorio. The premiere at the Great Music Hall in Dublin in 1742 was a big success, and the Messiah is still one of Handel’s most popular works today.

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