Messiah is of course the most famous work Handel wrote, loved by audiences of all ages and backgrounds and performed all over the world to this day. Here are some lesser-known facts about the piece. We hope you enjoy reading them. You are welcome to reproduce any of this information, but please credit the London Handel Festival appropriately.
- Although it is known to us today as a Christmas piece and most often performed in December, Messiah is in fact intended for Easter – it is written in three parts, and largely focused on the Passion of Christ; but Part 1 is all about the Christmas story proclaiming the birth of Christ and telling of the shepherds going to the manger to see the infant child.
- This is one of the most famous pieces of classical music ever written, but Handel wrote it in just 24 days; there are 259 pages in the original score and a quarter of a million notes – it is estimated that writing continuously for 10 hours a day for three weeks, Handel must have been writing 15 notes a minute.
- Messiah was premiered in Dublin, on 13 April 1742. The first performance also took place at midday, because the city was considered too unsafe at night. Anticipated demand was so high that notices were published in the Dublin journal asking ladies to come without hoops in their skirts and gentlemen to leave their ceremonial swords behind, to make as much room as possible. Fishamble Street where it took place was also made one way just for the day, and sedan chairs were banned. In the event, some 700 people showed up at a theatre that normally seated only 600 but everyone managed to squeeze in!
- Despite its popularity in Dublin, and its enduring popularity today, Messiah was not a great success in London at first. There was a cool reception at its London premiere in Covent Garden in 1743 and it was not until Handel started to present it at the Foundling Hospital as a series of fundraising concerts that it grew in popularity.
- After that, it was performed across the country and abroad with larger and larger audiences and bodies of performers. Some 100 years after Handel’s birth, there were performances at Westminster Abbey in the 1780s, advertised as having 800 performers; in 1857 it was performed at the Crystal Palace (orchestra of 500, chorus of 2,000) and in 1926 Sir Henry Wood, founder of the BBC Proms, recorded it for the first time with 3,500 singers.
- Messiah helped to restore the reputation of Susannah Cibber, an actress who had fled to Dublin from London after having an affair. She was the sister of Thomas Arne, who wrote ‘Rule, Britannia!’ but this did not protect her from the cruel gossip. Handel liked her voice and chose her to be his alto soloist at the premiere. Her rendition of ‘He was despised’ was so moving that a prominent churchman is said to have proclaimed: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”– the words Jesus said to the adulterous woman. After this, Cibber returned to London, rebuilt her career and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
- It was not just Susannah Cibber, but the work helped to redeem Handel himself. Handel was on his uppers in the early 1740s, and Messiah helped him to reinvent himself. Handel had become famous in the previous decades with his operas, all written in Italian and largely featuring Italian singers; the English audiences loved this at first but gradually their tastes changed and they preferred listening to music in their own language. Handel saw an opportunity to give them what they wanted, and Messiah was the natural outcome of this.
- The libretto or text was compiled from sentences and passages from the Bible by Charles Jennens who approached Handel to write the music. The way Handel has set the words demonstrates that English was not Handel’s first language – he was of course of German origin. Although it is undoubtedly one of the most glorious pieces of music written in the English language, there are occasional infelicities: “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem” sings the tenor soloist in the opening recitative, but Handel puts the stress on the unstressed schwa. This presents a dilemma for tenors: how to pronounce it? Listen out for this!
- We all know the famous story about King George II standing up during the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus, and to this day, audiences still stand for this rousing climax to Part II. However, it is unlikely that this story is true, as there is no evidence that George II ever attended a performance of Messiah – and the first reference to this occasion is a letter written nearly 40 years afterwards. This is probably an 18th century example of ‘fake news’; why let the truth get in the way of a good story?!
- Messiah is Handel’s gift to all of us. The first performance was held as a benefit concert to raise money for several good causes, including to pay off the debts of those in prisons in Dublin (it was a crime to owe money back then), which is extraordinary as Handel himself was in debt but agreed to this astonishing act of generosity. He did however manage to find some Dublin patrons to help him pay off his debts in London. As mentioned before, Handel gave a series of fundraising concerts to help the orphaned children housed at the Foundling Hospital, and in his will he bequeathed a full set of scores of Messiah so that the charity could carry on presenting concerts to raise money. Since then of course, so many charities across the world have presented Messiah to raise funds for good causes – bravo, Mr Handel!
These facts have been compiled by Samir Savant, Festival Director, London Handel Festival.